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“Camouflaged Goon Squads”: Outrage, Legal Challenges in Portland as Federal Agents Snatch Protesters

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The U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon has called for an investigation into the conduct of federal officers deployed to protests in Portland, calling their behavior “unlawful.” Local officials are also mounting legal challenges to remove the agents from city streets. Juan Chavez, project director and attorney at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, says it’s a terrifying situation for Portland residents who face “these camouflaged goon squads” who often refuse to identify themselves or their agencies. “They just appear in the middle of the night next to people who are in and around downtown who then get corralled into these vehicles, not told where or who’s picking them up,” he says.

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StoryJul 21, 2020Portland Protests Grow Despite Violent Crackdown from Militarized Federal Agents & Local Police
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the legal battle to protect the protesters and remove federal agents from Portland’s streets. On Friday, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, calling the behavior of federal agents unlawful. The U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon also called for an investigation into unidentified federal officers who have been snatching protesters off the streets into unmarked vans and detaining them. Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden are also demanding a probe and for federal forces to be removed from the streets. And, of course, the protesters are demanding that these federal troops be removed from the streets.

For more, we go to Portland, where we’re joined by Juan Chavez, the project director and attorney at the Oregon Justice Resource Center. He recently partnered with other attorneys to introduce litigation to stop Portland police from using tear gas and munitions on protesters.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Juan. You’ve been in the streets.

JUAN CHAVEZ: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been watching what’s happening. For people to understand what’s taking place, what do the federal agents look like? Where are they from? Can you identify whether they’re Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Protection?

JUAN CHAVEZ: We only know as much as we’ve been told by the Department of Homeland Security. As far as we know, our understanding is that they are U.S. marshals, as well as agents from Border Patrol. So, they come from an agreement with the Department of Justice — I think Bill Barr mentioned this during the D.C. protests, as well — that he’s bringing in basically all federal officers into protest situations to enforce what would be state law in the normal circumstances here in Portland, but they’re extending the breadth of types of federal enforcement they can do in downtown Portland.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what they’re doing in the streets? I mean, describe what some of these — these are called what? Snatch teams? — what some of them are doing, how they go up to someone and take them, one person saying they were running away because they didn’t know: Are these kidnappers?

JUAN CHAVEZ: Right. I mean, you have these camouflaged goon squads coming out of unmarked vans, that reporting has shown were rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Cars. And they just appear in the middle of the night next to people who are in and around downtown, who then get corralled into these vehicles, not told where or who’s picking them up. And at least one person talked about having their hat pulled over their head and driven around and, by best of our accounts, were taken to the federal courthouse here in Portland and interrogated there, before being let go.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they don’t have to identify themselves? There is no marking on their camouflage uniforms?

JUAN CHAVEZ: No. So, various state laws would apply to state actors regarding them having to identify themselves or tell the person who they’re detaining who they are. There are some Oregon state laws that discuss federal officers, if they are enforcing Oregon law, have to identify themselves and identify the purpose that they’re detaining someone. But so far as we’ve seen so far, nobody — none of these camouflaged troopers have identified themselves to anybody who they’re detaining. So, there’s a lot of open questions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the bill that Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is introducing this week, that would demand that, among other things, that these officers identify themselves? She’s introducing it with Eleanor Holmes Norton, requiring the officers display their identifying information while on duty. The legislation also calls for further oversight of the Justice Department, requiring its inspector general to perform routine audits to guarantee compliance with the legislation.

JUAN CHAVEZ: Well, I don’t know the details of the congresswomen’s legislation, but I can say that from local experience, these kind of identification rules last until they don’t. In fact, not too — about a month ago, the chief of the Portland police allowed her officers to not display their name badges when they’re out patrolling protests. Instead, they have these masking tapes across their chest with their internal ID number written in very faint ink. And then, when people are seeking to identify these officers through public records requests, they’re being told, “No, you can’t use those ID numbers. You need to have an actual name.” I mean, setting aside the fact that it’s difficult to read these numbers, and they’re often pretty long strings — sometimes I forget my PIN number. I mean, I don’t think I’d be able to quickly recall an eight-string-digit number while running away from tear gas and cops. So, if this bill is robust enough to protect against things like that, then that sounds like a positive development.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Chavez, you told Oregon Public Broadcasting, “It’s like stop-and-frisk meets Guantánamo Bay.” Explain.

JUAN CHAVEZ: Certainly. So, I mean, these tactics aren’t new in terms of American imperialism. This has been our foreign policy for some time. If foreign soldiers of our own were detaining people in Pakistan or Somalia or in South America, these would be the similar tactics they would have used. So that’s, hence, the reference to Guantánamo Bay. And then, of course, stop-and-frisk was a vast, racist policy used to thwart the constitutional standard by which officers can engage with people.

And so, the combination of those two things, I don’t think we’ve seen in the United States, or at least I don’t know what the analog would be. The closest, I suppose, would be actually what our immigrant communities have gone through for — you know, even before Trump, in dealing with ICE. The ICE officers are known for showing up having faulty warrants and trying to convince people they think are immigrants to come into their detention. We’ve seen that in Oregon, in fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, when you talk about internationally what happens, so often it’s U.S.-trained. I mean, you look at Central America, for example, Latin American soldiers, in the past, who have been moving into people’s home and arresting them. The shock for Americans in the United States is to see it on U.S. soil, in some cases. I mean, many communities actually do experience this feeling of occupation. And now what’s interesting is the establishment, the governors, the senators, the mayors, the state attorneys general are saying this can’t happen on U.S. soil, when it’s hitting the mainstream population.

JUAN CHAVEZ: Absolutely. And, you know, I’d say that a lot of these local officials, state, federal, local, have been complicit with some form of occupation for a long time. Policing is just another form of counterinsurgency for so many communities. So, these tactics have been built up for a very long time. And so long as we continue to fuel policing, fuel prisons as a solution for public safety, we’re going to continue to see this downward slope of our rights being infringed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue to follow all that’s happening in Portland, because it’s going also to expand, according to President Trump’s promises, to other cities. And we’re going to go to two of those cities. We’re going to go to Chicago and Seattle. Juan Chavez is the project director and attorney at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, partnered with other attorneys to introduce litigation to stop local police from using tear gas and munitions on protesters.

When we come back, we’ll speak with two education activists about Trump’s push to reopen the schools during the pandemic. They are in cities where federal troops may go next: Chicago and Seattle. Stay with us.

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Trump to Send Federal Troops to Protests in Chicago & Seattle Amid Violent Crackdown by Local Police

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