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Federal officers in unmarked vans detain Portland, Ore., protesters

Protesters gathered Friday, July 10, in downtown Portland, Ore. Oregon's largest city has seen protests downtown for weeks.
Protesters gathered Friday, July 10, in downtown Portland, Ore. Oregon's largest city has seen protests downtown for weeks.Dave Killen/Associated Press

When several men in green military fatigues and generic "police" patches sprang out of an unmarked gray minivan in front of Mark Pettibone in the early hours of Wednesday morning, his first instinct was to run.

He did not know whether the men were police or far-right extremists, who frequently don militarylike outfits and harass left-leaning protesters in Portland, Ore. The 29-year-old resident said he made it about a half-block before he realized there would be no escape.

Then, he sank to his knees, hands in the air.

"I was terrified," Pettibone told The Washington Post. "It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon."

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He was detained and searched. One man asked him if he had any weapons; he did not. They drove him to the federal courthouse and placed him in a holding cell. Two officers eventually returned to read his Miranda rights and ask if he would waive those rights to answer a few questions; he did not.

And almost as suddenly as they had grabbed him off the street, the men let him go.

Pettibone said he still does not know who arrested him or whether what happened to him legally qualifies as an arrest. The federal officers who snatched him off the street as he was walking home from a peaceful protest did not tell him why he had been detained or provide him any record of an arrest, he told The Post. As far as he knows, he has not been charged with any crimes.

His detention, which was first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, and videos of similar actions by federal officials driving around Portland in unmarked cars have raised alarm bells for many. Legal scholars questioned whether the detentions pass constitutional muster.

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"Arrests require probable cause that a federal crime had been committed, that is, specific information indicating that the person likely committed a federal offense, or a fair probability that the person committed a federal offense," Orin Kerr, a professor at University of California, Berkeley Law School, told The Post. "If the agents are grabbing people because they may have been involved in protests, that's not probable cause."

Federal officers from the U.S. Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security have stormed Portland's streets as part of President Trump's promised strong response to ongoing protests. Local leaders expressed alarm at news of Pettibone's detention and echoed calls for the feds to leave that have grown stronger since Marshals Service officers severely wounded a peaceful protester on Saturday.

"A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump's secret police," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote in a Thursday tweet that also called out acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf. "Now Trump and Chad Wolf are weaponizing the DHS as their own occupying army to provoke violence on the streets of my hometown because they think it plays well with right-wing media."

Civil rights advocates suggested the Trump administration is testing the limits of its executive power.

"I think Portland is test case," Zakir Khan, a spokesperson for the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Post. "They want to see what they can get away with before launching into other parts of the country."

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Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, called the recent arrests "flat-out unconstitutional" in a statement shared with The Post.

"Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping," Carson said. "Protesters in Portland have been shot in the head, swept away in unmarked cars, and repeatedly tear gassed by uninvited and unwelcome federal agents. We won't rest until they are gone."

Nightly protests that have seized Portland's downtown streets since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis in late May. For more than six weeks, Portland police have clashed with left-leaning protesters speaking out against racism and police brutality. Tear gas has choked hundreds in the city, both protesters and other residents caught in the crossfire. Protesters have spray-painted anti-cop messages on the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse and Multnomah County Justice Center, which serves as the local jail and a police headquarters.

After Trump sent federal officers to the city, allegedly to quell violence, tensions escalated. The feds have repeatedly deployed tear gas to scuttle protests, despite a newly passed state law that bans local police from using the chemical irritant except to quash riots. On Saturday, federal agents shot a man in the face with a less-than-lethal munition, fracturing his skull. Local officials, from the mayor to the governor, have asked the president to pull the federal officers out of the city.

"I am proud to be among the loud chorus of elected officials calling for the federal troops in Portland's streets to go home," Portland city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said in a statement shared with The Post on Sunday. "Their presence here has escalated tensions and put countless Portlanders exercising their First Amendment rights in greater danger."

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Pettibone says he was simply exercising his free speech rights on Wednesday when he was detained. He and a friend were walking to a car to drive home after a relatively calm demonstration in a nearby park. He said he did not do anything to instigate police that night, or at any of the other protests he had attended over the last six weeks.

"I have a pretty strong philosophical conviction that I will not engage in any violent activity," he told The Post. "I keep it mellow and try to document police brutality and try to show up for solidarity."

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night, and likewise did not answer questions from Oregon Public Broadcasting. The Marshals Service told the radio station its officers had not arrested Pettibone and said the agency always keeps records of its arrests.

Trump has cheered harsh tactics by officers in Portland, and the acting Homeland Security secretary has vowed to keep federal forces in Portland until local leaders "publicly condemn what the violent anarchists are doing."

"We've done a great job in Portland," Trump said at a news conference on Monday. "Portland was totally out of control, and they went in, and I guess we have many people right now in jail. We very much quelled it, and if it starts again, we'll quell it again very easily. It's not hard to do, if you know what you're doing."

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Yet the scene on Portland's streets late Thursday reflected a different reality.

Protesters once again filled the streets in downtown, defiantly moving fencing meant to keep the crowd away from the Multnomah County Justice Center. And once again, federal officers launched tear gas into the protest.

As police, both local and federal, have responded to demonstrators with increasing force, the protests have grown more unwieldy and determined. Neither side appears ready to surrender.

“Once you’re out on the street and you’ve been tear gassed and you see that there’s no reason - the police will claim that there’s a riot just so they can use tear gas - it makes you want to go out there even more to see if there can be any kind of justice,” Pettibone told The Post.