Last week, a video of unidentified law enforcement officers in Portland, Oregon grabbing a protester off the street appeared online. In the video, two men dressed in military camouflage with the word “Police” on the front of their uniforms approach a person in black, seize them and drive them away in an unmarked van with tinted windows. The “police” display no other visible identification and never speak on video.
After the video went viral, some questioned its legitimacy while others warned it was evidence of an authoritarian, military takeover by the federal government. With President Donald Trump having repeatedly vowed to use military force to quell nationwide protests, observers fear the events in Portland may represent a willingness to embrace dictatorial tactics to squash social unrest.
Secret police in Portland
On July 15, Twitter user @Matcha_chai uploaded a 39-second video of two unidentified officers taking away a presumed protester. Of the content of the video, she says, “These federal officers (?) just rushed up and arrested someone for no reason.”
The officers do not respond to repeated questions asking what they are doing, but approach a person with their hands up and put them into an unmarked van. The law enforcement officers, whose uniforms have no personal identification, never speak.
The license plate on the van cannot be made out in the video and at no point is the person who is presumably being arrested informed of their rights. Someone in the background can be heard saying, “Kidnapping people.”
Protests have been taking place in Portland for nearly two months. They began in response to the police killing of George Floyd but have expanded to include a broad range of grievances related to racial inequality as well as police overreach.
While most protests have been peaceful, some have involved “unidentified protesters taking part in violent demonstrations that devolve into arson and vandalism.”
Was the Portland video real?
The video was soon picked up by other accounts and spread across social media. One group, The Sparrow Project, claimed, “Militarized Federal Agents from a patchwork of outside agencies have begun policing Portland (in rented minivans vans[sic]) without the explicit approval of the mayor, the state, or local municipalities.”
Some viewers were skeptical, with one asking, “is this whole thing staged? There is way too much going on here to believe, but if it is true, it’s appalling on every level.” Most commentators, however, accepted the veracity of the video and expressed dismay at practices they deemed similar to those of the Nazi secret police and other authoritarian states.
Army veteran Fred Wellman expressed concern that the apprehended person had no way of knowing who was arresting them and that there was every possibility the uniformed agents were not law enforcement at all, but simply two people pretending to be law enforcement. Without identification, the two camouflaged men could have been anyone.
In Portland, a suspect in a crime must be read his or her Miranda rights “prior to questioning about the crime, if the suspect is in custody or is not free to go.”
Verification of federal agents
On July 17, the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a statement verifying that the viral video was real.
“CBP agents had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property. Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning. The CBP agents identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia during the encounter. The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country.”
That same day, Mark Morgan, the acting Commissioner of CBP said in a tweet that the agency would “continue to arrest the violent criminals that are destroying federal property & injuring our agents/officers in Portland. CBP will restore and maintain law & order.”
Two days later, Trump tweeted, “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE.”
Is Portland the beginning of an authoritarian dictatorship?
Democrats and liberals swiftly condemned the actions of the CBF agents in Portland.
US Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, tweeted the video on Sunday, saying, “This is what dictators do. These authoritarian actions have no place in our democracy.”
Likewise, Senator Kamala Harris said what was happening in Portland was “right out of the authoritarian playbook,” while Senator Bernie Sanders warned, “Now is the time to come together and defeat Trump’s authoritarian policies.”
Writing for Esquire, the liberal author Charles P. Pierce called the Portland events a “dress rehearsal” for a nationalized federal takeover of American cities, similar to what was seen in Chile under Augusto Pinochet.
Many have criticized the actions in Portland as an overreaction to graffiti. However, some Republicans have voiced support for the actions, saying they’re restoring law and order in a city overrun by anarchists and criminals.
Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, tweeted on Friday, “Democrats are openly accepting mob violence, while disparaging law enforcement as ‘stormtroopers’ … Americans must understand that voting Democrat is a vote against safety and order.”
Crenshaw also included a link to arrests made in Portland on July 16. Other than one assault of a public safety officer, most of the arrests were for “Disorderly Conduct II” or “Interfering with a Peace Officer.”
In Oregon, disorderly conduct in the second degree is a Class B misdemeanor in which a person causes “public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof.” Infractions under this category range from violence to obstructing traffic to making “unreasonable noise.”
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