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Oregon’s top federal prosecutor urges peaceful protesters to leave downtown before ‘nightly violence’

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 7/28/2020 By Maxine Bernstein, oregonlive.com

Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams on Monday said he remains alarmed by violence outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland and urged peaceful demonstrators to leave the area before other protesters start to throw fireworks and other objects at officers.

“This nightly violence cannot continue,‘' he said. “It is absolutely destroying the soul of our city.”

He said federal officers will stay for as long as people continue to damage the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse.

“We must defend this building and the institution of justice it represents,” he said.

“This building is the solution, not the problem. It absolutely represents everything essential to our system of justice. … We’re not leaving the building unprotected to let it be destroyed by people intent on doing so.”

Williams’ remarks in a press call came as Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty called for an immediate face-to-face meeting in Portland with acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf to discuss “a cease-fire and removal of heightened federal forces from Portland.”

Wheeler also joined Monday with mayors in five other cities in sending a letter to congressional leaders objecting to the continued or threatened “deployment of federal troops or riot-gear clad forces on the streets of our cities, without consultation with local officials and against our explicit request.” The mayors called on Congress to pass laws “to make it clear those these actions are unlawful and repugnant.”

While Williams said he supports peaceful protests, he once again urged community members not to condone the actions of a core of protesters who set fires, throw fireworks, bottles and other objects at officers and cut into a fence outside the courthouse. His office made the same plea in a weekend media briefing.

“We are in the midst of historic civil unrest due to generations of racial injustice and the tragic murder of George Floyd,‘' he said. “Nightly violence directed at the federal courthouse and other federal facilities does nothing but hijack peaceful protesters’ original message. It is criminal, and it has to stop.”

On the call, Williams, Kris Cline, principal deputy director of the Federal Protective Service, and Pete Cajigal, chief of the U.S. Marshals Service in Oregon, declined to address lawsuits challenging the force that federal officers have used -- including tear gas and rubber bullets -- to move crowds away from the courthouse.

But later Monday, Williams responded to The Oregonian/OregonLive about the reports of demonstrators injured by federal officers, calling it “an unintended consequence.”

“No one wants to see anyone injured, and I realize there are concerns being expressed about people who are not part of the violent individuals but are otherwise down in the area taking part in lawful protest activities. … I understand the concerns being expressed. It’s certainly an unintended consequence of anyone being subjected to the tear gas and anything else. We want things to de-escalate. That’s the purpose of the fence - to de-escalate and protect the building. And I also understand that when officers are having to come out of the building for the limited purposes they’re coming out for to protect the building, steps have been taken to protect them.”

As of Monday morning, according to Williams, officers have made 82 arrests on federal allegations. Of those, 22 people arrested at or near the courthouse this weekend. The allegations range from assault on a federal officer, operating a drone in restricted airspace and stalking and harassing federal officers. A 44-year-old Canadian man is accused of using his Twitter account to share personal information about federal officers on social media.

Williams and the two federal agency supervisors declined to say if more federal officers have arrived in Portland beyond 114 initially sent as part of what the Homeland Security Department dubbed “Operation Diligent Valor,” including officers from Federal Protective Service, U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

According to an internal memo cited by The Washington Post, U.S. Marshals Service Deputy Director Derrick Driscoll last week thanked his officers and wrote that he was asking for the help of 100 deputy marshals needed in Portland. The agency “plans to relieve deputy marshals every three weeks” to help guard the federal courthouse, Driscoll wrote.

On Monday, Drew Wade, a U.S. Marshals Service spokesman, told The Oregonian/OregonLive the agency didn’t send more deputies to Portland last week.

It took steps “to identify up to 100 personnel to send to the District of Oregon in case they were needed to relieve or supplement deputies permanently stationed in the district,” Wade said. “They may also be used to rotate with personnel already sent there to support district operations during the civil unrest mission to insure the function and safety of judicial proceedings.”

While lawsuits describe injuries sustained by more than a dozen medics, journalists and other demonstrators shot by federal officers with impact munitions over the last several weeks, Williams and other federal officials have said their officers have been injured by burns, concussions, puncture wounds and broken bones from Molotov cocktails, fireworks, cans and other objects thrown.

Around 1:10 a.m. Monday, federal officers used tear gas and impact munitions to clear out people after some had tried to cut through the fence outside the courthouse, set a portion of the fence on fire and threw fireworks and shined lasers at officers, Cline said. Federal Protective Service officers also “swept the nearby park for weapons” used against federal officers and found “chemical spray, gas cans,‘' he said.

Williams acknowledged that Lownsdale Square across the street from the courthouse is a city property. The city, he said, had tried to prevent camping in the square when it put up a fence around the park but soon took it down. He said allowing people to camp in the square “doesn’t help anything.”

“They made an attempt to clear out the occupants of that park. ... It failed because people tore down the fencing,” Williams said. Of the campsite, he said, “It’s pretty astounding to see. That is an issue the city of Portland needs to address.”

-- Maxine Bernstein

Email at mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian

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©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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