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Oregon Senator On 'Unmarked Paramilitary Presence' In Portland

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown and other officials are calling for the removal of federal law enforcement officers from the city of Portland. The Trump administration deployed those forces saying they are there to protect federal property in the city amid ongoing protests.

But this week, officials from across the city and state and their congressional representatives have raised serious objections to their tactics after camouflaged federal agents went into the streets with tear gas and tactical gear arresting protesters and taking some away in unmarked vans without, the protesters have said, explanation. Among those critical of the federal deployment in Portland is Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, and he is with us now from Portland.

Senator Merkley, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

JEFF MERKLEY: Oh, you're welcome, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, you and three other members of Congress wrote last night to Attorney General William Barr and the acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf, calling for these agents to be removed from Portland. Tell us briefly why you issued that call. And have you gotten a response yet?

MERKLEY: This is an extraordinary circumstance. The Customs and Border Protection and the marshals are deploying people to the streets of Portland. They're doing so - at least the CBP forces, Customs and Border Protection - they are marked just with a generic police. You have no idea who they represent.

And then they're outside, beyond the boundaries of the federal buildings, grabbing people on the streets, throwing them into unmarked vans, not disclosing even at that point what agency they represent. This is the type of unmarked paramilitary presence that you would expect in a dictatorship, not in a democratic republic. It's absolutely terrifying to people. It's unacceptable. It has to end.

MARTIN: As we mentioned before, the Trump administration says that they are there to protect federal property. The acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, Ken Cuccinelli, talked to our colleagues at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED yesterday, and this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEN CUCCINELLI: With as much law-breaking is going on, we're seeking to prosecute as many people as are breaking the law as it relates to federal jurisdiction. That's not always happening with respect to local jurisdiction and local offenses. But, you know, this is a posture we intend to continue, not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we're responsible for around the country.

MARTIN: What's your response to that, senator?

MERKLEY: Well, a posture that involves unmarked, camouflaged, well-armed - apparently officers, but these citizens don't know who they are - grabbing people and throwing them into unmarked vans without explanation - this is a posture absolutely unacceptable in America, and so that is - has to change.

I will be putting forward legislation on the Defense Authorization Act that's on the floor of the Senate right now to try to force a debate on this and say, listen - deployment has to be limited to the federal property. You have to label who you are with, what agency you represent. You have to have a unique identifier, so if there is bad actions, you have some way of knowing who that individual was, that you cannot use unmarked vans and that if you are beyond the boundaries of a federal property, you have to have the permission of the mayor or the governor.

This type of secret force operation - we have not seen this in America. It cannot become practice in America. We have to put an end to it.

MARTIN: Under what legal authority are they operating? I think many people do recall that a variety of people from various federal agencies participated in clearing Lafayette Square, which is across the street from the White House, so that the president could walk across the square and hold a Bible up in front of St. John's Church. I think people well remember that. But that's a unique situation in Washington, D.C., where that was federal parkland and so forth. But under what authority are these agencies acting in Oregon?

MERKLEY: Well, according to an article posted in The Nation, they're acting under the coronavirus emergency powers of the president. So this is certainly way outside of what you would have anticipated to be within that emergency power. And again, there should be constraints. If you're acting to protect federal property, you still should be identified with what agency you're with, have a unique identifier.

Because really, what's happening is they are pouring fuel on the fire. They preceded - and we believe this was a marshals unit that did this, U.S. Marshals - they used impact munitions. They shot a protester who was just standing, holding something above his head. He was shot in the head. He's in the hospital severely injured.

And so when I asked about any of the basics, such as who made the decision to use impact projectiles? Who made the decision to shoot above the chest? They said, well, it's just standard protocol, and we can use any force we want in any situation. Really, what that does is greatly inflame the situation that the local police and leaders are trying to de-escalate.

So they've come in, they've escalated the situation, made it far worse. Now I'm sure it's going to go far forward because everyone responds in - when a peaceful protester is shot, when a peaceful protest is grabbed and thrown into an unmarked van and says, this is outrageous. It infuriates people. And it - they should be infuriated because this is wrong.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you've raised objections to these tactics both on constitutional grounds, on practical grounds and, I would say, on the grounds of values that these are not the kinds of tactics that Americans expect to see in their communities in their country. And I wonder if any Republicans have joined you in those concerns. Have you heard from any of your Republican colleagues?

MERKLEY: I've talked to one colleague who shared a deep distress over what is unfolding with these type of tactics across America. Whether that will translate into a bipartisan partnership on this coming up amendment or standalone bill, I don't know yet, but I hope so. I mean, this should enrage anyone who cares about the rights of citizens in a democracy.

MARTIN: That's Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, speaking with us from his office in Portland.

Senator Merkley, thank you so much for talking with us today.

MERKLEY: You're welcome. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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