OP-ED: Federal agents deployed by Trump spirit away protesters. What country is this?

Scott Martelle
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Police respond to protesters during a demonstration,  Friday, July 17, 2020 in Portland, Ore.  Militarized federal agents deployed by the president to Portland, fired tear gas against protesters again overnight as the city’s mayor demanded that the agents be removed and as the state’s attorney general vowed to seek a restraining order against them.(Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP)

Taking a page from the playbooks of autocrats around the globe, President Donald Trump has deployed federal agents to patrol the streets of Portland, Oregon, where, dressed in camouflage uniforms that identified them only as “police,” they have reportedly used tear gas to dispel protesters — and more darkly, cruised the city in unmarked vans in search of suspected protesters before spiriting them off.

Protester Donavan La Bella, exercising his fundamental right to free speech recently by standing across the street from a federal courthouse and holding up a loudspeaker, was hit in the head with a “less than lethal” projectile, fracturing his skull and sending him into surgery.

Another man, Mark Pettibone, told reporters that he and a friend were walking home from a protest at 2 a.m. Wednesday when, a couple of blocks from the site, an unmarked van pulled up. Four men jumped out and, without identifying themselves, “grabbed me and threw me into the van” as his friend escaped. He spent two hours detained in the federal courthouse before being released without charges.

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“It was basically a process of facing many walls and corners as they patted me down and took my picture and rummaged through my belongings,” Pettibone said. “One of them said, ‘This is a whole lot of nothing’. … I just happened to be wearing black on a sidewalk in downtown Portland at the time. And that apparently is grounds for detaining me.”

No, it’s not.

“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,” Berkeley Law School professor Orin Kerr told The Washington Post. “If the agents are grabbing people because they may have been involved in protests, that’s not probable cause.”

The federal deployment is part of Trump’s effort to take forceful action against protesters who have engaged in at-time raucous demonstrations around the country, never mind that public safety is the responsibility of state and local officials.

Remember, this is the same president whose underlings violently ejected protesters from a park outside the White House so Trump could have his photo taken as he held a Bible in front of a vandalized church.

“What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States,” said Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which successfully sued local police over the use of tear gas to disrupt protests. “Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping. The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered.”

Carson argued that “under the direction of the Trump administration, militarized federal agents have flouted court orders protecting the rights of protesters, used sharpshooters to deliberately maim people, and deployed indiscriminate weapons of war — including sonic weapons and dangerous tear gas formulations.”

Portland has been marked by demonstrations for weeks, sometimes involving tense standoffs between protesters and police. And authorities there have struggled to keep the peace — the ACLU won an injunction after police allegedly targeted journalists and legal observers. But Oregon Gov. Kate Brown joined other state and local officials in denouncing the federal actions, arguing that the federal agents had made the situation worse and have acted as provocateurs.

“Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa,” she said.

The LA Times editorial board warned this month that the nation is facing a potentially dangerous period in the Trump administration, as the flailing president sees his political support flagging. The only way he knows how to campaign is through disruption, destruction of norms, and exploiting racial, regional and class divides.

Add to that strong-arm tactics and deploying federal agents to patrol city streets — not their job and against the wishes of local officials — and apparently willy-nilly violating the constitutional rights of people they encounter.

Perversely, Trump’s actions play into the dystopian fantasies of Second Amendment hard-liners and “boogaloos” who say they need their weapons to defend against a tyrannical government.

I’m not sure how many political points such egregious behavior scores for Trump “in Ohio or Iowa,” because even conservatives — in fact, especially conservatives — should blanch over this blatant misuse of government power.

— Scott Martelle, a veteran journalist and author of six history books, is a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.