(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

For racial justice protests in Portland, U.S. taps tactical border squads

It’s not just the Border Patrol Tactical Unit that has been called to duty in Portland

They are the most highly trained members of the Border Patrol, agents who confront drug traffickers along the U.S.-Mexico border and track down dangerous fugitives in rugged terrain.

One day this past week, they were in a far different setting — a city park in Portland, Oregon, looking for two people suspected of throwing rocks and bottles at officers guarding the downtown federal courthouse.

Beyond the debate over whether the federal response to the Portland protests encroaches on local authority, another question arises: whether the Department of Homeland Security, with its specialized national security focus, is the right agency for the job.

It’s not just the Border Patrol Tactical Unit that has been called to duty in Portland. DHS has dispatched air marshals as well as the Customs and Border Protection Special Response Team and even members of the Coast Guard.

“The Department of Homeland Security was never intended as a national police force let alone a presidential militia,” said Peter Vincent, a former general counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is also an agency within DHS.

The deployment of DHS agents and officers is legal, both under existing law and an executive order President Donald Trump signed June 26 to protect federal property and monuments. But it has made the agency, created to improve the nation’s response to terrorism, a target of widespread criticism.

Congress plans to delve into the issue Friday, when the House Homeland Security Committee holds a hearing on the federal response to the protests in Portland and Trump’s announcement that he plans to send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help combat rising crime while making “law and order” a central theme of his reelection campaign.

“Americans across the country are watching what the administration is doing in Portland with horror and revulsion and are wondering if their cities could be President Trump’s next targets,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is chairman of the committee.

As of Monday, there were 114 federal agents and officers deployed to downtown Portland, according to an affidavit from Gabriel Russell, the regional director of the Federal Protective Service, the DHS component that provides security for federal buildings.

Protests have been taking place in Portland since May 26 but the federal agents kept a “defensive posture” by staying inside federal buildings until July 3, Russell said in the affidavit, filed in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking protections for journalists and other legal observers covering the demonstrations.

That night, according to Russell, protesters attempted to set fire to the federal courthouse and DHS deployed a Rapid Deployment Force as part of “Operation Diligent Valor.”

That same night, Trump stood before Mount Rushmore and accused protesters around the country who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.” He later criticized officials in Portland for allowing demonstrations to get “totally out of control.”

The officers deploying to Portland are “highly trained,” and many wear camouflage because that’s their duty uniform on the southwest border, according to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, responding to charges of a militarized response to the protests.

In addition to their previous training, they took a 90-minute online course on the mission and jurisdiction of the Federal Protective Service, police powers and criminal regulations, according to a course description provided to The Associated Press.

Richard Cline, principal deputy director of the protective services, told reporters that DHS officers are given additional training to ensure they act within guidelines established by the Justice Department as they assist an organization that was “quickly overwhelmed” by violent demonstrators.

Wolf also defended tactics such as tear gas, rubber bullets and having officers sweep people off the street into unmarked vehicles, evoking images of a secret police force.

“We are only targeting and arresting those who have been identified as committing criminal acts, like any other law enforcement agency does across the country every single day of the week,” he said.

On Wednesday, agents from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC, set out from the federal courthouse just after midnight in pursuit of two people in dark clothing and carrying makeshift shields suspected of throwing rocks and bottles at officers, according to court records.

The agents struggled with the two, eventually restraining them and turning them over to the Federal Protective Service. One, a 19-year-old man, was charged with felony assault of an officer.

In addition to rocks and bottles, agents and officers at the courthouse have been struck with ball bearings, improvised explosives, fireworks, and balloons filled with paint and feces, Russell said. Some have also had lasers shined at their eyes.

At least 28 officers have been injured and officers have made at least 43 arrests, mostly for misdemeanours.

While the use of BORTAC officers in this environment is unusual, it’s not unprecedented, said Michael Fisher, a former senior official with the agency and member of the unit.

BORTAC officers have been used to serve warrants on suspects considered dangerous, protected emergency personnel during natural disasters and were sent to Los Angeles during the 1992 riots, Fisher said.

“What was happening in Portland is the police were not enforcing … the laws and it just escalated and that’s the reason it’s gone on well over 50 days now,” said Fisher, who now runs a security company.

Local officials have in turn accused DHS of inflaming the situation, an argument bolstered by the fact that protests grew larger as controversy intensified over the tactics of the federal agents.

Former DHS officials concede the agency has worked with state and local law enforcement before, with the consent and co-operation of local authorities. But in Oregon, officials have accused the federal government of inflaming the situation and asked it to withdraw.

Vincent, who left ICE in 2014 and now works as a consultant, said some current officials are “extraordinarily uncomfortable” with what they have been asked to do in Portland.

“I am deeply concerned as someone who believes in the mission of the agency and knows and respects its officers and agents that these activities will irreparably damage the agency’s reputation,” he said.

Ben Fox, The Associated Press

Just Posted

Elaine Kirwin in her Expedia Cruises office talks about the future of travel. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
Sidney travel agency charts course through pandemic

Owner of Expedia Cruises in Sidney expects smooth sailing ahead once travel restrictions lift

Oak Bay Rotary Club member Lorna Curtis takes over as District Governor of Rotary District 5020 on July 1. (Courtesy Lorna Curtis)
Former Oak Bay recreation director goes international with Rotary

Lorna Curtis takes over as district governor on July 1

Police are asking opponents of logging near Port Renfrew not to involve their children following additional arrests Saturday. (Black Press Media File)
Police arrest eight protesters including two minors near Port Renfrew Saturday

RCMP ask parents not to involve their children in Fairy Creek logging protests

Deep Cove Elementary School principal Shelley Hardcastle (right) and vice-principal Mary Kaercher help to restock Reay Creek with fish – in this case, coho fry – after a recent bleach spill killed hundreds of fish. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
North Saanich’s Deep Cove Elementary School helps to restock Sidney’s Reay Creek

Restocking followed bleach spill that killed hundreds of fish in creek

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Most Read