A judge has barred federal law enforcement officers dealing with long-running protests and unrest in Portland, Ore., from using force against journalists and legal observers trying to document the run-ins between activists and the authorities.
In a temporary restraining order issued on Thursday night, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon also declared reporters, photographers and legal observers exempt from any directives issued to the general public to disperse from areas where protests are taking place.
Simon said there were strong indications that journalists were being targeted by the authorities and were not simply incidentally caught up in legitimate efforts to quell violence or vandalism.
“Plaintiffs’ declarations describe situations including that they were identifiable as press, were not engaging in unlawful activity or protesting, were not standing near protesters, and yet were subject to violence by federal agents,” Simon wrote. “Contrary to the Federal Defendants’ arguments, this evidence does not support that the force used on Plaintiffs were ‘unintended consequences’ of crowd control.”
During an appearance on Fox News on Thursday night, Trump defended the federal deployment to Oregon’s largest city, saying the move was needed to combat hardened rioters.
“In Portland, we had to do it because they are anarchists. That is a level people haven’t seen. But they are anarchists,” the president said. “They were going wild for 51 days. And we went in and they’ve done a great job. They were going to rip down the courthouse, a gorgeous federal courthouse. So, we went in and we have been very, very strong.”
While the lawsuit does not directly focus on the use of excessive force against protesters, Simon said during a hearing earlier on Thursday that he was concerned by instances of peaceful demonstrators being beaten or shot with “less lethal” munitions. The judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama, said journalists were essential to keeping the public informed about what the more than 100 federal law enforcement officials involved in addressing the protests and unrest are up to.
“We need the free press to do that,” Simon said.
However, during the hourlong telephone hearing, a federal government lawyer argued that journalists and legal observers were properly subject to arrest if they ignored orders to disperse.
“We cannot carve out exceptions for certain groups,” said Andrew Warden, the Justice Department attorney.
He said it was unrealistic and impractical to require law enforcement to differentiate, especially during nighttime protests, between unruly demonstrators and journalists or legal observers.
“It strikes us that when there are difficult-to-identify individuals, there are commercial-grade fireworks … and laser pointers being pointed at police in an attempt to distract them and blind them, trying to segregate individuals is difficult,” Warden said.
But Simon noted that he imposed a similar injunction against the Portland Police Bureau last week in the same lawsuit and that local officials had not reported significant problems.
A lawyer for the city, Denis Vannier, said that there had been “occasional challenges” identifying journalists but that the injunction had proven workable. Although the city is a defendant in the case, Vannier took the unusual stance of encouraging the judge to expand the injunction to cover federal officials.
“They have been moving off federal property and they’ve been using force that the records [show] was not proportionate and not justified under the circumstances,” Vannier said.
The city’s lawyer also said the injunction was needed to push back at President Donald Trump for targeting cities for use of federal force based on the politics of local officials.
“Perhaps the elephant in the room is the fact that the president has stated publicly that … the reasons for the deployment are political,” Vannier said. “He has announced his intentions to send similar task forces to other cities throughout the United States that happen to be cities that lean politically Democratic or are politically liberal in some way.”
On Wednesday night, Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, was among those tear-gassed by federal authorities, whom he accused of unnecessary use of force and other aggressive tactics.
Trump responded by ridiculing Wheeler.
“He made a fool out of himself,” the president said on Fox News. “He wanted to be among the people, so we went into the crowd and they knock the hell out of him. That was the end of him. So it was pretty, pretty pathetic.”
While Wheeler has moved to sever ties with the federal law enforcement presence in recent days, Trump insisted in the interview that the forces were invited to Portland. And he suggested he might send as many as 50,000 or 60,000 officers or agents into other U.S. cities.
“At some point, we’re going to have to do something much stronger than being invited in,” the president said, without offering further details.
During the court hearing, the judge pressed the Justice Department lawyer on whether there is any evidence that people identifying themselves as journalists or legal observers had injured any federal officials or damaged federal property. Warden said the government had not produced any such evidence.
Simon is also requiring that a paper or digital copy of his restraining order be provided to every federal law enforcement officer and agent in Portland, as well as all who may be sent to the city in the future.
The temporary restraining order will be in place for 14 days, unless extended. Warden said the government might seek to appeal, but Justice Department spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the judge’s decision.
The suit that led to the judge’s order on Thursday was filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of freelance journalists, legal observers and an alternative media outlet: Index Newspapers. At least three other federal lawsuits related to the protests are now pending.
Another federal judge based in Portland is considering a request from the Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, to require federal officials to identify themselves when arresting or detaining suspects and to refrain from detaining people without probable cause. The request for a court order followed reports that federal agents dressed in camouflage and using unmarked vehicles were picking up individuals off city streets and whisking them away.
Videos show the agents wearing vests labeled with the word “Police.” Federal officials say agents and officers deployed to address the protests and damage to federal courthouses and buildings wear uniforms with patches identifying their agencies, which include the Federal Protective Service, Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Matthew Choi contributed to this report.