In recent days, the city of Portland in the northwestern United States has witnessed intense unrest, with clashes taking place between anti-racism protesters and federal troops sent there by President Donald Trump.
Trump has insisted that the federal forces are necessary for restoring peace after nearly two months of protests in the city. Critics, however, have accused him of trying to use the forces to further his law-and-order agenda just months before the presidential election on November 3.
What is happening in Portland?
After the death of George Floyd in May, a wave of protests against systemic racism and police brutality broke out across the United States, including in Portland, the biggest city in the West Coast state of Oregon. After a few weeks, demonstrations ebbed in many US cities, and politicians in Oregon also expected peace to return in Portland.
However, the situation exacerbated in early July, when the Trump administration sent federal agents to Portland against the wishes of state and city officials. These officers have since heavily cracked down on the protests, firing tear gas and crowd control munitions, with some appearing in unmarked vehicles to seize and detain protesters.
The protests, which have dragged on for over 50 consecutive nights, were initially largely peaceful like elsewhere in the US, but have now been marked by violence. Federal officers have been accused of committing excesses while trying to restore order, and protesters have also resorted to violent means, including arson and destruction of property.
On July 11, a protester was critically injured and had to be hospitalised after a US Marshals Service officer hit him in the head with a round of less-lethal munition. In another incident, a federal agent was caught on camera repeatedly hitting with a baton a protesting US Navy veteran. Another officer released pepper spray on the protester’s face.
As per a BBC report, the troops sent by Trump belong to a new federal force created in June to protect statues, historical monuments, and federal facilities. This force includes officers from other federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the US Marshals Service, and the Federal Protection Service.
According to The New York Times, government documents suggest that these forces have not been specifically trained in riot control, and include units that typically deal with drug smuggling operations.
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What has the Trump administration said?
Trump has accused Oregon’s governor of being afraid of “anarchists”, and has said that the federal officers have done a “fantastic job” in Portland. The president has repeatedly tweeted “Law & Order!” over the past few weeks.
LAW & ORDER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2020
Trump has also said he could send move federal agents to other cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit, which he has said are run by “liberal Democrats”.
In a press conference Monday, Trump said, “Portland was totally out of control, and (federal forces) went in, and I guess we have many people right now in jail. We very much quelled it, and if it starts again, we’ll quell it again very easily”.
In several opinion polls, the president is currently trailing his Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The move to send federal troops to Democrat-run cities is expected to energise Trump’s right-wing supporters, who helped him win in 2016.
Criticism by Democrats and legal challenges
Democrat leaders, including the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon, have blamed Trump for exacerbating the situation by sending federal forces. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has called the federal agents “unidentified stormtroopers”.
At the same time, many protesters have also blamed the violence on a small minority of extremists, and leaders from the African American community have also expressed alarm at the growing mayhem in Portland.
The deployment of federal troops without local consent also risks a constitutional crisis in the country.
The President’s decision is starkly different from his stance on the coronavirus, where states have been left to deal with the pandemic on their own. Oregon has now sued the federal forces, and have sought a restraining order to stop them from arresting people in the state.
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