The Trump administration plans to deploy 150 federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to Chicago this week to crack down on violence and crime that the president says is escalating there and in other Democratic-led cities.
The move is seen widely as part of Trump’s strategy to position himself as the “law-and-order” candidate in his re-election campaign and to distract from his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot opposes the plan. She fears Chicago will host a replay of the abuses taken against Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. There, demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd, are in their 54th day. Camouflage-wearing federal agents in unmarked minivans are snatching perceived protesters off the streets and taking them to jails for interrogation.
Some of the protesters have been held in custody without probable cause. Others have been injured by the indiscriminate use of “less lethal” equipment, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and acoustic weapons — all of which can cause serious injury and death.
A rubber bullet fired at Donavan LaBella, 26, fractured his face and skull. He was shot while leaving a demonstration, while other victims have been kidnapped or injured while peacefully and lawfully protesting.
“The incidents sound eerily reminiscent of the CIA’s post-9/11 rendition program under George W Bush,” according to an account in The Guardian. “Intelligence agents would roll up in unmarked vans in foreign countries, blindfold terrorism suspects (many of whom turned out to be innocent) and kidnap them without explanation.”
Local and state officials in Oregon say the federal presence in Portland is worsening the situation, and they’ve asked the administration to withdraw forces. But, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman wrote last week that the escalation of protests in reaction to the government’s brutal attempts at suppression "is exactly what the Trump administration wants."
“We know Trump wants these scenes to be playing out on people's televisions in faraway states, such as — to select a few at random — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida.
“And given that his homeland security chief is actively ignoring local officials' demands that he pull out federal law enforcement … it's reasonable to surmise that escalation is the whole point of these exercises in the first place.”
An unnamed official told CNN that Homeland Security agents will remain in Chicago for 60 days. They will not, the official said, take the same actions they did in Portland, where they were ostensibly supposed to be protecting federal buildings from protesters.
In Chicago, the source said, agents would focus on illegal gun sales, gun violence and outstanding warrants.
But Lightfoot is alarmed. "I have great concerns … particularly given the track record in the city of Portland. I spent a lot of time yesterday talking with the mayor of Portland to get a sense of what has happened there. That's not what we need,” she told CNN.
Under Trump, Homeland Security has been used to carry out his political objectives. The department is led by temporary, “acting” officials who haven’t been confirmed by the Senate.
"The President has fired or forced out nearly every Senate-confirmed leader in DHS. Those remaining are neither accountable to Congress nor empowered to push back against unreasonable political pressure," said Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security and CNN legal analyst.
The ACLU of Oregon added the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service to an existing lawsuit filed last month against local law enforcement. In that lawsuit, a federal judge issued an order blocking local law enforcement from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists or legal observers at protests until Oct. 30.
But violence against protesters continued over the weekend as the their ranks, joined by many of their parents, swelled to more than 2,000.
The lawsuit is one of many the ACLU plans to file against federal law enforcement working in Portland.
“This is a fight to save our democracy,” said Kelly Simon, interim legal director with the ACLU of Oregon. “Under the direction of the Trump administration, federal agents are terrorizing the community, risking lives, and brutally attacking protesters demonstrating against police brutality. This is police escalation on top of police escalation. These federal agents must be stopped and removed from our city.”
Named plaintiffs in the lawsuit include The Portland Mercury; Matthew Lewis-Rolland, a freelance photographer who federal agents shot 10 times in the back on Sunday; Justin Yau, a freelance journalist who federal agents attacked with tear gas; and Doug Brown, a legal observer who federal agents threatened to shoot. The individuals were wearing high-visibility shirts that said “PRESS” or “legal observer.”
“What is happening in Portland is an unconstitutional nightmare,” said Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This is not law and order. This is lawlessness. The ACLU will not let the government respond to protests against police brutality with still more brutality. We will continue to hold law enforcement at all levels of government accountable, just as we have nationwide.”