How widespread this is, and whether they’re targeting vandals or casting a much broader net at demonstrators, are open questions as I write this. The two stories about this circulating today, one from WaPo and the other from Oregon Public Broadcasting, claim that “protesters” are being snatched as well.
What’s not in question is that this is twice at least in the past two months that federal agents kitted out in military or paramilitary trappings have appeared on America’s streets without any markings identifying who they are or what agency they’re with. When it happened in D.C. last month in the first flush of George Floyd protests, the agents at least looked like cops in riot gear, not soldiers. The agents on the streets of Portland this week look like troops; they have a completely generic “POLICE” tag on their chests but otherwise they seem poised to deploy.
They’re with DHS, it appears. Here’s acting Secretary Chad Wolf addressing the “troops” before battle:
There are few scenarios I can think of in America when cops wearing camouflage might be necessary tactically. From the photo, it looks like they’re wearing a green pattern — which wouldn’t be especially useful in blending in with one’s surroundings in an urban landscape like a major city. The only reason to wear camouflage here, it seems, is to intimidate. They’re emulating troops because they want to instill the same fear of violent harm in the “enemy” that a combat uniform instills on the battlefield. Same goes for the lack of identifying markers on their uniforms: To all appearances, the point of that is to suggest to vandals, protesters, whoever, that there’ll be no accountability for anything these guys end up doing to them. Literally anything might happen to you if you end up in their custody, or so they want you to think.
For extra fright and unaccountability, they’re reportedly using unmarked vans instead of DHS agency vehicles to haul people in. And if you believe those who claim they’ve been arrested, they don’t even know where they are when they arrive.
“I see guys in camo,” O’Shea said. “Four or five of them pop out, open the door and it was just like, ‘Oh shit. I don’t know who you are or what you want with us.’”
Federal law enforcement officers have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters since at least July 14. Personal accounts and multiple videos posted online show the officers driving up to people, detaining individuals with no explanation of why they are being arrested, and driving off…
But interviews conducted by OPB show officers are also detaining people on Portland streets who aren’t near federal property, nor is it clear that all of the people being arrested have engaged in criminal activity. Demonstrators like O’Shea and Pettibone said they think they were targeted by federal officers for simply wearing black clothing in the area of the demonstration…
Blinded by his hat, in an unmarked minivan full of armed people dressed in camouflage and body armor who hadn’t identified themselves, Pettibone said he was driven around downtown before being unloaded inside a building. He wouldn’t learn until after his release that he had been inside the federal courthouse.
Pettibone and O’Shea say they did nothing wrong before they were hauled in and that they were released after 90 minutes with no record of their arrest. The U.S. Marshals, who are apparently part of the camouflaged unit, say they have no records of detaining anyone with Pettibone’s name. Not only is Pettibone the chief source for OPB’s report, he’s also the chief source for WaPo’s, which is major cause for caution. Are he and O’Shea making up the story of their arrest to raise alarm about the feds?
They’re certainly not making up the part about guys in unmarked military uniforms. Nor the part about them riding around in unmarked vans, it appears:
Militarized Federal Agents from a patchwork of outside agencies have begun policing Portland (in rented minivans vans) without the explicit approval of the mayor, the state, or local municipalities. This is what that looks like in practice: pic.twitter.com/losap4SsgI
— The Sparrow Project (@sparrowmedia) July 15, 2020
UPDATE: Several attempts were made by this mixed bag of federal officers (Marshals, Border Patrol, HSI) to grab people out of dwindling crowds. At least two people were detained in this manner and both may be released as of this time. Working to confirm. pic.twitter.com/i8j8Q6nHq3
— The Sparrow Project (@sparrowmedia) July 16, 2020
Again, the point of being unmarked is to avoid accountability. If the feds are taking measures here to keep everything off the books, it would stand to reason that they might have arrested Pettibone and deliberately created no record of it once they decided not to charge him with anything.
Another reason to believe Pettibone: As I write this at 11 a.m. ET, DHS hasn’t bothered to deny his allegations. On the contrary, Wolf has taken to posting defiantly in defense of his operation in Portland, which reads like confirmation. You would think he could do better than graffiti here to illustrate Antifa’s crimes:
“I offered @DHSgov support to help locally address the situation that’s going on in Portland, and their only response was: please pack up and go home. That’s just not going to happen on my watch.” pic.twitter.com/BW8UdbNZ9c
— Acting Secretary Chad Wolf (@DHS_Wolf) July 17, 2020
He also posted a long list of crimes committed against federal property in Portland by anarchists over the past six weeks, which is a strong argument for a robust police presence and no argument at all for having officers run around unmarked in military uniforms.
As he says in the clip, local officials have asked him to pack up and go home for fear that the federal presence is only making things worse. (Skim through Wolf’s list of crimes and you’ll notice that the offenses have gotten more, not less, serious lately.) The police chief has complained that it “complicates” things for Portland PD to have the feds operating there. The mayor is also upset that the feds won’t follow the city’s tactical rules, starting with not using tear gas against people. A few days ago, one protester had his skull cracked and needed facial reconstruction surgery afterward when, it appears, federal agents fired a nonlethal munition in his direction. “The best thing they can do is stay inside their building, or leave Portland altogether,” the mayor said.
Both senators from Oregon (both Democrats, of course) also want the feds out ASAP:
A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police. Now Trump and Chad Wolf are weaponizing the DHS as their own occupying army to provoke violence on the streets of my hometown because they think it plays well with right-wing media.
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) July 16, 2020
Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters. These Trump/Barr tactics designed to eliminate any accountability are absolutely unacceptable in America, and must end. pic.twitter.com/PE4YfZ9Vqd
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 16, 2020
The jury’s out on what really happened to Pettibone but it’s clear enough that the feds are operating in an irregular way. Pettibone told WaPo that when he was first grabbed, he wasn’t sure if they were real cops at all or “far-right extremists” cosplaying as soldiers and kidnapping people, another complication of not marking themselves clearly as police. The whole episode smells like Wolf trying to fulfill Trump’s strongman fantasy of sending soldiers into the streets under the Insurrection Act to crack the heads of looters in early June. POTUS ended up not doing that after he met resistance from Mark Milley and Mark Esper, but now here’s Wolf doing what he can to make the dream happen. Why aren’t these guys dressed like normal federal agents? What’s the excuse?