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Federal Authorities Agree To Pause Efforts To Contain Portland Protesters


Federal agents have agreed to back off their effort to contain demonstrations in Portland, Ore. The state's governor says the agents will end their nightly confrontations with protesters. Federal authorities say it's more of a pause. In any case, it's a change in the effort to protect a federal courthouse which led to almost nightly incidents that intensified protests over racial justice.

Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has been covering this story. Hey there, Conrad.


INSKEEP: How do officials plan to secure this federal courthouse instead?

WILSON: So under the deal, Oregon State Police are going to take over defending the federal courthouse. They say that they're going to work with federal law enforcement and the Portland Police. And the idea here is to get federal law enforcement to leave while also ensuring the safety of the courthouse and the people that work there.

I mean, these federal officers, they don't generally do crowd control. They've made some missteps that have really energized what prior to their arrival were some pretty small protests, I mean, at times, you know, fewer than a hundred people or so. For instance, a U.S. marshal shot a peaceful protester in the head with a crowd control device, putting the person in the hospital. And then Oregon Public Broadcasting reported on Homeland Security officers in military-style uniforms using marked vehicles to arrest protesters.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and your reporting intensified suspicion of the administration's motives. It appeared to many people that they were deliberately stoking conflict, that they wanted this confrontation, that they wanted chaos. And, of course, the president leans into chaos whenever he can. So how did the administration end up agreeing to do something else?

WILSON: Well, it came from the state. I mean, this week, Oregon Governor Kate Brown spoke with Vice President Mike Pence. And the governor pitched this plan to the vice president. Pence got the Department of Homeland Security involved. There were a number of high-ranking officials in Portland this week, including the deputy director of the FBI, before this agreement came together and was announced yesterday.

INSKEEP: We did hear that agreement from the governor, but aren't Homeland Security officials saying something just a little different?

WILSON: Yes, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf says the surge of federal officers that President Trump sent to Portland is going to stay and see how this unfolds. You know, basically, can Oregon State Police do what they say they're going to do? The difference, though, is that federal officers aren't going to be out on the streets unless state police can't protect the courthouse.

INSKEEP: OK, so let me try to understand how this really changes the situation. As you guys have been reporting very effectively, these were small protests, and they seemed to get larger when federal agents got involved and the federal courthouse became much more of a focus of these protests that originally were about local police and racial justice and that sort of thing. What happens now that the federal officers step back?

WILSON: Well, the Trump administration, you know, has put this narrative of Portland as a city under siege from protesters. I mean, Trump tweeted that, you know, if he hadn't deployed federal law enforcement, quote, "there would be no Portland," you know, it would be burned and beaten to the ground.

In reality, protests have mainly taken place in an area of downtown. The vast majority of protests have been peaceful and focused on racial justice and police violence. The hope is that with federal agents stepping back, it will de-escalate things and return the focus to conversations between the community, police and the mayor. I mean, just this week, local civil rights groups released a list of policy proposals, and they're really trying to use the momentum of Black Lives Matter to address inequality.

INSKEEP: Policy proposals instead of confrontation. Conrad, thank you very much.

WILSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.