By Deborah Bloom
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – The mayor of the U.S. city of Portland, Ted Wheeler, was stung by tear gas early on Thursday morning after he joined demonstrators protesting against racial injustice and police brutality.
Security forces have frequently tear-gassed and clubbed demonstrators during weeks of unrest and Wheeler, visiting the protest site outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, urged federal agents to be withdrawn from the city.
“They’re not wanted here,” he said.
But Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner, was jeered at by demonstrators who called on him to resign and chanted “Shame on You.” Some said he should have done more to protect Portland’s citizens.
The deployment of federal agents in Portland on July 4 is a flash point in a national debate over civil liberties that has roiled the United States since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Demonstrators and local officials see the move as a political ploy by U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, to drum up a “law and order” campaign as he faces an uphill re-election battle.
Wheeler, a Democrat, has called the intervention an abuse of federal power and said it was escalating the violence. Wednesday saw bigger and bigger crowds of supporters joining the demonstrations.
After a few demonstrators had set trash bags on the fire outside the courthouse, federal agents inside the Justice Center fired tear gas, flash bangs and pepper balls into the area.
Wheeler stood at the front of the line, in a surgical mask and goggles, and began to cough, a Reuters reporter said. He experienced two rounds of heavy tear gas. His eyes and nose were running, his face was red and his eyes were bloodshot.
USE OF FORCE
He was whisked away by his security team to the city’s municipal services building.
Prior to the incident, Wheeler faced an angry crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators packed outside the courthouse.
The mayor’s office had said Wheeler would attend the demonstration that night to talk to protesters and attempt to de-escalate tensions that have played out between demonstrators and law enforcement over the past 54 nights.
Demonstrators screamed expletives at him and a few chucked water bottles at him.
The mayor has been criticized by demonstrators for the local police’s unchecked use of force against demonstrators, which has included tear gassing, trampling, and pummeling protesters.
Speaking to the crowd, Wheeler decried the presence of federal law enforcement officers, who were caught last week snatching protesters from the street into unmarked cars.
“They’re not wanted here. They’re not properly trained to be here. And we’re asking them right this minute – we’re demanding that they leave. We’re demanding that the federal government stop occupying our city,” he said.
One demonstrator asked him if he was willing to abolish the police, to which he replied ‘no’, and was loudly booed by many.
Asked about his experience of getting tear-gassed, Wheeler told Reuters: “You can’t really comply with any orders that are being issued because, frankly, you’re not paying attention to what’s around you, you’re focusing on your eyes. You’re focusing on trying to breathe.”
Asked if he might rethink the use of tear gas by local police officers, Wheeler said: “It makes me think long and hard on whether or not this is a viable tool.”
(Reporting by Deborah Bloom, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Jon Boyle, William Maclean)