Homeland Security chief says department is reviewing complaints excessive force used in Portland

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is reviewing “a number” of complaints that its agents used excessive force against anti-racism protesters in Portland, Oregon, though so far no one has been disciplined, the department’s acting head said on Thursday.

Acting Secretary Chad Wolf testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs about the federal response to long-running protests in Portland, where state and city officials complained that the presence of federal officers inflamed protests.

He did not say how many complaints were being reviewed or provide any specifics of what had been alleged.

Largely peaceful protests have been held across the United States since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody. Protests in cities, including Portland, have at times erupted into arson and violence, and federal officers sent into the Northwestern city have repeatedly clashed with crowds targeting the federal courthouse there.

Wolf denied that federal officers had cracked down on peaceful protesters, saying they had faced repeated overnight violence around a federal courthouse that became the focus of protests. Officers reported 277 injuries, he said.

“In no way are we doing anything on peaceful protests,” Wolf said.

He said that DHS believed there was “some coordination” between participants in Portland protests, who he said included “violent opportunists,” anarchists and members of the far-right Boogaloo movement, and he said Antifa activists had used online messaging to encourage violence. He said federal agencies had “very, very little” intelligence from inside the violent protest movement.

The House Intelligence Committee this week launched its own investigation into DHS’s intelligence office, including its actions in Portland, and its involvement in other anti-racism protests across the country.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)

Government health experts warn U.S. cities of ‘trouble ahead’

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House health experts are warning of an uptick in the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago and Washington, urging local leaders to maintain health safety measures to avoid a surge.

“This is a predictor of trouble ahead,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday.

Fauci was asked on CNN about comments made by his White House coronavirus task force colleague, Dr. Deborah Birx, identifying new areas of concern in major cities, even as authorities see encouraging signs across the South.

Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a “very high level,” as well as Kansas City, Portland, Omaha and California’s Central Valley, Birx told state and local officials in a telephone call Wednesday. A recording of the call was obtained by the journalism nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

White House data shows small increases in the percentage of positive COVID-10 tests in Chicago, Boston and Detroit and those places need to “get on top of it”, Birx said.

Even in cities and states where most people are doing things right, Fauci said, a segment of people not wearing masks or following social distancing remains vulnerable to infection and can keep the virus smoldering in U.S. communities.

“Unless everybody pulls together, and gets the level way down over baseline, we’re going to continue to see these kind of increases that Dr. Birx was talking about in several of those cities,” Fauci said.

White House coronavirus experts have in recent days sent regular warnings to cities and states not to relax anti-coronavirus measures too much before the virus is under sufficient control.

On average, 1,000 people are dying each day nationwide from COVID-19. The U.S. death toll is now over 157,000, with 4.8 million known cases.

President Donald Trump, in contrast, has played down the staying power of the virus, saying on Wednesday “it will go away like things go away” as he urged U.S. schools to reopen on time for face-to-face lessons.

Trump also said children are “almost immune” from COVID-19, prompting Facebook Inc on Wednesday to take down a post by the Republican president containing a Fox News video clip in which he made the statement. Facebook said it violated its rules against sharing misinformation about the virus.

Chicago’s mayor said on Wednesday that school would be online-only in September, after the teachers’ union and many parents in the city objected to a plan to allow students the option of attending class twice a week in pods of 15.

Chicago is the third-largest school district in the United States behind New York and Los Angeles, with 350,000 students.

Los Angeles has already announced that students will be kept home, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he expects to have children attend classes part of the time.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. House panel investigates DHS office over Portland, other protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House Intelligence Committee launched an investigation on Monday into the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence office, including its actions in Portland, Oregon, and its involvement in other anti-racism protests across the country.

“The reporting regarding the monitoring of peaceful protesters, creating and disseminating intelligence reports about journalists and protesters, and potential exploitation of electronic devices is deeply troubling,” Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to top DHS officials.

The United States has seen largely peaceful protests nationwide since the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody in May. Protests in cities, including Portland, have at times erupted into arson and violence, and federal officers sent into the Northwestern city have repeatedly clashed with crowds targeting the federal courthouse there.

The probe shows that Democrats will use congressional authority to investigate efforts by the Trump administration to demonize protesters and deploy federal personnel in law enforcement operations in several cities despite opposition from local mayors and governors.

In his letter to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and acting department intelligence chief Horace Jen, Schiff requested detailed intelligence reporting documents that informed a recommendation by the then-chief of the DHS intelligence operation on July 25 requesting that DHS reports on anarchist-related Portland protesters refer to them as “Violent Antifa Anarchists Inspired.”

The official who wrote the memo, acting DHS intelligence chief Brian Murphy, was subsequently transferred to a different job over the weekend.

In his letter to DHS, Schiff also requested that Jen, Murphy and several other DHS officials, including intelligence officials, give interviews to the committee this month.

Schiff said that if the department did not produce the witnesses and documents he requested, he would consider issuing subpoenas.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)

Portland has night without tear gas as feds withdraw

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Portland had its first night in weeks without tear gas after state police took over from federal agents guarding a courthouse that has been the focal point of violence between protesters and tactical officers.

The agents withdrew under a deal between Oregon’s governor and U.S. officials to end a deployment that sparked a standoff between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic mayors over the use of federal officers in their cities.

A few hundred people demonstrated outside the federal courthouse until around 2 a.m. when they left of their own accord, according to a Reuters reporter. On previous nights they had been dispersed with tear gas and other munitions fired by federal agents.

“Things went a lot better last night, last night was the first night in about two months that our officers and agents inside the federal court building there in Portland didn’t come under a direct and immediate threat of being burned alive,” said U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, whose Border Tactical Unit officers have been among Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents in Portland.

Oregon State Police said around 100 of its officers took over security at the courthouse with some regular Federal Protective Service agents remaining.

DHS agents remain on standby in the city and National Guard troops could be sent in should state police be overrun, DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News after Trump threatened such action on Thursday

Separately, a DHS spokesman said Wolf had ordered an intelligence unit to stop collecting information on American journalists covering protests in Portland, Oregon, after a media report on the practice.

The Washington Post on Thursday reported that the department compiled “intelligence reports” on journalists using a government system meant to share information about suspected terrorists and violent actors.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom, Andrew Hay and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

U.S. federal troops staying in Portland for now, Wolf says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News on Friday that federal troops would remain in Portland until he was assured that the Oregon governor’s plan to handle daily protests was working, and said sending in the National Guard was still an option if the state did not handle the situation.

He said all the Department of Homeland Security “law enforcement officers that have been there over the past 60 days will remain there in Portland until we are assured that the plan that has been put in place by the governor and Oregon State Police will be effective night after night.”

Wolf said President Donald Trump had “continued to talk about” the option of sending the National Guard to the city.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Trump, after Portland deal, says feds won’t leave ‘until there is safety’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday said the governor of Oregon was not doing enough to reign in protesters in Portland and that U.S. agents would not leave the city “until there is safety,” one day after the state and his administration reached a deal to phase out a federal law enforcement presence.

“Kate Brown, Governor of Oregon, isn’t doing her job. She must clear out, and in some cases arrest, the Anarchists & Agitators in Portland. If she can’t do it, the Federal Government will do it for her. We will not be leaving until there is safety!” Trump tweeted.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chris Reese)

U.S. Attorney General Barr defends response to protests, Trump-tied cases

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday defended himself in front of a Democratic-led House of Representative committee, denying accusations that he abused his power to help President Donald Trump’s associates and boost Trump’s re-election hopes.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler opened the hearing with scathing remarks, telling Barr: “Your tenure is marked by a persistent war against the department’s professional core in an apparent effort to secure favors for the president.”

Barr pushed back, saying, “I feel complete freedom to do what I feel is right.”

Barr rejected a claim by Nadler that an operation to deploy federal agents to U.S. cities, particularly Portland, Oregon, was an effort to boost Trump’s re-election campaign. Barr said he had not taken actions to help Trump’s associates, saying they do not deserve special breaks but also should not be treated more harshly than other defendants.

The hearing marks Barr’s first testimony before the House Judiciary Committee since he took office in February 2019, and comes as the Justice Department faces criticism for sending federal officers to forcibly disperse protesters in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.

The department’s internal watchdog launched probes last week into federal involvement in both those cases.

The United States has seen weeks of widespread, mostly peaceful protests against racial bias and police violence following George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police in May.

Barr has highlighted the arson and violence that have broken out at some protests, blaming them primarily on far-left “antifa” elements and urging federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges whenever possible.

Barr defended the use of federal law enforcement to quell the protests in Portland, where some protesters have thrown objects at the federal courthouse.

“What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States,” Barr said.

In his testimony, he also downplayed accusations about systemic discrimination in policing across the country, saying it would “be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism.”

“The threat to Black lives posed by crime on the streets is massively greater than any threat posed by police misconduct,” he said.

HOUSE INQUIRY

The House Judiciary Committee launched a broad inquiry last month into whether the Justice Department had become overly politicized.

The inquiry came after Barr intervened in several high-profile criminal cases involving people close to Trump. In February, he moved to scale back the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, prompting four career prosecutors to withdraw.

In May, Barr sought to drop the criminal charge against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, setting the stage for an ongoing legal battle with the federal judge who was due to sentence Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Barr, in his testimony, insisted that Trump “has not attempted to interfere in these decisions.”

In June, Barr ousted the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman, while that office was investigating Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Berman later told the committee: “I do not know what the attorney general’s motives were, but the irregular and unexplained actions by the attorney general raised serious concerns for me.”

In July, the Bureau of Prisons, which reports to Barr, ordered Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen out of home confinement and back to prison after he hesitated to sign a sweeping gag order that would have prevented him from releasing a book about the president.

A federal judge ordered Cohen released last week, saying there was evidence the Bureau of Prisons had retaliated against him.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

On Chicago’s South Side, some violence-weary residents open to federal investigators

By Brendan O’Brien and Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Many Chicagoans vehemently oppose President Donald Trump’s pledge to send federal officers to the third-largest U.S. city, after seeing camouflaged agents deployed in Portland club and tear-gas anti-racism protesters.

But in South and West Side neighborhoods hit hardest by a recent spike in gang violence, some Chicago residents welcomed the move and said federal agents may be able to help solve crimes.

“I appreciate it and I like it,” said Cedrick Easterling, a former gang member, who was shoveling garbage scattered in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood as part of his work clearing vacant lots.

“If you sit at that park, you will hear shots all over Englewood,” said Easterling, who was once shot himself, pointing south toward Ogden Park. Like most in Chicago, Easterling is not a fan of Trump, who won just 51 of the city’s 2,069 precincts in the 2016 presidential election.

Easterling, 54, has lived in Englewood since he was seven. He said crime is particularly bad this year and Trump should consider bringing in the National Guard and using drones to record evidence of crimes as they occur

Others were more cautious, saying they feared an increased federal presence would erode civil liberties in a city that has had long-standing problems with police brutality in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Trump said last week that hundreds of officers from the FBI and other federal agencies would help fight crime in Chicago. The city is suffering a spike in violent crime, including a drive-by shooting by suspected gang members at a funeral last week that wounded 15 people.

Trump has sought to project a law-and-order stance as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3, targeting cities controlled by Democrats who he says are soft on criminals. Critics say the administration is seeking to divert attention from its widely criticized response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Eight of 10 people Reuters interviewed in wealthier and safer areas on Chicago’s North Side opposed any form of intervention from Trump, saying federal officers could fan tensions in the city and would not address underlying issues such as unemployment.

“I don’t see how the feds are going to help with anything,” said Michael Flaherty, a 53-year-old architect who lives in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

“They’re violent. Violence doesn’t fix violence.”

The view was often more nuanced on the South and West Sides, where a much higher proportion of residents have experienced violent crime.

Junior Jaber, 28, recalled the day four years ago when his friend Paul Hamilton, then 47, was killed by a stray bullet while walking his dog in Ogden Park.

“I was mad. He had nothing to do with anything,” said Jaber, who runs Englewood Food Mart, where Hamilton worked as a butcher. “We got to do something. It’s almost like a war zone out here.”

Jaber said he was all for it when he learned of Trump’s plan to send in federal agents.

“They should clean it all up. Just do their job,” said the 28-year-old father of two as he sold sodas, lottery tickets and pints of liquor.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has said the reinforcements to Chicago do not involve the type of forces that were deployed to Portland and have been accused of civil rights violations and using excessive force.

Protesters said uniformed personnel without name tags or agency badges snatched young people off the streets into unmarked vans before eventually releasing them.

Protests have continued around the United States since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody. The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday it would investigate the use of force in Portland and whether federal agents had proper identification.

Black Lives Matter activists, who have led protests against police brutality in Chicago, are suing federal officials to try to ensure agents do not violate civil rights. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has told residents all new federal resources would be “investigatory in nature” and vowed to pursue all available legal options if federal officers go beyond that.

‘INNOCENT BYSTANDERS’

While Chicago’s murder rate had been falling in recent years, there were 116 murders over the 28 days through July 19, an increase of nearly 200% compared with the same period in 2019, police department data shows.

Some residents of East Garfield Park, a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, support federal intervention after gang shootings hit unintended targets, said Damien Morris, director of violence prevention initiatives for local nonprofit Breakthrough.

“When you have women and kids getting shot – innocent bystanders – you have residents that feel like something needs to happen,” Morris said.

Trump sent a smaller number of special agents and law enforcement researchers to Chicago in 2017 after a spike in violent crime.

Phil Bridgeman, 49, said he opposes all federal law enforcement in Chicago. Even if the federal agents could help solve high-profile cases, he said, they will not solve the root causes of violent crime.

“It’s not going to help, it’s going to agitate,” said Bridgeman as he sold “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts in the middle of a busy boulevard.

Vaughn Bryant, executive director of anti-violence group Metropolitan Peace Initiatives, was concerned by “a greater threat to people’s freedom,” with the arrival of more agents.

In Englewood, a man who goes by the name Joe Pug sat in a lawn chair with several other people on a sidewalk opposite a small police station. The 49-year-old, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of his life, supports federal agents investigating shootings.

He said the South and West Sides also need massive investments in education and job creation, especially for young Black men.

“There is nothing here, nothing for them,” he said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Daniel Wallis)

Federal agents fire tear gas again at Portland protesters

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Federal agents fired tear gas canisters at Black Lives Matter demonstrators in downtown Portland early on Friday in a 56th straight day of protests, amid growing scrutiny over the use of border patrol officers in the city.

Positioned behind a steel fence, agents began firing tear gas after a small group of protesters, many helmeted and wearing face masks, lit a fire at the entrance of the building shortly after midnight.

Saying they were being hit with projectiles and lasers, federal agents declared an unlawful assembly and forced protesters back up a block from the federal courthouse.

The agents then retreated to a different corner of the courthouse and confronted protesters there, lobbing more canisters that bounced off the walls of buildings into protesters. Journalists were clearly identifiable in the crowd.

Security forces have frequently tear-gassed and clubbed demonstrators during the unrest. The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday it would investigate the use of force by federal agents in Portland after another night of unrest in which Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed.

The investigations follow public anger over the deployment of federal border patrol officers to Portland against the wishes of local officials. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said it is sending a similar contingent to Seattle.

Earlier on Thursday, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order barring federal law enforcement from using force against journalists and legal observers at the Portland protests. This followed a lawsuit filed on behalf of journalists whom federal agents had hit with non-lethal “impact munitions.”

RE-ELECTION BATTLE

Demonstrators and local officials see the deployment of the agents in Portland as a ploy by Trump to drum up a “law and order” campaign as he faces an uphill re-election battle.

Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has said all federal agents have been making lawful arrests and properly identifying themselves as law enforcement.

Mayor Wheeler, a Democrat, has called the intervention an abuse of federal power and said it was escalating the violence.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said U.S. police and security forces must not use disproportionate force against protesters and journalists, or detain them unlawfully.

“It is very important that people are able to protest peacefully, that people aren’t subject to unnecessary, disproportionate or discriminatory use of force,” Liz Throssell, U.N. human rights spokeswoman, said.

Earlier in the evening a crowd of thousands of Black Lives Matter supporters gathered in the city center.

“I’m so inspired to see a sea of people who don’t look like me who are saying Black Lives Matter,” said Damany Iqwe, referring to the majority-white crowd.

Iqwe, 43, is a Black man who grew up in Portland and has frequently attended protests that have continued since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

“This city is one of the most systematically racist places to live in as a Black man,” Iqwe said.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland, Additional reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru and , Editing by Gerry Doyle and Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

Portland mayor is tear-gassed in another night of unrest in U.S. city

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)