Feds are flouting court order to stop targeting journalists and observers at Portland protests, ACLU tells judge

A banner against the presence of federal law enforcement officers, deployed under the Trump administration’s new executive order to protect federal monuments and buildings, is pictured on a fire escape in downtown Portland, Oregon, U.S. July 17, 2020.

Nathan Howard | Reuters

Journalists and legal observers in Portland, Ore. who secured a court order last week barring federal officers from targeting them at protests are asking a federal judge to sanction the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service for their failure to comply with it. 

Judge Michael Simon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon issued a temporary restraining order on Thursday, finding that the actions by federal officials at the demonstrations raised serious questions about potential violations of the First Amendment.

Federal agents violated the order just hours later, and have continued to violate it every night since, according to attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm BraunHagey & Borden. 

The lawsuit includes declarations, photographs and videos from journalists and observers who say they were targeted by federal agents with mace, tear gas, flash bangs and other weapons.

The suit asks Simon to find the federal agencies in contempt, and for sanctions including a fine of $500 for “every day a journalist or legal observer is shot, beaten, arrested, or intimidated by a federal agent.” It also calls for each officer who violated the restraining order to be “identified, personally appear, and be prohibited from participating in any armed operations” in Oregon.

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, and Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary, should also “personally appear and show cause why they should not be sanctioned for failure to comply,” the suit says. 

“These violations are not inadvertent,” the attorneys wrote. “They are intentional acts by a lawless president, who has sent his paramilitary forces to shoot up the streets of Portland, choke downtown in a haze of toxic chemical fumes, and generate reelection soundbites — in blatant disdain of public safety, the rule of law, and the most fundamental principles of our Constitution.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

The protests in Portland were spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, and have continued nightly. The federal presence at the demonstrations has escalated since early July. 

The filing came shortly after Attorney General William Barr defended the actions of federal officials in Portland during a contentious day of testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Barr said that the actions of federal officers were necessary to protect federal property, including a federal courthouse located in the city. 

“Rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims,” Barr said. 

But Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., accused Barr of ordering law enforcement to Portland in order to help President Donald Trump get  “footage for his campaign ads” as Trump faces a tough reelection battle against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Kelly Simon, interim legal director of the ACLU of Oregon, cited Barr’s testimony. 

“This administration claims to be defending the federal courthouse, but won’t obey the orders coming out of it. What purpose are these agents actually serving then?” Simon said. 

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