The Honorable Chad F. Wolf
Department of Homeland Security
2801 Nebraska Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20528
RE: Amnesty International USA calls for immediate withdrawal of DHS agents from Portland and a halt to future deployments of agents to other cities
Dear Acting Secretary Wolf:
On behalf of Amnesty International USA (“AIUSA”) and our members and supporters, we write with serious concern over alarming reports of excessive force by US Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) officers used against protesters in Portland, Oregon, in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
Ever since the torture and extrajudicial execution of George Floyd on May 25, protests in Portland have occurred on a nightly basis as demonstrators have converged to call for accountability for the police killings of Black people and an end to systemic racial injustice and police violence. Over the past eight weeks federal law enforcement officers, including DHS agents,1 have repeatedly used excessive force against protesters, including through physical beatings with batons, the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray, and the inappropriate and, at times indiscriminate, firing of less-lethal projectiles.
Under “Operation Diligent Valor” , DHS has deployed teams to Portland comprised of approximately 114 federal law enforcement officers from several DHS agencies, including Custom and Border Protection (“CBP”) Border Patrol Tactical (BORTAC) unit, a paramilitary unit which DHS has deployed in the past to surveil, police, and arrest undocumented immigrants in cities declining to cooperate with anti-immigration policies. According to an internal DHS memorandum, Border Patrol agents sent to Portland have never been trained in crowd control of mass demonstrations.
These DHS officers were deployed to Portland following President Trump’s June 26 executive order5 to protect monuments and statues from protesters. Amnesty International does not condone violence or damage to property. However, in all situations, law enforcement officers, including DHS agents, are obligated to engage in de-escalation to prevent the exacerbation of violence. Property damage is not as important as the protection of people’s lives.
Multiple media reports have documented federal agents using excessive force in defense of the federal courthouse in Portland and collectively punishing protesters exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Camouflage-clad officers with generic “POLICE” patches on their clothing using force to arrest and whisk away protesters in unmarked vehicles. In recent weeks CBP officials have confirmed that CBP agents have seized and detained protesters in unmarked vans.
One Portland protester, Mark Pettibone, was detained by several men in green military fatigues, but without any other agency or personal identification such as nameplates, as he walked home from a protest on July 15. Pettibone told the Washington Post that the men, later identified as CBP officers, searched him and took him in an unmarked minivan to a federal courthouse where he was held for
several hours. Pettibone said that the CBP agents never told him why he was arrested; nor did they provide him with any paperwork, citation or record of his arrest, which amounts to arbitrary arrest and detention — a clear violation of the right to liberty and security of person under international law. 8
In response, on July 17 Oregon’s attorney general filed a lawsuit accusing DHS, CBP, and other federal law enforcement agencies of seizing and detaining protesters without probable cause in violation of their civil rights. 9 Oregonian leaders have questioned the federal agents’ legal authority to police demonstrations and conduct arrests and have called for their withdrawal from Portland.
More recently, on July 22, federal law enforcement officers unleashed multiple rounds of tear gas on a crowd of hundreds of people, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who described DHS as waging “urban warfare” on Portland. 10 Upon request of multiple U.S. congressional committees, the DHS Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation into the conduct of CBP agents in Portland.
In addition, on July 23, a federal court issued a temporary restraining order barring federal officers, including DHS agents deployed to Portland, from arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against someone whom they should “reasonably know” is a journalist or a legal observer unless they have probable cause to believe that person has committed a crime. The court stated that journalists and legal observers are not required to follow federal agents’ orders to disperse or to stop documenting a protest.
AIUSA strongly denounces the deployment of these DHS agents to Portland and their excessive use of force against protesters. Their presence in Portland has only served to inflame tensions and increase violence. We are alarmed that senior DHS officials, including Ken Cuccinelli, have that DHS agents might deploy similar approaches in other cities, stating that “this is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we’re responsible for around the country.”
DHS agents should not be deployed to conduct domestic law enforcement unless under exceptional and temporary circumstances, based on a clear needs assessment of their added value, if any, in a concrete situation. They should be specifically prevented from the policing of protests, due to their lack of training on crowd control and facilitating the right to peaceful assembly. We are especially alarmed by the deployment of CBP agents to Portland, given CBP’s abysmal track record of using excessive and lethal force and violating the human rights of those it encounters, as Amnesty International has long documented. In the Oregon situation, local and state leaders and Oregon federal officials have made clear their vehement objections to the presence of DHS officers in downtown Portland.
AIUSA therefore calls on you to:
(1) Immediately instruct all DHS agents, including CBP agents, to halt arrests or use of physical force against protesters in Portland.
(2) Immediately withdraw all DHS agents, including CBP agents, from Portland and any other cities in which agents have been deployed for protest response;
(3) Refrain from deploying any DHS agents, including CBP agents, to Seattle, Oakland, Washington, D.C., or any other city for purposes of policing protests. Oregonians join Americans across
the country in exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. All law enforcement agencies, including DHS and CBP, are required to uphold, protect, and facilitate these human rights. Please do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected] or 202/281-0017.
National Director Advocacy and Government Affairs
Amnesty International USA