Written by students, for students.
The official newspaper of Crescent Valley High School.
Over the last week, the largest city in Oregon has seen the presence of unmarked and unnamed federal troops that have stoked unrest. The mayor of the city, along with countless civilians, has been tear-gassed by these troops, who have been arresting Oregonians and putting them into unidentifiable and unmarked vans. The federal government under Donald Trump has insisted that they have every right to use troops to defend federal property—but constitutional law experts say it’s not that simple. Other cities, especially those run by Democrats who have had their cities mentioned by the president, have expressed their own fear of something like this happening to them, and not without reason. The Trump administration has already sent a tactical team to Seattle, thus expanding their presence in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge had to issue a restraining order to stop the troops in Portland from especially targeting journalists and legal observers, or from taking their press badges/recording devices or stopping them from recording what’s happening. How did we get here? And what constitutional footing do these troops have?
Portland, like thousands of cities and towns across the country, saw large protests after the police killing of George Floyd. Portland, though not a city with a large Black population, is a city with a history of passionate activism. However, what is different in Portland is the use of federal troops to protect certain federal property in the city—troops that no Oregonian officials asked for, and who have extended their presence far beyond the limited federal buildings they were sent to protect. Many of the highest government officials in the state (Governor Kate Brown, Portland’s mayor Ted Wheeler, and Oregon’s congressional representatives) have expressly asked that these troops leave immediately, since they have further escalated the mostly-peaceful protests. Instead, they have had to resort to suing the federal government to remove these troops; the state attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, took the federal government to court over the troops’ arrests of protesters, but was denied. She was told by the judge that the state cannot sue on behalf of the protesters. For many protesters, it had been a legal challenge to even find which branch of the government or law enforcement to hold responsible for these troops, much less who they are as individuals, since they bear no markings of what agency they belong to.
What constitutional ground does the Trump administration have to send troops to Portland? It does exist, in the context of protecting federal property or helping states that ask for assistance. Throughout American history, federal forces have been used to control, supervise, or quell protests, strikes, riots and other similar situations. However, the Trump administration has forces unlike those used for protests and riots in the 20th century. The troops deployed by the president can seem exactly like the military without actually being military troops and are totally unmarked. Additionally, most legal experts see it as, at the very least, a huge overreach of federal power to take on a responsibility that usually belongs to local law enforcement. Historically, when local law enforcement haven’t been doing their job how the president wants them to, it has not been cause to send in federal troops to do that job for them. It also differs in that many cities during times of riots or unrest have asked for assistance from the national government; Portland has not, and in fact elected officials of Oregon from the governor to Portland’s mayor to congressional representatives have repeatedly said that these troops are unnecessary and unwelcome.
Additionally, the kind of troops used and the grounds on which they were deployed are both in question. In other situations like this, it would likely fall to the National Guard to protect the rule of federal law when it’s under threat. Instead, it has fallen to unnamed and unmarked federal troops with militant tendencies. The law-breaking that triggered the arrival of these troops is also under question. Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said to the New York Times, “I don’t think there’s anywhere near the same kind of consensus at the federal level that federal authority is actually being subverted…What’s new and troubling here is we have a very, very contested factual predicate” (Badger). Vladeck considered a different perspective when talking with PBS. “[T]he notion that a handful of federal crimes justifies a substantial deployment of federal law enforcement officers … to show force on the streets is, to my mind, unprecedented” (Flaccus). Among local officials, it’s clear that the troops have only stoked further unrest and violence, and took a mainly peaceful situation into one that escalates nightly into violence.
As a political ploy, these troops are also not successful with many traditional conservatives. In fact, small-government conservatism as an ideology is usually very wary of federal intervention in state affairs, and often stands up for state and local rights. One of Kentucky’s senators, Republican Rand Paul, tweeted, “We cannot give up liberty for security. Local law enforcement can and should be handling these situations in our cities but there is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will.” Of course, there are political reasons for the Trump administration’s use of federal force in Portland, but there are those on both sides of the aisle that see this escalation as entirely undue.
To quote the attorney general of Oregon in her recently denied case (asking for an order against federal troops arresting protesters), “Ordinarily, a person exercising his right to walk through the streets of Portland who is confronted by anonymous men in military-type fatigues and ordered into an unmarked van can reasonably assume that he is being kidnapped and is the victim of a crime.” This is not only a problem for Portland; the Trump administration has threatened to use such force in other cities deemed ‘overrun’ or ‘out of control.’
The courts are perhaps the last line of defense against these troops, more so than the ‘Wall of Moms’ and ‘Wall of Veterans’ at the protests or the pleas of local officials. However, nothing can undo the red flag that has been raised in Portland over the last week, and there have been indications that Oregon will not be the last state to face these mystery troops. ‘“This is the very thing that scared the heck out of the framers of the Constitution,’ said Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University. ‘There’s been an over-tendency to cry wolf,’ he said of the president’s critics over the past four years. ‘Well, this is wolf. This is it.’” (Badger).
In closing, it feels relevant to include a quote from Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a rather terrifying but well-written history lesson about the warning signs of authoritarianism. He lists 20 lessons learned from Europe in the 20th century. Among them: be wary of paramilitaries, and be reflective if you must be armed. In description of this last lesson, Snyder writes, “If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no” (Synder 47). What is happening in Portland right now is highly irregular, and has been widely regarded as a monumental red flag. The troops in Oregon right now are dubiously legal, uncalled for by any local officials, and are far overreaching their grounds to beyond the federal buildings they are protecting.
Badger, Emily. "How Trump’s Use of Federal Forces in Cities Differs From Past Presidents." The New York Times, 23 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/upshot/trump-portland.html.
Cillizza, Chris. "What the heck is going on in Portland?" CNN, 24 July 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/07/24/politics/portland-protests-donald-trump/index.html.
Flaccus, Gillian. "Constitutional law experts see federal officers’ actions in Portland as a ‘red flag’." PBS News, 20 July 2020, www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/constitutional-law-experts-see-federal-officers-actions-in-portland-as-a-red-flag.
Flaccus, Gillian. "Judge denies Oregon's request to stop arrests of Portland protesters by federal agents." KGW 8, 24 July 2020, www.kgw.com/article/news/local/protests/portland-protests-oregon-attorney-general-lawsuit-denied/283-61085d07-3532-435c-9c4f-52d3a462be10.
Kanno-Youngs, Zolan, et al. "Feds Sending Tactical Team to Seattle, Expanding Presence Beyond Portland." The New York Times, 23 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/us/seattle-protests-feds.html.
"Oregon lawmakers call for immediate removal of federal officers from Portland." KGW 8, 23 July 2020, www.kgw.com/article/news/local/protests/oregon-state-legislature-jointly-requests-immediate-removal-of-federal-personnel-from-portland/283-10496981-b59a-41fc-ae3e-fb527e1334f4.
Rosenblum Lawsuit. Courthouse News, 17 July 2020, www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Rosenblum-Lawsuit.pdf.
Semuels, Alana. "The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America." The Atlantic, 22 July 2016, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/racist-history-portland/492035/.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny. Penguin Random House, 2017.
Treisman, Rachel. "Order Temporarily Blocks Feds From Targeting Press And Legal Observers In Portland." NPR, 23 July 2020, www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/07/23/894953202/order-temporarily-blocks-feds-from-targeting-press-and-legal-observers-in-portla.
Photo credits: KATU News, USA Today, and CNN.
- Kate Voltz