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All Police Can Be Secret Police

Local democratic officials denounce the feds when they act with impunity, but their own police departments use many of the same tactics.

ANKUR DHOLAKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Painful images are still coming out of Portland—law enforcement wielding exterminator-like sprayers of tear gas, firing “less-lethal” munitions that have left protesters hospitalized with life-threatening injuries—more than two months into continuous protests against anti-Black racism and policing. In recent weeks, federal agents have joined local police to patrol parts of Portland, dispatched by executive order and apparently managed by Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS.

Protesters in Portland soon reported that unidentified, armed federal agents in unmarked vans had pulled protesters off the street and detained them in unknown locations. On Tuesday in New York, similarly unmarked minivans carrying unidentified men rolled alongside a march and arrested a woman at the front. As the protesters cried out and pressed closer, as seen in videos from the scene, New York Police Department bike cops in their usual neon regalia formed a line to hold protesters back. The president had threatened that federal agents could be sent to New York, and it looked like they had made their first stand.

But quickly, the situation became clear: The NYPD Twitter account claimed responsibility. What had been characterized as secret police tactics were, in fact, just police tactics.

It was a particularly blunt reminder of the fact that, while what’s happening in Portland is unsettling, these tactics are not unique to federal agents. Local police employ them, too.

When Trump ordered a federal crackdown on protests, it drew attention away from local police. Though cops in Portland had been put under a temporary restraining order limiting their use of gas and impact munitions, they violated the order with continued gassing. The sheer force and brutal tactics used by local police did not get in the way of Trump’s rationale for his own crackdown. “We sent you there recently,” Trump said at a July briefing to Acting Secretary Wolf. “It was out of control. The locals couldn’t handle it. And you people are handling it very nicely.”

The president’s move also gave local officials something dramatic to stand up to—and distance themselves from. Last week, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was gassed by federal agents at a protest “as dozens of reporters and photographers—and a sardonic crowd of demonstrators chanting, ‘Fuck Ted Wheeler!’—watched the mayor cough, don clear plastic goggles, and give an interview to The New York Times,” the Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week reported. They were mocking him because in the weeks prior, the Portland police unleashed gas—in defiance of a court order—on the same protests. Those are his police.

Lawmakers who decried federal police in recent weeks have remained passive, if not forgiving, of local police engaged in the same kinds of conduct. On Wednesday, when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about the NYPD using an unmarked van to grab a protester, he used the specter of federal police to deflect criticism. “This is not Portland,” said the mayor. “What you see on that video is an NYPD officer.” While defending the officers in the video, he conceded that the optics may have been unfortunate: “There has to be sensitivity, where folks are understandably worried about what they see coming out of Washington.”

Despite the recent fervor, local efforts to hold federal police accountable have either failed or been flagrantly ignored. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security (along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Federal Protective Service, who all have agents in Portland policing protests), charging them with violating Portland residents’ constitutional rights. But a federal judge refused to grant Rosenblum’s request to temporarily restrain federal police. Another legal challenge to federal law enforcement, brought by journalists and legal observers, did win a temporary restraining order, barring them from arresting or using force against journalists and legal observers. Any federal officer in violation of the order, said the judge, would also be denied “qualified immunity” protections, which have shielded law enforcement from lawsuits. Still, journalists in Portland have documented how federal officers have repeatedly violated the judge’s order; some of their accounts are included in a new court filing, requesting the judge hold DHS in contempt of court.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown has since announced a “phased removal” of federal law enforcement from Portland, starting Thursday, though this does not mean such policing will vanish from the city. Acting DHS Secretary Wolf said the department “will continue to maintain our current, augmented federal law enforcement personnel in Portland,” and the president appears to be backing him, saying on Thursday “we’re not leaving until they secure their city … they either clean out their city and do it right or we’ll have to do it for them.”

Just as Wheeler attempted when facing down federal agents’ teargas, for a moment Brown appeared to have reigned in the policing she deemed excessive—but left unremarked upon those closer to home. It was a good cop-bad cop dichotomy, with bad cops on both sides. “Our local Oregon state police officers will be downtown to protect Oregonians’ right to free speech and keep the peace,” she posted on Twitter Wednesday. “Let’s center the Black Lives Matter movement’s demands for racial justice and police accountability.”

The kinds of anti-protest policing we’re seeing challenged in Portland is, for lawmakers and elected officials, unacceptable when the feds are doing it but ignored or defended when their own police do it. Is there really a difference, based on which law enforcement agency has kidnapped someone? The distinction may matter to mayors and governors but not to the people they represent, especially not when both federal and local police are apparently borrowing from one another. In these uprisings, law enforcement is using protest policing to test legal limits, with judges either unwilling or unable to hold them to account. It’s a terrifying and dramatic version of a familiar problem, the one that drove protesters into the streets: This system cannot police its own abuses.