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Order Temporarily Blocks Feds From Targeting Press And Legal Observers In Portland

Federal officers walk through tear gas while dispersing a crowd during a July 21 protest in Portland, Ore. A temporary restraining order on Thursday blocked federal agents from knowingly targeting journalists and legal observers.
Nathan Howard
Getty Images
Federal officers walk through tear gas while dispersing a crowd during a July 21 protest in Portland, Ore. A temporary restraining order on Thursday blocked federal agents from knowingly targeting journalists and legal observers.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked federal law enforcement officers deployed to Portland, Ore., from targeting journalists and legal observers at the protests against police violence and racial injustice that have intensified in recent days.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon issued a restraining order Thursday preventing federal agents from "arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force" directed at anyone they know to be a journalist or legal observer, unless they have probable cause to believe they have committed a crime.

The order also blocks the defendants from seizing any photographic, audio and video recording equipment and press passes from people in those two categories, as well as from ordering them to stop recording or observing a protest.

It took effect at 5 p.m. on Thursday and will last for 14 days.

The order comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, on behalf of a group of legal observers and local journalists.

They wrote that they were seeking to stop local and federal defendants from attempting to intimidate the press and "assaulting news reporters, photographers, legal observers, and other neutrals who are documenting the police's violent response to protests over the murder of George Floyd."

The order details several examples of journalists, identifiable by press passes, clothing and gear, being fired upon, pepper sprayed and hit with batons by federal agents. They described being shot with pepper balls and what are identified as "less lethal munitions."

In one instance, Noah Berger, a photojournalist of 25 years on assignment for the Associated Press, describes being attacked repeatedly by federal agents with batons and pepper spray, even as he was clearly not participating in the protest and, in a later incident, leaving the area.

The order also detailed the story of photojournalist Jungho Kim, who has covered protests in California and Hong Kong and has experience "distinguishing himself from a protester." Kim was recording protesters on the scene when federal agents pushed them away from the area.

"He was around 30 feet away from federal agents, standing still, taking pictures, with no one around him," reads the order. "He asserts that suddenly and without warning, he was shot in the chest just below his heart with a less lethal munition. Because he was wearing a ballistic vest, he was uninjured. He also witnessed, and photographed, federal agents firing munitions into a group of press and legal observers."

Thursday's order adds the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service, the federal defendants, to an existing injunction that bars Portland police from arresting or attacking journalists and legal observers at protests.

"This order is a victory for the rule of law," said Jann Carson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. "Federal agents from Trump's Departments of Homeland Security and Justice are terrorizing the community, threatening lives, and relentlessly attacking journalists and legal observers documenting protests. These are the actions of a tyrant, and they have no place anywhere in America."

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday evening.

In a Thursday press release describing the situation in Portland, the department said federal law enforcement officers are working "diligently and honorably" to enforce federal law by defending federal property and the lives of fellow officers against "violent anarchists" rioting in the streets.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service deployed officers earlier this month to guard federal buildings in Portland, where demonstrators have taken to the streets for more than 50 consecutive days to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

Since then, federal agents have come under fire for attacking and detaining protesters, in some cases using unmarked vehicles and failing to identify themselves while taking individuals into custody.

On Wednesday night, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was among a crowd of protesters that federal agents tear gassed.

State and local leaders have said that the presence, and violence, of federal agents in the city have worsened a situation that was tense to begin with.

"There's absolutely no question that by having the presence of federal officers here, it's simply like adding gasoline to a fire," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told NPR on Sunday.

In his order, Simon called the federal agents' actions "part of a pattern of officially sanctioned conduct," and said they would continue to target journalists and legal observers without an injunction.

"The threatened future harm is not speculative or hypothetical," he wrote.

Other groups are seeking to put an end to the presence of federal law enforcement in Portland and elsewhere.

The mayors of more than a dozen cities sent President Trump a letter this week, calling on his administration to withdraw federal agents. The ACLU of Oregon filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the DHS, U.S. Marshals Service and the city of Portland for attacking volunteer street medics.

And the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General on Thursday announced an investigation into allegations that DOJ law enforcement personnel have improperly used force in responding to protests in Portland and Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.