Juniper Simonis was drawing a line in chalk in front of a federal building on a recent Friday in Portland, Oregon, to mark the property’s boundary and thus where they could protest. Then they felt a hand on their elbow.
Simonis, 35, who uses they/them pronouns, was in an area that has been a hotspot for anti-racist and anti-police brutality protests. They were suddenly surrounded by federal officers. Their service dog, needed for their PTSD, was pulled away. They were handcuffed and maced.
“Wallace is like my wheelchair or my insulin pump,” Simonis, a quantitative ecologist, told the Guardian. “Yes, he’s a puppy dog, but I can’t live without him.”
Simonis said it took an hour before they were read their Miranda rights and told they were being charged with spray-painting federal property.
For the next nine hours, they said they were held in a cell in the basement of a federal courthouse, with no potable water. Despite repeatedly requesting a lawyer, they said, they were questioned by federal officers, including a special agent from the Federal Protective Service, the security police division of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
When Simonis was released early on Saturday, they were handed a US district court violation notice that lists their offenses as failure to comply with a lawful order of a police officer and assaulting/impeding/resisting certain officers or employees.
After more than 50 nights of protests in Portland, prompted by the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May, in recent weeks demonstrators in Portland have been met not only by local police officers, but also militarized federal agents deployed by Donald Trump.
On Saturday night, police said protesters broke into the Portland Police Association building, set it on fire and started dumpster fires. The fire was put out, police said. The department declared a riot, and teargas was used, according to pictures and video from the scene.
In a video posted by Zane Sparling, a reporter for the Portland Tribune, a federal officer appeared to be repeatedly hitting with a baton a man standing virtually still.
There have been multiple reports recently of federal agents driving through the city in unmarked vehicles and picking demonstrators off the streets. In one instance, a person was handcuffed by two people in camouflage with “police” patches and taken into an unmarked vehicle.
Simonis said the presence of such federal officers and their own experience being detained makes it clear that the fight to defund the police extends far beyond just the police.
“We can talk about defunding the police, but it’s more than that,” said Simonis. “We need to defund Ice [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], we need to demilitarize our border. There’s so much that’s wrapped up in this.”
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Sunday, Trump tweeted: “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”
Portland mayor Ted Wheeler has repeatedly called on federal officers to stay away. In a tweet on Saturday evening, he announced that he had directed staff who are part of federal agency operations that they “are no longer allowed to co-locate with the police bureau’s incident command”.
“While sharing a space helped facilitate clear communication, based on recent actions by federal law enforcement officers I am not comfortable having them in our space,” said Wheeler.
Lindsey Smith, 26, a pre-school teacher who has been attending protests regularly, said she started noticing federal officers firing teargas into the crowd and detaining and arresting people at the beginning of July.
On three recent occasions, she said, she witnessed people bang on the boarded-up doors of the federal courthouse in downtown Portland. Officers opened a door, grabbed the person and pulled them into the building, before slamming it shut again.
But she said it was important not to let such officers’ actions overshadow the fact that the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has been “extremely violent” to local protesters for much longer.
“This has been going on for months with PPB enacting the same kind of violence that we’re seeing from the feds now,” she said.
Governor Kate Brown said in a recent statement on Twitter that Trump was guilty of “a blatant abuse of power by the federal government” and was looking for a confrontation in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.
Oregon attorney general Ellen Rosenblum filed a lawsuit in federal court on Friday, against DHS, the Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protection Service, alleging their behavior violated state citizens’ right to peacefully protest as well as their due process rights.
A PPB statement on Saturday said police were “committed to supporting peaceful protests and demonstrations”, and repeatedly stressed that federal officers were working “under their own supervision and direction”.
Olivia Katbi Smith, 28, said that when she was out protesting in downtown Portland on Friday night, it was clear city police and federal officers were working together.
“They were doing dispersal in a very coordinated way,” she said. “Just seeing them on the ground, how they operate, there’s no way that they’re not talking to each other.”
When she and her husband left at midnight, they noticed an SUV sitting in an empty parking lot. The pair thought the scene looked odd, so they shone a flashlight into the vehicle. They discovered four men sitting inside, dressed all in camouflage.
“What if four guys in camo jumped out of this car and started chasing us?” she asked. “How do we know they’re federal officers, and not just Proud Boys or fascists just wearing camo? There’s no way for us to know the difference.”