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Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler Wants Federal Agents Removed From His City

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Police in Portland, Ore., declared the ongoing protests there a riot overnight after the Portland Police Association building was set on fire and exits to government buildings were blocked. Police told protesters they would risk being arrested if they did not clear the streets.

For more than 50 nights, hundreds have been gathering in the city's downtown to protest racial inequality and police brutality. Last week, federal agents dressed in camouflage and tactical gear took to the streets unleashing tear gas, beating protesters bloody and pulling people into unmarked vans. The state of Oregon is now suing several federal agencies, citing civil rights violations.

Portland's Mayor Ted Wheeler called the actions an attack on democracy and has demanded that the Trump administration remove the federal agents from his city. I asked him if he's heard back.

TED WHEELER: The only response has been from the interim secretary of Homeland Security, and he's basically told us to stuff it. The problem we're experiencing here is we have an already heightened situation. It's already tense. But after nearly five weeks of demonstrations, we are starting to see that small handful of people who were engaged in criminal activity - it was dissipating. It was calming down. We believed a week ago it would be over by this weekend. But what happened instead is the feds stepped in with a very heavy-handed approach, and it blew the lid off the whole thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mayor, acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli spoke to NPR Friday night, and he said that you, quote, "hold back" your law enforcement, preventing them from using certain nonlethal tactics. He cited 49 straight days of violence and destruction as justification for deploying federal agents. Are those accurate descriptions of your actions and what's unfolding on the streets of your city?

WHEELER: No. Again, it's rhetoric. It's the kind of escalating rhetoric we've seen from Donald Trump and the White House. And he sent in the troops despite the fact that the governor, our two United States senators, myself as mayor and others have said we don't need them, and we don't want them. My residents don't know who a federal officer is or a local police officer or a county deputy or a state patroller. They don't know, and they don't care. It's all the same to them.

On Friday night, after the federal police started gassing people, about 300 people came to my house and wanted to know why I allowed our police officers to gas people, which, of course, I didn't, and they didn't. But there's - it's a distinction without a difference in the eyes of the public, and I believe the president and his people know that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the police in your city has also been criticized.

WHEELER: Yeah. There's no question that, in nearly seven weeks of nightly demonstrations, the police have done many things right, and they've done some things wrong as well. But the difference between local and federal law enforcement is that we have clear policies, clear directives. We have a complaint process. We have an independent accountability and review system.

With the federal government, they won't even identify who they are. We don't know why they're here. We don't know the circumstances under which they're making arrests. We don't know what their policies are or what accountability mechanisms there are, to the point where even the U.S. attorney here in the state of Oregon is calling for an investigation, wondering, where was the probable cause to pull these people off the streets into unmarked cars?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cuccinelli also said that this is a tactic that the federal government intends to continue not just in Portland - and this is a quote - but in any of the facilities that we're responsible for around the country. Are you in communication with other mayors about this?

WHEELER: Yes, I am. And what I can tell you is that this is coordinated by the administration. It appears to be a blatant abuse of police authority by the Trump administration. As best as I can tell, this is an effort - a last-gasp effort by a failed president with sagging polling data who's trying to look strong for his base, and so he is actually using the federal police function in support of his candidacy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WHEELER: Thank you. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.