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Portland Protests De-Escalate As Federal Agents Leave City Streets

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's an uneasy peace between protesters and federal law enforcement in Portland, Ore. The confrontations at the federal courthouse have deescalated over the last week, but acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told a Senate committee today that the federal forces are not ready to leave Portland yet.

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CHAD WOLF: As of today, the full augmented DHS law enforcement posture remains in Portland. They will continue to remain until we are assured that the Hatfield federal courthouse as well as other federal facilities in Portland will no longer be violently attacked.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now with more is Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson. Hi, Conrad.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What is what you're seeing on the ground compared to what we just heard from Secretary Wolf?

WILSON: Well, federal law enforcement sent by President Trump earlier last month remain in the city, but they're not on the streets. Law enforcement officials tell Oregon Public Broadcasting federal officers could start to leave if that delicate peace holds for the next several days. Law enforcement say the most likely agency to leave would be the Border Patrol. Their presence is the most unusual here. The ones who could stay longer are the Federal Protective Service and the U.S. Marshals, groups whose missions include protecting courthouses.

Meanwhile, at the federal courthouse, there's some work already underway cleaning it up. There was a lot of graffiti and broken windows, and there's still a heavy-duty security fence all the way around the courthouse. About 75 people are facing federal charges. And some are very serious, like assaulting officers, others less so.

SHAPIRO: And I understand protests have continued in different parts of the city. Why is that?

WILSON: Yeah, protests haven't stopped. I mean, they're much smaller, down from thousands of people to hundreds. Racial justice protesters say they're angry about the same issues - inequity in policing and a history of racism in the city. Oregon has a shameful history when it comes to racial equality. Laws banned Black people from moving here. Oregon's constitution excluded Black people from owning land. The tensions and anger over police violence are part of that larger legacy.

Some protesters tried to break into a Portland police precinct last night and set a small fire. Portland police and state troopers responded. Our reporter at that protest last night said local police used tear gas for the first time in weeks. We are going on 70 nights of continuous protests in Portland.

SHAPIRO: Let's get back to the federal forces, which the governor had announced were leaving. But they apparently have not left. Why is this such a tenuous situation between federal officials and the demonstrators?

WILSON: A week ago, state police took over as the main presence guarding the federal courthouse. Prior to that, the crowds were much larger, and at times it was a violent and dangerous situation with lots of tear gas. And while protesters have turned out in the last week, the mood has been dramatically different - much calmer, at least outside the federal courthouse. Oregon State Police are one week into what was a two-week agreement to guard the courthouse. And at this point, they're not saying if they're going to extend that.

The law enforcement officials I've spoken with are very pleased and cautiously optimistic. They acknowledge state police stepped into a very difficult situation. At the same time, the protests elsewhere around the city haven't stopped, and there's a sense that federal law enforcement need to be ready if things escalate outside the courthouse again. Some law enforcement say there could be a heightened federal presence through the November election.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's months away. Why would they stay that long?

WILSON: Federal law enforcement has targeted November for a drawdown because they believe the uncertainty of the presidential election could be a huge source of anxiety contributing to protests. Other factors include the global pandemic, high unemployment and, of course, anger about police violence and systemic racism that we saw in cities across the country after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

SHAPIRO: That's Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thank you, Conrad.

WILSON: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.