As It Happens·Q&A

'It feels like an invasion,' says Portland protester detained by federal agents

When Mark Pettibone was detained by armed camouflage-clad officers and forced into an unmarked van last week, he says he had no idea what was happening to him.

Trump vows to send more militarized officers to crack down on protests in Democratic-led cities

Federal officers in camouflage uniforms have been deployed to Portland, Ore., amid ongoing protests against police violence. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via The Associated Press)

When Mark Pettibone was detained by armed camouflage-clad officers and forced into an unmarked van last week, he says he had no idea what was happening to him.

Pettibone, 29, is one of several protesters in Portland, Ore., who say they've have been arrested by militarized federal agents in recent weeks. 

The officers were deployed by the Department of Homeland Security to help the Federal Protection Service protect federal buildings and statues from protesters who have been demonstrating against police brutality.

The so-called "rapid deployment teams" have been seen sporting military-style fatigues with the word "Police" on them, but no badge numbers or identifying information. They include members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard, according to the New York Times.

Portland's mayor has called their presence unconstitutional and demanded the federal government remove them from his city.

But DHS and U.S. President Donald Trump have both defended the move, and refused to back down. Trump suggested Monday he may soon deploy more officers to confront protesters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, noting the cities' mayors are "liberal Democrats."

Pettibone spoke to As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue about his encounter with what he calls an occupying force. Here is part of their conversation. 

What does it feel like to be in Portland right now with federal agents cracking down on your city?

It feels like an invasion.

It's odd because during the day, if you were to walk around Portland downtown, even near the justice centre, other than some graffiti, you wouldn't really know that our city was being occupied by these federal agencies.

But then once, you know, evening comes around, a crowd gathers and slowly it turns into what you are seeing in the videos.

The officers come from several federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Police have been using tear gas and batons against protesters. There were clashes again this weekend. Can you tell us, how did you come into contact with federal agents last week?

I was at a protest that started on the 14th and went into the early hours of the 15th, and this was at the justice centre and federal courthouse.

I was heading home around 2:00 [a.m.] with my friend walking back to his car. It had been a relatively uneventful night in terms of clashes with the police and the federal agents. But as we were walking to my friend's car, a van pulled up in front of me and I tried to flee and they tracked me down and threw me into the van.

This was an unmarked van?

This was an unmarked van. What I've heard is that these are rental vans with Florida license plates that the federal agents are using.

Did you know who these people were who pulled up and jumped out of the van at the time?

I had no idea. They didn't say who they were with. There were rumours going around among the protesters that this was happening, and no one really understood who they were. All we knew was that they appeared to be wearing military fatigues and preying on individuals that were away from the larger crowd.

Protesters were saying, you know, "Be careful. Don't veer away from the crowd by yourself because you might get picked up like this."

I had no idea that just, you know, wearing black and walking down the sidewalk on my way home would be grounds for what happened to me.

Mark Pettibone, 29, says people clad in camouflage uniforms leapt out of an unmarked van at about 2 a.m. on Wednesday and detained him. (Submitted by Mark Pettibone)

Did they give you any reason for why they were arresting you?

Absolutely not.

Who did you think they were?

I had no idea. I didn't know who they were until, you know, they brought me into what I would later learn was the federal courthouse.

But once they put me in a cell, I figured, well, this is some form of law enforcement, I would hope.

So what happened when they took you into the van?

They pulled my my beanie over my face and held my hands over my head. One officer patted me down and asked if I had a weapon. I did not have a weapon. And they drove me into a large garage. And there it was kind of a series of facing walls and being patted down more and having my belongings taken.

They took a photo of me with what appeared to be an iPhone and then cuffed my hands and ankles and put me into a cell.

Tear gas fired at demonstrators during a protest in Portland

3 years ago
Duration 4:22
Protests over racism and police brutality have been going on in Portland, Ore., almost daily for over 50 days since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. The Trump administration has deployed federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on the protests.

I imagine this whole journey must have been very scary.

Yeah, it was. It's just such a kind of a cliché image of authoritarianism. And I knew that this is kind of the logical progression of what's been going on, not only in Portland, but kind of around the world. And I just didn't expect it to hit home so, so directly.

And were you released?

Yes, I was released without charges and no record of the abduction.

How long had you been in the cell?

The cell itself was probably about an hour and a half. The entire process was around two hours.

If we let it happen here, it can happen anywhere.- Mark Pettibone, Portland, Ore., protester 

Customs and Border Protection say that they've been looking for suspects who had damaged federal property, who had assaulted some of their officers. That's why they were out making arrests. Were you questioned at any time when you were being held?

They read me my rights and asked if I wanted to waive the rights to answer their questions. And I declined and asked for a lawyer. And at that time, they terminated the interview and left the cell area then came back and released me.

So, no, there were no questions.

The Department of Homeland Security has called protesters "violent anarchists" and suggested that federal forces are needed in Portland to protect property — federal property. What do you make of that explanation?

I think that's a bogus claim. I think what's happening right now is political theatre.

Portland is a strong city full of people with strong convictions, and not always friendly to the current administration. And I think these federal agencies are helping to make an example of Portland, and I think people should be wary of what's happening here, regardless of where they're from, because this is a dangerous precedent that's being set.

This cuts across political aisles. And if we let it happen here, it can happen anywhere.

You describe ... an unmarked police vehicle, pulling up and agents jumping out. The Department of Homeland Security's deputy secretary, Ken Cuccinelli, has told CNN and I'll quote here, that "unmarked police vehicles are so common that it's barely worth discussion." What would you say to Mr. Cuccinelli?

I would respond to that by saying this is not normal, and we cannot normalize what's happening here in Portland.

This is authoritarianism in its most explicit form. And if we kind of brush it off and say this is an everyday activity, then who knows what's going happen next?

What do you think is going to happen next? Protests in Portland have been going on for more than 50 days since George Floyd's killing. Why have they gone on for so long in your city?

Citizens here are kind of ready get out onto the streets when examples of injustices like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's murder occur.

Honestly, I don't know how long this will last. I don't see it stopping anytime soon, particularly now that federal agencies are here and kind of instigating violence.

President Trump has said he's ready to send federal agents to other cities across the United States. What's your advice to protesters there?

My advice to protesters there is to not let it get to the point that it's gotten here. But if it does, you know, stay strong. These are fear tactics. And yes, it was terrifying what happened to me, but I'm going to get back out there.

Resilience is key. I think the hope is in the resilience of these protesters right now. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Edited for length and clarity. 

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