Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf testified in Congress Thursday and defended President Donald Trump’s decision to send federal police to cities experiencing mass civil rights protests.
The president sent federal officers to multiple cities including Seattle and Portland, Ore., after weeks of protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Government forces relinquished control of the federal courthouse in Portland last week after more than 60 nights of demonstrations. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had called them an “occupying force” that “brought violence and strife to our community.”
In his appearance before the Senate homeland security committee Thursday, Wolf rejected Brown’s classification.
“Our law enforcement officers are not the Gestapo, storm troopers or thugs,” he said, adding that a “full, augmented federal force” remains in Portland on standby.
Wolf cited as support for the deployment instigators who he said attacked federal officers nightly, and accused local and state officials of failing to guard government properties.
Local officials have said federal forces weren’t wanted and accused them of fueling violence by clashing with activists, observers and media on a regular basis.
“Enforcing federal law is not by invitation,” Wolf answered. “We continued to ask local and state police to help and get involved . . . If violence is directed [at the federal courthouse]. They would not engage, they would not make arrests.”
Wolf added that there’s been a “noticeable decrease” in violence toward Portland’s federal courthouse in recent days, but there’s still potentially harmful unrest. He added that nearly 300 federal officers have been injured protecting the courthouse and several received permanent eye damage after being attacked with various weapons.
Activists, including Bev Barnum, an organizer of the Wall of Moms, have said protesters similarly have been targeted by officers.
A lawsuit last month accused federal police of exceeding their authority. In particular, it says they have tear-gassed, unlawfully detained and injured peaceful protesters.
At Thursday’s hearing, Republicans drew attention to vandalism and Democrats focused on excessive police force.
“When you do nothing to stop riots, you unleash anarchy, and when you encourage criminals that unleash anarchy, people die,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the committee’s ranking member, said the unrest did warrant a response, but said federal officials have failed to do the same with violence and threats from white supremacy groups.
The Trump administration said last month federal forces would also be sent to Chicago, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee as part of Operation Legend to “fight violent crime.”
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