In Portland, US federal officers in unmarked vans respond to protests with tear gas

Videos of federal law enforcement officers using unmarked vans were posted online July 15. (Video posted on Twitter)
Videos of federal law enforcement officers using unmarked vans were posted online July 15. (Video posted on Twitter)


Tactical officers from around the United States have been in Portland, Oregon since July 4 to control protests and protect public property. Since they arrived, videos circulated online have shown officers patrolling streets in unmarked vans and using force to disperse protesters in the city. Unrest in Portland has been ongoing since late May when outrage following the death of George Floyd inspired protests across the United States. The recent federal response has received criticism for escalating tensions.

The US Department of Homeland Security sent federal law enforcement officers, including those from tactical teams, to Portland following an executive order signed by President Trump aimed at protecting public monuments from vandalism during ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

Videos have been spread on the Internet showing clashes between law enforcement and protesters, featuring federal officers deploying crowd-control tactics such as tear gas and flashbangs. The officers, who are dressed in tactical attire, are also seen getting in and out of unmarked minivans. 

On Thursday, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported the story of a protester who was taken into custody by federal officers in an unmarked van, driven to a courthouse, put into a cell, and then released.  

The video below shows two officers in helmets and tactical gear walking up to a protester and bringing them into an unmarked van. The officers do not identify themselves as law enforcement, give a reason for the arrest, or read the protester their rights. The witness filming the video repeatedly asks the officers what they are doing, but receives no response. In Oregon, federal law enforcement is authorised to make arrests, but the officer must inform the person of their federal authority, give the reason for the arrest, and take the person to an Oregon authority without unnecessary delay. 

Another video shows similarly dressed officers getting into a van on Main St. in Downtown Portland and driving off.



“There was a lot of fear. When people get arrested by federal officers, they're held for days, maybe weeks.”

Garrison Davis has been covering the protests in Portland since they began in late May. According to the Associated Press, federal law enforcement officers from at least six different departments were sent to Seattle, Portland, and Washington, D.C. to protect public property during protests in early July. 

Davis said that violence during the protests escalated after the night of July 11, when a federal officer severely wounded a protester using a less-lethal crowd control device. The shot caused face and skull fractures in the protester, who required reconstructive surgery. The incident is currently under investigation by federal authorities. 

The 11th is when federal officers responded by themselves, they did not initially have the Portland Police Bureau with them. At the start of the night, they gassed the park in front of the federal courthouse just to clear it out, the park was still open. At this point, a federal officer shot a young man in the head. He was bleeding all over the sidewalk, he had to go to the hospital. That was the beginning of the night. They teargassed the park three separate times afterwards. Finally, at 2am that’s when the Portland Police Bureau showed up and decided to close the park. So before that, it was just federal officers standing there with assault rifles and just throwing tons of gas at the crowd, arresting people.

Since then, federal agents have used tear gas in Portland nightly. Portland police are banned from using tear gas except in situations that police declare to be a riot, where public and police safety is threatened. Federal officers, however, are authorised to use the chemical agent and other tactics to control crowds.

On July 15, rumours of officers detaining protesters from unmarked vans began circulating among those demonstrating.

This video shows two unmarked vans similar to those used by federal authorities in other videos. The vehicles are entering the Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. 


None of these officers ever identified themselves – very few identifying patches. There were some people who never really got a good look at them, really. We thought, ‘Oh, what if these are actually officers that are militia like what happened in the Midwest last month?’ But you could see that their equipment was too good to be just a random militia. They had all the bells and whistles. There was a lot of fear about them not actually being law enforcement. 

There was a lot of fear. When people get arrested by federal officers, they're held for days, maybe weeks. Usually, when you're asked by the police at these protests, you're out by the next morning. The charges are much worse when you're arrested by a federal person, even if you're just doing the same thing, including just standing on the street. So the fear is related to not knowing who these people are, not knowing what’s going to happen to you if you’re arrested, when will you see your friend again?

I think a lot of people aren’t really prepared to see that actually happening in the States right now. People protesting the government then just getting grabbed off the street.

Oregon politicians have accused federal officers of escalating violence during the protests and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called the tactics used by federal agents “life-threatening,” imploring officers to “stay inside their building, or leave Portland altogether".

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to our request for comments on the tactics their officers have used in Portland, or their use of unmarked vans. However, they released a statement on July 16 condemning the actions of “violent anarchists” in Portland. 

Article by Pariesa Young