A Senate Judiciary committee hearing on Tuesday discussed the use of federal force against Black Lives Matter protests and indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray that targeted nonviolent demonstrators and journalists.
The hearing highlighted the ideological chasm between Republicans who have accused protesters and Democrats of aligning with “terrorists” who have vandalised buildings and antagonised law enforcement, despite an overwhelming “peaceful” majority of millions of demonstrators across the US, and Democrats who argue that Republicans have enabled the president’s fear-mongering and authoritarian impulse to use force against them.
“I agree there’s a serious danger to American constitutional rights at this moment in history,” Mr Wyden said. “It’s caused to a great extent by the president and his enablers who are calling peaceful protesters anarchists and terrorists, and sending paramilitary forces into American cities.”
Texas Republican and committee chair Ted Cruz, who sought to draw attention to “antifa“ violence against police, echoed the administration’s vision of a nation under siege by organised left-wing domestic terrorists, despite arrest data and federal prosecutions showing that it’s far-right extremist violence that presents a violent threat to the US.
Mr Wyden accused the administration’s attacks against protesters as attempts to “paper over the murders and vandalism committed by far-right domestic terrorists” and distract attention away from a “nationwide call for justice” in the wake of police killings of black Americans that galvanised mass demonstrations that have been ongoing since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“This argument that Americans exercising their right to peaceful protest are anarchists, terrorists and agitators is bad-faith nonsense,” Mr Wyden said. “Why make these baseless conspiratorial accusations and send in the secret police? Donald Trump sent in the secret police to create images of chaos for political gain, to air in campaign ads and provide a basis for bad-faith discussion.”
Mr Wyden, a first generation Americans whose parents fled Nazi Germany, asked whether Americans believe “the real threat” to constitutional rights to speech and assembly is “Oregonians who gathered in my hometown in overwhelmingly peaceful protests for racial justice” or “heavily armed secret police who snatched Portlanders off the streets into unarmed vans and interrogated them without justification or charges”.
“Is it the peacefully gathered protesters who raised their hands in the air and sang the words ‘hands up please don’t shoot’ to the tune of a lullaby?” he asked. “Or is it a duplicitous president who called Oregonians professional anarchists, professional agitators, people who hate our home country, and called my hometown a beehive of terrorists?”
On 29 July, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced that the Department of Homeland Security had agreed to withdraw federal officers from the city, where they served as an “occupying force and brought violence,” she said.
DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, however, characterised the gradual withdrawal in less certain terms, announcing that the department will “continue to re-evaluate” the city’s efforts before officers leave.
He said that the agency will “continue to maintain our current, augmented federal law enforcement personnel in Portland until we are assured that the Hatfield Federal Courthouse and other federal properties will no longer be attacked and that the seat of justice in Portland will remain secure.”
The president dismissed the withdrawal and threatened to send National Guard troops to Portland.
Last week, DHS had reassigned an intelligence official following revelations that his office compiled “intelligence reports” on journalists and analysed communications between protesters amid ongoing demonstrations in Portland.
The DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis reportedly sent open source intelligence reports to federal law enforcement agencies containing information from two reporters who had published leaked unclassified government documents while covering Black Lives Matter protests.
Secretary Wolf directed the office to “immediately discontinue collecting information involving members of the press” after learning about the reports, according to a 31 July statement from spokesman Alexei Woltornist.
“In no way does the acting secretary condone this practise and he has immediately ordered an inquiry into the matter,” he said. “The acting secretary is committed to ensuring that all DHS personnel uphold the principles of professionalism, impartiality and respect for civil rights and civil liberties, particularly as it relates to the exercise of First Amendment rights.
An intelligence report obtained by The Nation revealed that DHS has been targeting ”antifa” activists by attempting to tie them to foreign powers, a distinction that could subject them to warrantless searches and surveillance.