Marking a major government U-Turn, federal troops have begun to leave the city of Portland. The city has been shaken by over 60 days of protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, resulting in clashes with state and city police enforcement. These had been dwindling until images and videos began to surface of camouflaged, anonymous agents, attacking and arresting protesters, using excessive force, tear-gassing crowds and bundling protesters into unmarked vans. Rather than quelling the unrest, the ensuing protests attracted some of their largest numbers with the appearance of these troops. Oregon Governor, Kate Brown, has since announced that an agreement to begin a “phased-withdrawal” of federal troops had been reached after talks with Vice-President Pence.
“After my discussions with VP Pence and others, the federal government has agreed to withdraw federal officers from Portland,” the Democratic governor said last Wednesday on Twitter. “They have acted as an occupying force and brought violence. Starting tomorrow, all Customs and Border Protection & ICE officers will leave downtown Portland.” Despite these comments, acting Homeland Security Secretary, Chad Wolf, warned that a large police presence is still expected in the city, especially surrounding the state courthouse where protests have been concentrated. He added that such a presence will remain 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 extent to which this supposed pull-out will result in a de-escalation of violence remains unclear. Wolf’s comments continue to demonstrate a hostility reminiscent of previous comments: at the start of the intervention, he threatened Democratic-held city officials on Fox News, stating “if you’re not going to do your job, at some point, we will have to take action to make sure that those communities are safe.” Political commentators have pointed to the use of these tactics as a nod towards authoritarianism, especially as President Trump continues to advocate for the use of Federal forces in cities that have not turned violent. Speaking to the New York Times, Ann Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan, commented that “this is what is alarming about where we are now… There is a way in which he is taking this to the next level.”
The manner in which these federal forces were imposed by the U.S. President reflects a pattern of previous actions and statements that point towards a greater authoritarian hold over the country. Attacks by police-enforcement on largely peaceful protesters, escalated by the use of federal forces in Portland, and a recent plea on Twitter to delay the U.S. election do little to abate such concerns about his administration. The speed with which the Republican party came out in denouncing this move to delay the election also suggests that those who have supported him so strongly over his tenure, may now be distancing themselves from a President who looks to be suffering greatly in the polling in the run up to the election in October.
For now, it appears that the withdrawal has de-escalated the violence in Portland. Reporting from the scene, The Guardian’s Chris McGreal stated that Thursday saw the first night without major incidents, despite protestors shaking fences surrounding the courthouse. However, the Trump Administration’s methods and tone does little to abate wider concerns of the seemingly increasing turn to authoritarian control over the country. Much is still to be seen if he shall make great on his pledge to use federal forces in other cities. As the election looms closer, however, his desperation to bring polling numbers back in his favour may lead to increasingly erratic and extreme measures
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