SEATTLE — Days after a legal effort by the state of Oregon failed, protesters sued the Trump administration Monday to rein in what they describe as an out-of-control response by federal agents to demonstrations in Portland.
The nonprofit Protect Democracy filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of several individual protesters as well as the anti-racist organization Don't Shoot Portland and Wall of Moms, a group of mothers who have sought to insert themselves between protesters and police despite being blasted with tear gas.
The complaint argues that while federal law allows federal officials to protect federal property, the heavily militarized agents who have responded in Portland have gone far beyond simply protecting property. Instead, it said, they have repeatedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades at the crowds in an effort to quell the protests in violation of the Constitution.
“The intent of the administration’s deployment of federal agents in Portland appears to be to stifle speech the president doesn’t like," Protect Democracy lawyer Deana El-Mallawany said in a news release. "It’s important to check this unlawful administration policy now, before it is allowed to spread to other cities across the U.S."
The complaint accuses President Donald Trump of trying to create a federal domestic police force. Trump has announced he will also send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to fight rising crime, despite objections from leaders there.
Portland has had nightly protests for two months since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Trump said he sent federal agents to Portland to halt the unrest, but state and local officials said their presence has inflamed tensions and they have asked them to leave.
A small segment of the demonstrators have shot large fireworks or thrown other projectiles over a fence protecting the federal courthouse. Several agents were injured over the weekend, including one who suffered burns, authorities said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.
“These are attacks on federal officers protecting fed property,” acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli tweeted Monday. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is willfully ignoring the facts or lying.”
The state attorney general had sued the federal government in an effort to restrict the federal response, saying some people had been whisked off the streets in unmarked vehicles without probable cause. U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ruled Friday the state lacked standing to sue on behalf of protesters.
Lawsuits have also been filed on behalf of journalists and legal observers and on behalf of medics who have treated injured protesters. U.S. District Judge Michael Simon has ordered the agents not to target or disperse journalists or legal observers at the protests. The federal government is due to respond Tuesday to the lawsuit on behalf of the medics.
Federal judges in Portland, Denver and Seattle have previously restricted the use of tear gas and other less-lethal munitions on protesters by local police.
Protect Democracy's lawsuit argues that the administration's response violates the free speech and assembly rights of the protesters, as well as the rights to due process and to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. It argues that because the federal agents at times have driven the demonstrators several blocks from the courthouse or made arrests far from it, the notion that they are simply protecting federal property is a pretext.