Portland prepares for US agents to step back from protests

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Federal agents keep demonstrators from advancing during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon police prepared Thursday to take over protecting a federal courthouse in Portland that’s been a target of violent protests, in a deal between the Democratic governor and the Trump administration that aimed to draw down the federal presence and offered hope for a much-needed detente in a city roiled by two months of unrest.

Portland police cleared out a park across from the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse that demonstrators have used as a staging ground, while state troopers headed into downtown Portland in preparation for their first night policing the protests against racial injustice. It's not clear if the move will ease tensions in the liberal city, where people are decrying brutality by law enforcement.

Under the deal announced by Gov. Kate Brown, federal agents sent by President Donald Trump were to begin a phased withdrawal Thursday, with Oregon State Police taking over outside the building. But federal officials have pushed back, saying agents wouldn't leave the city completely but be on standby in case they're needed.

Trump insisted in a tweet that U.S. officers would stay in Portland until the violence was under control.

“If she can’t do it, the Federal Government will do it for her. We will not be leaving until there is safety!” Trump wrote about Brown, saying that she wasn’t doing enough to control the “anarchists & agitators.”

In preparation for the handover, state troopers, the local sheriff and Portland police met and agreed not to use tear gas except in cases where there’s a danger of serious injury or death, Mayor Ted Wheeler said. Federal agents sent to the city in early July have used it nightly as protesters lob rocks, fireworks and other objects.

“The federal officers are using C.S. gas broadly, indiscriminately and nightly,” said Wheeler, using another term for the chemical irritant. “And that is why it is escalating the behavior we’re seeing on the streets rather than deescalating it — and that’s why this must come to an end.”

Wheeler, who himself was gassed when he joined protesters outside the courthouse last week, added that tear gas “as a tactic really isn’t all that effective” because protesters have donned gas masks and often return to the action after recovering for a few minutes. The Democrat also apologized to peaceful demonstrators exposed to tear gas used by Portland police before federal officials arrived.