Merkley: Federal presence at protests making 'situation worse'
As the acting U.S. homeland security secretary visited Portland, which Chad Wolf described as "under siege," U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says President Trump and federal officers dispatched to Portland are increasing tensions.
"The attitude of President Trump is that he is going to send people to Oregon to take care of things," the Oregon Democrat said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. "If 'take care of things' means to assault peaceful protesters, like he took care of things in Lafayette Park, it will make the situation far worse."
His reference was to U.S. Park Service officers ejecting demonstrators June 1 from Lafayette Park, just north of the White House in Washington, D.C., so that Trump could walk from there to St. John's Church to display a copy of the Bible for news photographers.
Merkley spoke to reporters before he conducted a virtual town hall meeting with Multnomah County residents — his 11th digital meeting of the year and the 34th of 36 county meetings he has annually. The question about the federal presence also came up during the meeting.
Merkley co-signed a letter with Sen. Ron Wyden and Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici after Donavan La Bella, 26, was shot in the head by federal officers with a less-lethal rubber bullet during a protest on Saturday, July 11. LaBella underwent facial reconstructive surgery after he suffered a skull fracture.
Merkley said he had just concluded a call with Derrick Driscoll, the acting deputy director of the U.S. Marshals Service — part of the Department of Justice — and said he came away "completely infuriated."
"I am very concerned that I have seen these pictures (of federal officers) with no ID who are on the streets with camouflage and military-style equipment," he said. "Who are they? Were those U.S. marshals? What organization were they from? How many of them were on the street? Do their protocols allow them to shoot peaceful protesters with rubber bullets? I could get no answers.
"If they cannot be transparent with the public about their role and what they are doing, they should not be here at all. They are probably making the situation worse, rather than better."
Merkley said Driscoll would not discuss how the marshals are coordinating with Portland police — if at all — but promised someone would be designated as a liaison with police. Merkley said he got the impression that they are under a directive to do "whatever is needed" to defend federal buildings.
"They see no boundaries on the way they act or who they are accountable to," Merkley said. "I do not know if there is any way for them to reform themselves in a way to work effectively."
NOTE: Corrects day of Wolf's visit to Portland.
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