Clouds of tear gas have choked downtown Portland night after night this month as Trump administration security forces clad in military garb sought to forcibly disperse protesters outside the federal courthouse.
The crackdown has produced some of the most searing images of Donald Trump’s presidency: mothers, linked arm-in-arm, being tear-gassed; a Navy veteran beaten with a baton, a peaceful protester whisked away in an unmarked car by federal agents in camouflage gear.
For US voters, the chaotic scenes will serve as a Rorschach test as they decide whether Mr Trump deserves a second term. Trailing his Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the polls, the president hopes Americans viewing the events in Portland will see him as the candidate of law and order.
“Right now, it’s his strongest electoral play,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican political strategist. He argued that some voters might give Mr Trump credit for cracking down on demonstrations where violence occurs, even if his actions inflamed the protests.
“He can’t talk about what he has done to stop Covid. He can’t really talk about how the economy is in good shape. But what he can do is try to allay fears that a lot of citizens have about violence in the streets,” Mr Heye said.
The clashes in Portland have intensified since Mr Trump sent more than 100 Department of Homeland Security and US Marshals Service officers into the city over the objections of local and state leaders.
Mothers raise their fists during a protest against racial inequality in Portland © Caitlin Ochs/Reuters
Trump administration officials have insisted the surge of forces is needed to protect the federal courthouse in Portland. Residents in the majority-white city, which has a reputation for progressive politics and a long tradition of vocal protest, have reacted with outrage, but also deep suspicion at what may come next
“I feel like we’re kind of like a test zone,” said Molly Muldoon, a Portland native. “If it works here, they can do it in other places.”
On Wednesday, Mr Trump announced hundreds more federal agents would be sent into Democratic-run cities such as Chicago, this time to combat rising murder rates, as he made inflammatory allegations that local officials had unleashed a “rampage of violence”.
“In recent weeks, there has been a radical movement to defund, dismantle, and dissolve our police departments. Extreme politicians have joined this anti-police crusade and relentlessly vilified our law enforcement heroes,” he said at a White House press conference.
Black Lives Matter protesters are dispersed by federal agents outside the Mark O Hatfield US courthouse © Noah Berger/AP
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said: “It’s the same ‘American carnage’, culture war messaging that energised his supporters so much in 2016.”
But he added: “It’s difficult to understand how sending federal agents into cities over the objection of the local authorities is going to expand his coalition as opposed to simply reinforcing the people already in his corner.”
In Portland, in the US north-west, protests have continued without interruption for almost two months as part of the nationwide unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Though the demonstrations dwindled for a time, the action of federal forces since early July has pulled protesters back on to the streets.
In the daytime, much of Portland remains peaceful. But at night demonstrators descend on the heavily graffitied Mark O Hatfield US courthouse, to be met by federal forces holed up in the building.
The Department of Justice provided details on the crackdown in a court filing this week, responding to one of several lawsuits challenging the actions of federal forces in Portland. It said more than 100 officers had been deployed to the city, including the US marshals and units from the Department of Homeland Security, an agency formed after 9/11 whose responsibilities include protecting federal properties in the US.
Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the DHS, has defended the deployment as necessary to protect the courthouse. “If we left tomorrow, they would burn that building down,” he said this week.
Portland mayor Ted Wheeler wipes his face after being exposed to tear gas on Wednesday © Nathan Howard/Getty
Among the DHS forces sent to Portland is the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as Bortac. “They were formed to fight heavily armed narco-terrorists on the south-west border,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a former DHS official now at the R Street Institute.
“Sending Bortac to the streets of Portland is nonsensical . . . almost all of this is so far out of bounds as to be beyond the pale,” he added.
The first head of the DHS, Tom Ridge, who was appointed by George W Bush, has also criticised the deployment of the department’s forces.
“The department was established to protect America from the ever-present threat of global terrorism. It was not established to be the president’s personal militia,” he said this week in an interview with Michael Smerconish.
“It would be a cold day in hell before I would consent to an unilateral, uninvited intervention into one of my cities,” added Mr Ridge, who is also a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, the inspectors-general for the DoJ and DHS said they would investigate the use of force by their agencies in Portland. The Portland US attorney, Billy Williams, had previously called for an investigation into the use of unmarked cars to arrest protesters.
The Department of Defense also appeared to distance itself this week, insisting that no military units had been deployed, despite the military-style garb worn by the federal officers. “We want a system where people can tell the difference,” said Jonathan Hoffman, department spokesman, on Tuesday.
The events have carried echoes of Mr Trump’s actions in Washington this year, when a largely peaceful protest outside the White House was forcibly cleared, allowing the president to walk to a nearby church to pose for photographs holding a Bible.
“This isn’t an attempt to bring order, it’s an attempt to create disorder,” said Thom Hartmann, a prominent progressive radio host in Portland. “It’s very clear, and it’s coming to a town near you.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson