Most of the time in conversation, when libertarians warn about masked government agents snatching folks off the street in unmarked vans, people politely change the subject. This past July, reality caught up with our dystopian imaginations.
The Trump administration deployed more than 100 federal law enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Portland, Oregon, to quell weeks of unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The administration claimed it was simply protecting a federal courthouse.
News reports and videos, though, showed something different. First, federal law enforcement officers, many of them from a Customs and Border Protection tactical unit, shot a protester in the head with a nonlethal munition, fracturing his skull. The man was hospitalized and required facial reconstruction surgery. Then videos emerged of anonymous federal agents in camouflage and body armor quite literally abducting protesters off the streets and dragging them into unmarked vehicles. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that one detainee was taken by federal authorities, interrogated, and then released about 90 minutes later with no charges.
The federal government has the authority to protect federal property, of course, but civil liberties groups and legal observers said the operation stretched the legal limits of that authority. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon called the street abductions and detainments "flat-out unconstitutional."
This operation may have been less contentious if Oregon officials had asked for help, but the feds were in Portland despite fierce opposition from local and state politicians. "We do not need or want their help," said Mayor Ted Wheeler.
The response from the Trump administration? Get used to it.
"I don't need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors to do our job," Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the DHS, said in a Fox News interview. "We're going to do that whether they like us there or not."
An August report from the Government Accountability Office found that Wolf and acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli were both illegally appointed to their positions, which makes the Portland operation seem even more authoritarian.
The feds eventually reached an agreement with local officials and stood down. As of early September, there were still nightly clashes between protesters and Portland police. The situation in Portland is serious: Violence and property destruction seem to be escalating. But that's a problem for Portland to solve, not the feds.