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Trump Administration Brings Federal Charges Against Portland Protesters

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Nearly a thousand protesters have been arrested in Portland, Ore., following the 100-plus nights of protests since George Floyd's killing. The local district attorney has declined to prosecute at least 500 of them. Now the Trump administration has started bringing new federal charges against protesters, and some say this is going too far. Here's Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Shouting) Stick together.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Many people arrested at protests like this one have seen charges against them dismissed by local district attorney Mike Schmidt. Just after taking office last month, Schmidt declined to prosecute nonviolent crimes at protests that could be seen as stifling First Amendment rights. The result - hundreds of protest-related arrests were dismissed.

MIKE SCHMIDT: I was sending a signal and saying, hey, this is where I'm going to put our resources, to people that are causing harm and violence.

WILSON: Schmidt's policies reflect the values of a lot of Portland area residents. He was elected with nearly 77% of the vote in May.

SCHMIDT: We can actually do damage to the legitimacy of the criminal justice system if we are seen being heavy-handed and potentially chilling legitimate speech that is critical of this very system.

WILSON: The Trump administration sees things differently. And at the end of August, the head of the FBI's field office here, Renn Cannon, said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RENN CANNON: The FBI is going to take a larger role in investigating, you know, these sort of nightly acts of violence.

WILSON: And now for the first time, the FBI and Oregon's U.S. attorney have started charging protesters with federal crimes even if there isn't a clear federal connection to their arrests. Oregon's U.S. Attorney Billy Williams.

BILLY WILLIAMS: We're doing it because we believe in having an impact at ending this violence. We're looking at every tool available.

WILSON: In one case, the FBI says a protester allegedly used a slingshot to strike a Portland firefighter with a ball bearing. In a separate case, a protester threw a helmet at a Portland police officer, hitting the officer who was also wearing a helmet. Those incidents and others like them did not take place on federal property and did not involve threats to federal law enforcement. But federal prosecutors say they can prosecute the cases under so-called civil disorder charges if protesters' actions prevent interstate commerce; in this case, blocking roads. Williams says FBI agents have come through hundreds of arrests by local police looking for possible federal charges.

WILLIAMS: And we continue to look through.

WILSON: So far, federal prosecutors have focused civil disorder charges against those protesting police. They've been used little nationwide since Congress came up with them in 1968. At the time, some pro-segregationist senators wanted to crack down on the civil rights movement.

LISA HAY: It's tragically ironic that the federal government is using this civil disorder statute.

WILSON: Lisa Hay is the federal public defender for the District of Oregon.

HAY: When you look back through the congressional record, it has such racist overtones when it was passed. It's terrible to be using this statute for this kind of protest.

WILSON: Hay represents protesters facing federal civil disorder charges. She argues they go too far and show the federal government ignores state sovereignty.

HAY: So that's where there's a concern, when the federal government steps in and starts prosecuting cases that could be prosecuted in the county. And I don't want to guess on the motivations, but obviously the U.S. attorney reports to Washington, D.C. And the U.S. attorney's office is definitely aggressively prosecuting what they perceive to be federal crimes.

WILSON: More than 100 Portland area local law enforcement officers have been deputized by the U.S. marshals. That gives local police the option to bypass the locally elected district attorney and present cases directly to federal prosecutors. This week, local police said those deputizations are set to last for at least the rest of the year and in some cases even longer.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSK'S "THE REVERIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.