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Justice Dept. explored whether feds could bring charges against Portland, Oregon officials over unrest during protests

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department explored whether it could pursue either criminal or civil rights charges against city officials in Portland, Oregon, after clashes erupted there night after night between law enforcement and demonstrators, a department spokesperson said Thursday.

The revelation that federal officials researched whether they could levy criminal or civil charges against the officials — exploring whether their rhetoric and actions may have helped spur the violence in Portland — underscores the larger Trump administration’s effort to spotlight and crack down on protest-related violence. The majority of the mass police reform demonstrations nationwide have been peaceful.

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For many nights, federal officials were told that Portland police officers were explicitly told not to respond to the federal courthouse as hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside, some throwing bricks, rocks and other projectiles at officers, and not to assist federal officers who were sent to try to quell the unrest.

The department had done research on whether it could pursue the charges, spokesperson Kerri Kupec said. She declined to comment on the status or whether charges would be brought. But bringing criminal civil rights charges against city officials for protest-related violence would likely present an uphill court battle for federal prosecutors.

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Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement it was “ridiculous on its face,” and the Trump administration is trying to distract from its own massive failures on the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

“The administration has made the cynical decision that the suffering of others is politically beneficial, regardless of the cost,” he said. “The people of this city — and throughout the nation — will not be intimidated, and I remain committed to doing my part as mayor to work with local partners to advance racial justice, and address the pandemic and economic challenges facing our community.”

A protester waves an American flag in front of a line of federal agents in Portland, Ore., July 29, 2020.
A protester waves an American flag in front of a line of federal agents in Portland, Ore., July 29, 2020. (Brandon Bell/The New York Times)

Justice Department officials disputed news reports that Attorney General William Barr told prosecutors in the department’s civil rights division to explore whether they could bring charges against Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan for allowing some residents to establish a protest zone this summer.

President Donald Trump has heaped blame for the unrest on Democrats, who are leading the cities where violence has occurred, and tried to focus squarely on pockets of protest-related violence instead of the larger point movement of racial injustice. He has specifically criticized Wheeler, calling him a “wacky Radical Left Do Nothing Democrat Mayor” and has said the city “will never recover with a fool for a Mayor....”

More than 100 people have been arrested in Portland on federal charges related to the unrest in the last few months. The FBI has said it was also shifting the agency’s resources to focus more heavily on violence and federal crimes committed during nearly three months of unrest during nightly racial injustice protests in the city that often end in vandalism, clashes with police and dozens of arrests.

Associated Press Writer Gillian Flaccus contributed to this report from Portland.

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