Washington, DC—On July 27, 2020, Protect Democracy, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, and Perkins Coie LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of Don’t Shoot Portland and several Black Lives Matter protesters alleging that federal law enforcement officers are exceeding the limits of their authority in Portland, Oregon.
The complaint alleges that the abusive actions taken by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents and U.S. Marshals against peaceful protesters violate legal limitations on federal law enforcement activities as well as the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. The complaint further alleges that DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf is unlawfully serving in that role, and therefore his orders regarding the Portland deployment are void. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“Thousands of protesters in Portland are engaged in peaceful, creative efforts to defend Black lives and dismantle white supremacy and state violence. But all we see on the news are confrontations with law enforcement and protesters being gassed, maimed, and brutalized,” said Teressa Raiford, the founder of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Portland police have long engaged in aggressive tactics and violence against protesters, and adding federal agents to the mix has done nothing to improve the situation.”
On approximately July 4, federal officers from U.S. Customs & Border Protection, the Federal Protective Service, and the U.S. Marshals Service deployed in Portland purportedly to “protect federal property.” It soon became clear, however, that they had a different mission and were operating pursuant to an administration policy to, in President Trump’s words, “quell” the protests. Federal agents’ actions have gone far beyond permissible law enforcement conduct and are instead aimed at intimidating the protestors because of the views they are advocating. Video footage shows the officers gassing, beating, and kidnapping peaceful protesters – while wearing no badges or name tags and driving unmarked vehicles.
For protester Bev Barnum, the officers’ abuses became a call to action.
“When I saw what was happening on the news, I knew we had to act. As moms, our primary job is to protect those we love. We chose to stand together to protect innocent protesters from abusive government behavior.”
As detailed in recent news reports, the group has been harassed and gassed by federal officers, but that hasn’t stopped them. Ms. Barnum explains, “I fear for my personal safety every night I go out there, but I know that what we’re doing is right, and what the federal agents are doing is wrong.”
The complaint notes that federal law “only permits the deployment of Department of Homeland Security employees as Federal Protective Services officers and agents ‘to the extent necessary to protect [federal] property.’”
Statements from the Trump administration, and the on-the-ground conduct of federal officers, show that the federal government is there to silence protesters, not protect federal property.
“Our clients in Portland are peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. Federal law enforcement should not be attacking these brave women for speaking up for what they believe,” said Deana El-Mallawany, counsel at Protect Democracy. “The intent of the administration’s deployment of federal agents in Portland appears to be to stifle speech the president doesn’t like. It’s important to check this unlawful administration policy now, before it is allowed to spread to other cities across the U.S.,” she added.
The complaint also notes that the administration’s mobilization of federal agents against Black Lives Matter protesters differs significantly from its response to anti-quarantine protesters.
“No one believes for a second that the President would deploy heavily armed federal agents to ‘quell’ and ‘dominate’ protesters if he agreed with their message,” said David A. O’Neil, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton. “In fact, we don’t need to guess: When armed protesters occupied government buildings to oppose pandemic rules, he tweeted his support. That’s viewpoint discrimination—and it’s illegal.”
“The freedom of speech and the right of people to peaceably assemble and make their voices heard is a foundational principle of democracy,” said Holly Martinez, an associate with Perkins Coie. “The use of overly aggressive force and tactics by federal officers, including officers wearing military-style camouflage, against peaceful protesters is a clear violation of constitutional rights which we believe will be firmly upheld in federal court.”
The other plaintiffs in the case are Demetria Hester, Danialle James, Sabrina Cerquera, and Lisa Kipersztok.
Despite the threats to their physical safety, the plaintiffs are committed to continuing the mission of the protests.
“What we’re doing with this lawsuit is protecting the fundamental right to protest, which defines a democracy, so that we can continue to defend Black lives against state-sanctioned violence,” said Ms. Raiford. “Hopefully, it inspires others to do the same.”
The complaint can be found here.
More information about the case is here.
Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP is a premier law firm with market-leading practices, a global perspective and strong New York roots. We deliver effective solutions to our clients’ most important legal challenges, applying clear commercial judgment and a distinctively collaborative approach.
Perkins Coie LLP is a leading international law firm that is known for providing high value, strategic solutions and extraordinary client service on matters vital to our clients’ success. With more than 1,100 lawyers in offices across the United States and Asia, we provide a full array of corporate, commercial litigation, intellectual property and regulatory legal advice to a broad range of clients, including many of the world’s most innovative companies and industry leaders as well as public and not-for-profit organizations.