Chicago warns Trump against sending federal agents as anger over Portland deployment builds

By Mark Guarino, Marissa J. LangKim Bellware and Griff Witte

July 21, 2020 at 7:14 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO — State and city officials on Tuesday pushed back hard against Trump administration plans to deploy federal agents to Chicago, saying they are determined to avoid a repeat of the escalation that has brought swelling crowds and chaotic scenes to the streets of Portland.

The presence of Homeland Security forces in Oregon’s largest city — dubbed “Trump’s troops” by the governor — has inspired protesters to turn out in large numbers, drawing new faces opposed to what they call an assault on local rights.

But with Trump threatening to send in federal agents to combat crime in cities run by “very liberal Democrats” — and with homeland security officials drawing up plans to deploy in Chicago — the standoff appeared poised to expand from the Pacific Northwest to America’s Midwestern hub.

“We’re going to do everything we can to prevent them from coming,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said Tuesday. “And if they do come, we’re going to do everything we can from a legal perspective to get them out.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) was more measured, saying the city would cooperate if federal reinforcements work with existing federal agencies in Chicago. If not, she said, she will fight the deployment in court.

“We welcome actual partnership,” she said in an afternoon news conference. “But we do not welcome dictatorship, we do not welcome authoritarianism, and we do not welcome unconstitutional arrest and detainment of our residents.”

Governors and mayors across the country have reacted with alarm to Trump’s threats. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf called on him to “stop slandering diverse, progressive cities like Oakland in his racist dog whistles and divisive campaign tactics.”

In Portland, Trump administration officials have defended the deployment of agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection as necessary to help defend federal buildings and officers.

“The well-organized mob in Portland has become increasingly aggressive, especially against law enforcement,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday.

But the agents’ presence has been met with condemnation from local officials for tactics they say have included detaining protesters and whisking them away in unmarked vans.

Rather than dampen protests that have been a staple of downtown Portland all summer, since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, the presence of federal agents appears only to have energized them. The crowd on Monday night was the biggest that many longtime activists had seen since June, with a city park and streets around the police force’s boarded-up Justice Center overflowing.

“A lot of new people out here tonight,” observed one activist at the front of the crowd as hundreds cheered. “Next time you come out here, bring a gas mask, goggles. . . . Remember, [the federal agents] bring weapons.”

The crowd included moms in yellow shirts, bike helmets and masks, as well as dads wearing orange and holding signs with messages such as, “defend black lives, defend human rights, defend our city!”

Seasoned protesters decked out in all black — helmets and gas masks hanging from their backpacks or bodies — mingled among newcomers who had arrived with little more than cloth masks over their faces and signs held aloft.

The Department of Homeland Security has not said exactly how many agents have been dispatched to Portland, a city where Trump has said the unrest is “worse than Afghanistan” — a view that matches an overriding theme of his struggling reelection effort.

Federal officers armed with tear gas, stun grenades, pepper spray, rubber bullets and more have fired on crowds of people and made more than two dozen arrests in the area around the federal courthouse since July 4.

Many at the protests this week said they had never attended one before. But watching the images of federal agents in their city persuaded them to act.

“There’s been a call for those of us who are white and able-bodied and can be out here putting our bodies on the line to come protect our community,” said a 39-year-old named Abby, a pair of pink children’s swim goggles pulled up around her bike helmet. “Our community is under threat right now.”

Abby, who like many others declined to give her last name out of fear of being targeted in the federal crackdown, held a sign above her head that she had originally made for a small protest at her 9-year-old daughter’s elementary school

“All mamas were summoned when George Floyd called out for his mama,” it read.

The escalation in Portland is what Chicago officials hope to avoid.

Lightfoot said Tuesday her understanding of federal plans is that additional agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be “plugged into existing agencies that will help manage and suppress” street violence.

In a letter to Trump on Monday, she warned that agents operating outside of locally managed commands would not be welcome, a point she repeated at her Tuesday news conference.

“I don’t put anything past this administration, which is why we will be diligent and why we will be ready. If we have to use the courts to stop them, we will,” she said.

Other Chicago leaders said they were deeply suspicious of Trump’s intentions.

“This is pure political gamesmanship,” said Matt Martin, a member of the city council. “Whether he sends in troops or not, you can’t lose sight of the fact that whatever he does will be driven primarily by what he thinks the political benefits will be and not what is best for the city of Chicago.”

Police union leader John Catanzara, Trump’s primary ally in Chicago, sent the president a letter over the weekend asking him to intervene to address rising crime.

“Mayor Lightfoot has proved to be a complete failure who is either unwilling or unable to maintain law and order here,” he wrote. He told Trump he “proudly and repeatedly” wears Trump gear when he speaks before the council.

But for many residents, the prospect of federal agents on the streets was deeply unnerving.

“My neighbors are scared,” said state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D), who represents a suburban Chicago district. “It feels like something from a dictatorship on the other side of the globe. Not something we’d expect to be happening in our backyard.”

Meanwhile, activists are preparing, with the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter mapping out a protest plan and giving members details about how to deal with clashes on the street.

Aislinn Pulley . . . founder of the Chicago BLM chapter, said she considers what happened in Portland over the weekend “a test case for what [the administration] is planning across the country, and Chicago is the next phase.”

For some in Chicago’s activist community, the confusion over what role federal agents will perform is overshadowed by what they say is a clear attempt to scapegoat protesters for gun violence and civil unrest.

“[Authorities] think us not backing down is us being violent,” said Alycia Kamil, a 19-year-old organizer with the anti-violence group Good Kids Mad City, who used her middle name for safety reasons. “No, us not backing down is us being powerful and showing we have courage.”

In recent days, organizers have protested police funding near Lightfoot’s home and marched through downtown to denounce the plan to deploy federal agents. But in Grant Park on Friday, a group police described as “vigilantes” attempted to topple a statue of Christopher Columbus. Videos from the scene showed protesters pelting police with cans and water bottles, while officers were seen striking people with batons and accosting journalists.

Kamil cited a video in which an officer punched a young woman while she backed away and knocked out a tooth as evidence of the need to keep demonstrating.

“When you go to these protests and see police smacking teeth out of young girls, how can I stay at home and not work toward what we need changed?” Kamil said.

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