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Police blocked from arresting observers in Portland protests

A protester extinguishes a fire set by fellow protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Following a larger Black Lives Matter Rally, several hundred demonstrators faced off against federal officers at the courthouse. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A federal judge specifically blocked U.S. agents from arresting or using physical force against journalists and legal observers at the ongoing Portland, Oregon, protests that have sparked confrontations between local officials and President Donald Trump over the limits of federal power.

U.S. Judge Michael Simon made his ruling late Thursday, a day after Portland’s mayor was tear-gassed by federal agents as he made an appearance outside a federal courthouse during raucous demonstrations. Protesters have gathered in Oregon’s largest city for nearly two months straight since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.

A large crowd of demonstrators were out again Thursday night, chanting and holding signs near the federal courthouse.

Simon had previously ruled that journalists and legal observers are exempt from police orders requiring protesters to disperse once an unlawful assembly has been declared. Federal lawyers intervened, saying journalists should have to leave when ordered.

“This order is a victory for the rule of law,” Jann Carson, ACLU of Oregon’s interim executive director, said in a statement.

The judge said objections by law enforcement were outweighed by First Amendment concerns.

“None of the government’s proffered interests outweigh the public’s interest in accurate and timely information about how law enforcement is treating” protesters, he wrote.

Simon’s order is in effect for 14 days. Journalists and observers must wear clear identification, he said. A freelance photographer covering the protests for The Associated Press submitted an affidavit that he was beaten with batons and hit with chemical irritants and rubber bullets this week.

The ACLU lawsuit is one of several filed in response to law enforcement actions during the protests. The state of Oregon is seeking an order limiting federal agents’ arrest powers during the demonstrations.

On Wednesday, Mayor Ted Wheeler and hundreds of others were objecting to the presence of federal police sent by Trump, who labeled the demonstrators as “agitators & anarchists” after Wheeler was gassed.

Wheeler, a Democrat, appeared slightly dazed and coughed and said it was the first time he’d been tear-gassed.

He put on a pair of goggles someone handed him and drank water but did not leave his spot at the front of the raging demonstration — with protesters lighting a large fire between protective fencing and the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse amid the pop-pop-pop sounds of the federal agents deploying tear gas and stun grenades into the crowd.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the agents knew Wheeler, a 57-year-old sixth-generation Oregonian and longtime politician, was among those in the crowd when they used the tear gas.

Earlier in the night, Wheeler was mostly jeered by protesters as he tried to rally the demonstrators who have clashed nightly with federal agents. But they briefly applauded when he shouted “Black Lives Matter” and pumped his fist in the air.

Trump in his tweet attempted to ridicule Wheeler, calling him the “Radical Left Mayor of Portland, who last night was booed & shouted out of existence by the agitators & anarchists.”

Wheeler has opposed federal agents’ presence in Oregon’s largest city but has also faced harsh criticism from the protesters, who yelled and swore at him.

The Justice Department’s inspector general said Thursday it will review the conduct of federal agents who responded to unrest in Portland and in Washington, D.C., after concerns emerged from members of Congress and the public.

Wheeler has been accused by critics including city council members of not reining in local police who used tear gas multiple times on protesters before federal agents arrived early this month in response to nearly two months of nightly protests since George Floyd was killed. And city business leaders have condemned Wheeler for not bringing the situation under control before the agents showed up.

Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf denied that federal agents were inflaming the situation in Portland. He told “CBS This Morning” that Wheeler legitimized criminality in the city by going to the front of the crowd of demonstrators where the fires were lit. He said people were trying to pull down a fence erected to shield the federal courthouse.

Wheeler did not participate in lighting any of the fires or attempting to tear down the fence and was surrounded by his security team when he was gassed.

Police said the crowd threw Molotov cocktails, lit fires in a park and in trash cans and released hundreds of gallons of water from fire hydrants.

Wheeler’s appearance in the protest zone came hours after state attorneys for Oregon urged a judge to issue a restraining order against agents deployed to tamp down on the protests.

The arguments were made in a lawsuit filed by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who accused federal agents of arresting protesters without probable cause, whisking them away in unmarked cars and using excessive force. Federal authorities have disputed those allegations.

The court hearing focused on the actions of the more than 100 federal agents responding to protests outside the Portland courthouse.

The motion asks U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman to command agents from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Protective Service and U.S. Marshals Service to immediately stop detaining protesters without probable cause, identify themselves and their agency before arresting anyone, and explain why an arrest is taking place.