FBI shifts resources to ongoing unrest in Portland, Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The FBI chief in Portland, Oregon, said Wednesday he is shifting the agency's resources to focus more heavily on crimes committed during nightly racial injustice protests in the city that often end in vandalism, clashes with police and dozens of arrests.

Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon said he is pulling agents from fraud and organized crime teams to focus on acts of violence and federal crimes committed during nearly three months of unrest.

The FBI respects the rights of peaceful protesters to assemble and demonstrate, but problems associated with the protests have created a dangerous and volatile situation, he said.

“We do investigate major threats of violence and federal crimes. And sometimes a major threat of violence is a cumulative threat that happens over a period of time. It starts to have a really negative impact on the community,” Cannon said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“Here in Portland, we’re ... making the assessment that we should be trying to do a little more than we have, because the cumulative effects and the nature of the problem indicate that the community needs help,” Cannon said.

He declined to provide specifics about the number of agents being shifted and did not specify which cases or how many the agency is investigating. The FBI has previously released wanted posters related to two incidents on May 29.

The announcement came as Mayor Ted Wheeler held a news conference to plead with residents to join him in opposing nightly violence that he said has tarnished Portland's reputation as one of the most livable cities in the world. Wheeler said he was meeting with the Portland Police Bureau and the city's business community over the next 36 hours to discuss a way forward.

“We have allowed our proud tradition of progressive protests to be stolen by a few dozen individuals engaged in violence and criminal destruction," Wheeler said. “They’re intent on creating mayhem and attacking and harming people, not just property. That’s a line that we can’t allow our community to cross. Not anymore. Enough is enough.”

Wheeler is being challenged in his bid for a second term as mayor by Sarah Iannarone, who has marched with protesters frequently and who recently stepped up her criticism of his leadership on social media.

Portland has been gripped by nightly protests for nearly three months since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Demonstrators have repeatedly targeted police buildings, police union buildings, city and county offices and federal buildings with vandalism that includes setting fires, spraying graffiti and smashing windows and security cameras.

Some protesters want to eliminate or drastically reduce the city's police budget — saying police prioritize property over Black lives — while the city’s mayor and others in the Black community have decried the violence, saying it is counterproductive.

Police arrested four dozen people over the past two nights as protesters smashed windows and vandalized City Hall and repeatedly set fire to the police union headquarters building, officials said.

Last weekend, protesters clashed violently in downtown streets for several hours with members of a right-wing group that showed up to confront them. Video recorded during the Saturday melee shows one man pointing a gun into the crowd, but no shots were fired.

Cannon declined to say if the FBI was looking into Saturday’s events, but he said his agency does help local, state and federal law enforcement with “threat assessments” in such situations.

Wheeler called the incident “clearly unacceptable."

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump renewed calls to have Gov. Kate Brown and Wheeler call in the state’s National Guard.

“They must stop calling these anarchists and agitators ‘peaceful protestors’. Come back into the real world! The Federal Government is ready to end this problem immediately upon your request,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Brown responded on Twitter to Trump’s demand, calling it “political theater.”

In July, Trump sent agents to protect federal property in downtown Portland, including a courthouse that was a target of protesters.

Crowds grew into the thousands. Agents repeatedly clashed with people over a two-week period, used tear gas and arrested those they said were hurling objects and trying to hurt agents and damage property.

The agents pulled back from a visible presence downtown on July 31, but it’s unclear how many remain in Portland. The Oregon State Police, which took over policing the protests from the federal agents, left last week after the agreed upon two-week monitoring period.


Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus