Early this past Wednesday morning, Mark Pettibone and Connor O’Shead were walking on their way home after a peaceful protest in Portland, Ore.
Suddenly an unmarked van pulled in front of them. Men wearing green uniforms, tactical gear and generic signs reading “POLICE” hustled them into the vehicle. They were not told why they were being detained. After 90 minutes, the badly shaken men were released without being charged.
The episode might sound like the activities of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his “little green men” who have shown up in places like Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to intimidate and detain people.
But this was Portland, a progressive city that has seen protests for weeks. President Donald Trump has urged federal authorities to move in on cities to restore his sense of order even though city officials in Portland do not want his help and are investigating what is going on.
And, guess who is playing a role in what could be a growing national trend of federal law enforcement performing “snatch and grabs” of innocent protestors?
That would be Kenneth Cuccinelli, the former hard right, state attorney general and failed gubernatorial candidate. He is now acting deputy secretary of the Trump’s Department of Homeland Security.
Cuccinelli may be remembered for angering Virginia women by pushing for mandatory womb ultra-sounds before abortions. He pushed covering up the exposed breast of a woman on the state flag. Worst of all, he harassed former University of Virginia climate professor Michael Mann and demanded hundreds of his emails and other documents because Cuccinelli didn’t agree with his research.
After the Portland episode, Cuccinelli told National Public Radio that federal agents had used unmarked vehicles to pick up people in Portland but said it was done to keep officers safe and away from crowds and to move detainees to a “safe location for questioning.”
“The one instance I’m familiar with, they were, believed they had identified someone who had assaulted officers or … the federal building there, the courthouse. Upon questioning, they determined they did not have the right person and that person was released,” Cuccinelli said.
“I fully expect that as long as people continue to be violent and to destroy property that we will attempt to identify those folks,” he added. “We will pick them up in front of the courthouse. If we spot them elsewhere, we will pick them up elsewhere. And if we have a question about somebody’s identity, like the first example I noted to you, after questioning determine it isn’t someone of interest, then they get released. And that’s standard law enforcement procedure, and it’s going to continue as long as the violence continues.”
Some of the federal officers involved in the “snatch and grabs” are believed to be Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of Cuccinelli’s department that are best known for their work in confronting, if not assaulting, suspected undocumented immigrants.
CBP officials acknowledged that at least in one case, they approached a person suspected of damaging federal property, but were turned away by an angry crowd, NPR reported. The customs officials say that the officers’ uniforms were clearly marked.
There have been calls in Congress for federal officers to wear insignias that clearly designate what their agency is. In some cases, protestors or simply people who happened by have been arrested by individuals dressed in military style clothing and carrying weapons, including assault rifles. But the detainees did not know who they were.
That could be an explosive situation because hard-right, white supremacists tend to head for trouble at demonstrations heavily armed and in combat dress.
There has been a national outcry about what happened in Portland. No wonder.
Personally, it reminds me of my experience reporting from the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, KGB officials often whisked away protestors drawing attention to the plight of Jewish refuseniks and others.
Later, as unrest swept the country during coups against Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, new divisions of Ministry of Internal Affairs police and military were formed. They were dubbed OMONs or riot cops. Some were clearly marked; others were not. They even can a mechanized, motorized element known as OMSDONGS.
One wonders if that’s the next step for Donald Trump and Ken Cuccinelli.