In 2020, federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) descended on Portland, escalating violence against people demanding an end to racist police brutality. DHS agents used unprecedented amounts of teargas, pepper spray, and other chemical munitions on the crowds. Thousands of Portland residents were exposed to harmful chemicals known to cause cancer, organ damage, and lung injuries. This all while a respiratory pandemic threatened the globe.

A broad coalition of organizations — Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Cascadia Wildlands, Willamette Riverkeeper, 350PDX, Neighbors for Clean Air, and ACLU of Oregon — filed a lawsuit against DHS, calling out its failure to consider the potentially severe human and environmental health impacts of its violent operation in Portland as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The coalition was ready to fight for this case, and for the rights of Portlanders to not be teargassed by police. But in a surprising move, Judge Karen Immergut dismissed the case before any of the facts had come before the court. The coalition appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and last October, I delivered arguments supporting our case (you can watch a recording of me delivering those arguments here).

We were hopeful this case would get its day in court. But last week, the feds argued it was too late for the court to get involved in an anti-police brutality lawsuit around the 2020 uprising, and that doing an environmental review after the fact would do no good. Then on Jan 20, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the feds that there was no longer a role for the courts — and the case was officially dismissed.

We strongly dissent against the Ninth Circuit’s decision — not only because we believe in preventing police brutality in the future by addressing harm in the past, but also because we deserve justice, and at the very least to know what the federal government poisoned us with in 2020.

And our fight for justice for folks who faced police brutality during the 2020 uprising doesn’t end with the courts. The Portland Police Bureau continues to rear its ugly head in repressing and oppressing Black and Brown communities. And we fear that this isn’t the last time federal agents and the police will unleash tear gas and other chemical munitions in Portland, or violate our rights to protest.

What’s next?

Our coalition remains active, and will continue to advocate for an end to the domestic use of tear gas. Measuring the impacts of tear gas on people and our environments is not only possible, but is also required by federal law. We stand ready to hold the government accountable to us, to stand in solidarity with those fighting for Black lives and liberation, and to keep fighting against police brutality.

Stay tuned for more updates and next steps. We also recommend you follow BIPOC-led organizations keeping up the fight against police brutality, including Don’t Shoot PDX and Black Lives Matter.

In solidarity,

Brenna Bell, 350PDX Climate Forest Manager