(JTA) — When reports emerged two weeks ago about federal agents seizing protesters from the streets of Portland and putting them in unmarked vans, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum sued to get federal officers off the street.
A judge rejected Rosenblum’s request for a preliminary restraining order against the agents last week. But the lawsuit is ongoing, as is a criminal investigation Rosenblum opened into federal agents who injured a protester. On Wednesday, the Trump administration made an agreement with local officials to withdraw the federal forces — though the timing is unclear.
Rosenblum, who was elected to her post in 2012, is a former board member of her Portland synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, as well as the founder of its book club and a former member of its choir.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency spoke with Rosenblum Wednesday about her next steps and how she sees her role as the state attorney general and a Jewish elected official.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JTA: What do you see as your role, and your goal, during this period?
Rosenblum: I am the people’s attorney. I look out for the most vulnerable in our state. I look out for those who most need the support of the legal establishment, if you will, to make sure that their rights are protected.
In terms of actually taking legal actions, I don’t go there unless I feel that there are harms to Oregonians. In this case, there was no question that we had to do something, because it appeared that the situation was getting worse rather than improving with this influx of federal agents uninvited to our city.
We started hearing these really frightening stories that appeared to be clear violations of the civil rights and liberties of Oregonians, and in particular Portlanders, who were attempting to and continue to be protesting against very serious abuses — police brutality, in support of Black Lives Matter, in support of racial justice. And it appeared that the conduct, the tactics that were being engaged in on the streets of our city, were not only really frighteningly dangerous, they could harm people, but they were infringing on the rights — the First Amendment rights, the Fourth Amendment rights, the Fifth Amendment rights of our citizens.
Now that federal agents appear to be leaving Portland, what are your next steps?
Let’s get them out of town as quickly as possible and regroup. I hope the city, the mayor, the governor, the advocacy community and the protesters will sit down and will hammer out a plan so that protests can continue if that is the desired route, and I believe it will be.
They need to be allowed to continue under circumstances that do not infringe on civil liberties and without the personal endangerment that has occurred when the feds were here.
Given your experience filing a lawsuit against the federal agents, what advice would you give other attorneys general facing the same issue?
Well, first of all, I don’t consider that we did not succeed. We lost a motion for temporary restraining order, but that is the first part of a potentially successful lawsuit, or an unsuccessful lawsuit, so I’m not quite conceding that we lost. I will say that the judge did not agree that we had standing to pursue the matter at this level with the amount of evidence that we had … so we’re looking at different options.
There’s numerous lawsuits that are still pending. And I’m not sure that anyone is just going to drop their lawsuit at this point, because these are all issues that could come back. You know, we don’t have any assurance that they’re not going to return. These are all federal lawsuits, and special court rulings could serve as at least guidance, if not precedent, in other locales.
We’re very hopeful that their leaving Portland doesn’t mean they’re going somewhere else. We want them back to their agencies doing the jobs that they apparently were trained in. They’re not trained to go anywhere to de-escalate conflict, clearly.
I talk to my Democratic attorney general colleagues all the time. We meet by phone once a week as a group and we share all of what we’re doing to the extent we can. We join with each other in lawsuits, we help each other out, we file amicus briefs.
So if they find themselves similarly situated we provide them full access to our lawsuit pleadings and we’re also more than happy to meet with them to discuss some potential strategies.
What concerned you most about what you saw happening on the streets of Portland with the federal agents?
They really appeared to be schooled in escalating the aspects of the protests that were not safe. So, for example, if there was somebody who threw something at them they would throw something back, maybe even something that was more dangerous than what had been thrown in the first instance. So what we saw was an escalation of the situation, not a deescalation. They came in allegedly to protect their buildings, allegedly to quell the violence, and they did just the opposite.
That was certainly very concerning because there’s a chilling effect, what we call a restraint upon an individual’s or a group’s First Amendment right to protest. Shortly after they arrived there was one extremely serious incident that is the subject of our criminal investigation, where an individual was shot at in the face with some sort of a projectile and has been back in the hospital now, apparently has suffered serious facial and, I think, brain injuries.
There have been reports of some violence emanating from the protests. If you feel the federal response made it worse, what do you think should be done in response?
It appears that a large number of the people who have come out, having engaged in whatever misconduct or violent conduct they’ve engaged in, have been largely provoked by the presence, not just the presence, but the actions, of the feds. They need to leave, and once they leave I think there will be an opportunity to resolve what is left of any violent conduct that might continue. I hope it does not. Obviously if it does we have to deal with it immediately.
I’m not going to say that there was no violent conduct before the feds arrived, OK? But what I’m saying is that it’s not going to stop until the feds leave, it would appear, so that’s the first step toward negotiation, toward resolution. But for the most part these protests were peaceful protests. They were not violent protests until the feds arrived.
I want to switch gears and ask you about your Jewish life. You led the synagogue book club for a long time. What kind of books did you like to read? And what did you enjoy singing in the synagogue choir?
I started the book club about 25 years ago and led it for many years, but “led” is mostly that I brought the food. I brought the bagels and coffee.
We had a whole series of books that were really about different countries, different ethnicities. We read books by Jewish authors. I remember we read a lot of books by Amos Oz and books by American fictional authors that are very famous, by [Philip] Roth and others.
We loved reading books about the Orthodox Jewish community in New York. When I watched the [Netflix] series recently, “Unorthodox,” I was thinking about the books that we had read and how those books had grown my understanding of the Orthodox community.
I loved singing at the different holidays. I loved singing for the Hanukkah celebration because I love Hanukkah songs. I think they’re kind of, you know, underappreciated.
Probably my favorite thing to do was to join an African-American church group of [gospel] singers, who join with us for the Martin Luther King Day celebration, the Shabbat service that we do in January every year, and that is a really wonderful event to get to join.
You’ve called the federal action in Portland “authoritarian overreach.” Does a turn toward authoritarianism concern you as a Jewish official?
Absolutely. I grew up in Reform Judaism. It was not so much religious-based in the sense of really studying the Old Testament or the Talmud, but here’s something I have in my kitchen: this is a quote that I wrote on a little whiteboard and it’s from the Talmud. It says, “The day is short, the task is difficult, it is not our duty to finish it, but we are forbidden not to try.”
I went to the social action committee with my dad monthly at the synagogue, and I just understood that that was what being Jewish was about, making sure that we were protecting people’s rights.
It’s really scary. I don’t want to exaggerate anything. I don’t like to be a catastrophist. But I’ve been very worried when it hits home like this, when things that I worry about — with the president of the United States and some of the ways in which he conducts himself, the people who have been harmed by policies that have really been mean spirited and cruel, frankly — hit Portland in this way. It’s shocking, and I’m not going to stand for it.