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How feds used a YouTube livestream to arrest a Portland protester

Trump-deployed federal officers are using whatever they can to find evidence against activists.

A camouflaged federal officer pepper sprays a protester in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, on July 20, 2020.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.

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Social media and livestream feeds are being monitored and used against protesters in Portland, Oregon, as federal agents continue to patrol the city despite requests from local and state officials that they leave. As President Trump threatens to send feds to protests across the country, what’s happening in Portland is a possible future for other American cities.

The Trump administration deployed law enforcement officers from multiple federal agencies under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Portland in early July, and they set up shop in the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, which has been the site of demonstrations and the target of vandalism since May. From there, the federal agents have been accused of firing pepper spray and less-lethal munitions at protesters, severely injuring at least one of them. They’ve also started patrolling the city in unmarked cars, pulling people off the street and throwing them into vans while refusing to identify themselves. And a recent DHS directive has authorized agents to conduct surveillance of Americans to protect federal buildings as well as statues and monuments. Federal officials have said that they are not targeting peaceful demonstrations but that they are trying to quell civil unrest and violence.

State and local officials as well as civil rights groups have decried their presence and methods. The state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called it a “constitutional crisis,” and governor Kate Brown said they were “adding gasoline to the fire.” Portland protests are now attracting significantly larger crowds than they were before. President Trump, on the other hand, has threatened to expand this use of federal forces to other cities, including Chicago and New York. Many believe that Trump is using the unrest to push his “law and order” campaign strategy as election day approaches, positioning himself as a president who cracks down on crime when Democrat-led cities don’t.

“Donald Trump did not send in this paramilitary force to keep people safe,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said the Senate floor on Tuesday. “Trump is doing this to create images of chaos, to air them on far-right television and in campaign ads, and scare the country into reelecting him.”

Court records reveal some of their surveillance methods, including undercover agents stationed within the protesters, visual surveillance from the upper floors of the courthouse, and monitoring journalists’ livestreams for illegal activity in lieu of security cameras, which the court documents state have been damaged or stolen.

In the early hours of July 13, agents of the Federal Protective Service (FPS), a division of the DHS charged with guarding federal courthouses, surveilled protesters through citizen journalists’ livestreams, whose footage is being used both to amplify protesters’ messages and as evidence against them.

According to an affidavit from an FPS agent, law enforcement officers were watching a YouTube livestream when they saw a protester take a flaming wooden board and place it against the exterior wall of the courthouse. The footage appears to show the protester wedge the board between the stone courthouse wall and the wooden boards installed over a courthouse window to protect it from protester damage. A second protester appears to pick up the board and lean it against the wooden boards instead. Shortly afterward, a third person removes the board and extinguishes the fire. The first protester’s face is almost entirely covered and can’t be identified. But the second protester, whose face is unobscured, turns toward the camera as he walks away from the courthouse.

According to court documents, a DHS Intelligence Operations Specialist “analyzed” the livestream, took screenshots of the second protester’s face, and sent them back to agents inside the courthouse. The federal agents then “maintained surveillance” of the protester from inside and outside of the courthouse for several hours before arresting Kevin Benjamin Weier, who they say is the second protester. According to the affidavit, Weier told investigators that he was on the scene when the flaming board was placed against the courthouse but denied that he placed the board himself or even touched it. Weier did not respond to request for comment, nor did the DHS.

Weier has been charged with attempted arson of a federal building. If convicted, he faces between five and 20 years in prison.

The footage cited in the court documents for Weier’s case came from a YouTube channel that combines several live feeds into one stream. The videos, branded with a “LIVE: From The End Of The World” banner, are also hosted on Twitch. One of the feeds came from Tre Stewart, who was streaming from his Facebook page, and it is his footage, seen via the YouTube channel, that was used as evidence to charge Weier. Stewart did not respond to request for comment, but Anteros Oberon, who runs the YouTube channel, did.

“Though we recognize we have no legal authority to demand that the federal government cease to use ours or anyone else’s feeds,” Oberon told Recode, “we do denounce the practice by law enforcement and call upon them to adjust their standards and practices in such a way as to not endanger journalists and citizens exercising their constitutionally protected rights around the nation.”

Oberon added that people can opt out of having their feeds included in the LIVE: From The End Of The World livestream.

Weier’s case is not the only example of federal agents using social media and livestreams to collect evidence against Hatfield courthouse protesters. Jacob Michael Gaines was arrested and charged with assaulting a federal officer, and part of the evidence against him was screenshots from a video embedded in a tweet, which sourced that footage from an account called “Portland Independent Documentarians.” But those screenshots were not the basis of the charges against him; Gaines was arrested as he allegedly hit an officer with a hammer. In Weier’s case, the livestream footage was the only evidence cited as probable cause to arrest him.

A protester waves an American flag in a fog of tear gas fired by federal officers outside the Mark O. Hatfield courthouse in Portland, Oregon, on July 21, 2020.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Both cases illustrate how law enforcement is using social media and livestreams to monitor protests and collect evidence of alleged crimes. As protests against police brutality spread across the country this summer, organizers have repeatedly warned protesters not to post images or videos that show people’s faces and requested that the media do the same. This has occasionally caused tension between protesters, who do not want law enforcement to use their images to identify and further target them, and the media, which is charged with covering the protests as they happen and typically doesn’t make such concessions.

In a statement, Oberon acknowledged that concerns that the media is putting protesters at risk are “valid” but thought it was safer to have documentation of the protests than allow law enforcement to work free of accountability.

“In my own view, to be quite honest, I fear the moments when we are offline, when streamers are not showing what is happening,” Oberon said. “We have seen time and time again that, as soon as our feeds go down, the protestors face fresh assaults from law enforcement.”

The cases in Portland show a possible result of the DHS’s recent authorization for its officers to use public information sources, including social media, to gather intelligence on people or groups who may be planning to damage monuments and statues. According to Lawfare reporters Steve Vladeck and Benjamin Wittes, who first reported the authorization document, DHS officials are instructed to use the “least intrusive collection techniques feasible” when surveilling Americans but “are not permitted to engage in electronic surveillance or unconsented physical searches.”

“Protestors can reasonably expect that there will be ongoing DHS collection and analysis of public source information about — and likely the social media postings of — people involved in protests,” Vladeck and Wittes wrote.

From the beginning of his presidency, Trump has repeatedly threatened to deploy federal agencies to cities that he believes are not sufficiently enforcing the law, but the protests have finally given him enough of an excuse to do it. That the mayors of these cities have said that federal forces are neither desired nor needed doesn’t seem to matter.

Shirin Ghaffary contributed reporting to this story.

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