Last month, in the hours after dark, unmarked vans surrounded protesters – most of whom appeared to be peaceful. Troops dressed in camouflage fatigues poured out of the vans. These unidentified “soldiers” proceeded to grab protesters from the Portland street.

Mark Pettibone, who was demonstrating, was one of many who was subject to “arrest” by unidentified officials. Actually, we assume they were officials.

Pettibone recounted his experience to a Washington Post reporter.

“He did not know whether the men were police or far-right extremists, who frequently don military-like outfits and harass left-leaning protesters in Portland.”

Pettibone explained that he was so panicked that his first inclination was to run.

“In his account, the 29-year-old, said he made it about a half-block before he realized there would be no escape.

“Then, he sank to his knees, hands in the air.

“‘I was terrified,’ Pettibone explained. ‘It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon.’” -Washington Post, July 17.

What a frightening sight! How ominous! It is alarming to realize that our federal government can – without oversight – swoop in and abduct individuals who were exercising their Constitutional right to assemble and to protest.

We are all aware that the First Amendment guarantees our right to assemble, to speak, to protest:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

(Note: The people do not have to be U.S. citizens. Also, there is no age limit on that right.)

Granted, that is the right to protest peacefully. Should we decide to become violent in our protests – to destroy or deface property or harm others – we forfeit that right, at least for that moment. Even so, officials must exercise caution in rounding up protesters.

Even more vital, those vans need to bear insignias and names. The “officials” must be dressed in official attire – not in camo fatigues, gas masks and helmets – as though they are soldiers off to a particularly precarious battlefield to fight a foreign enemy.

Actually, the events, in Portland last month, looked like scenes from a newsreel about an authoritarian state – a third-world nation where the dictator rules absolutely or where a military junta rounds up its citizens at will and for no valid reason. Frightening does not adequately describe the unnerving effect of those scenes.

Apparently the officials were U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents. Although, there was no obvious identification. The CBP had been deployed by the President. It is uncertain whether local officials were actually informed, in advance, of the agents’ intended actions – rounding up demonstrators.

If the President wishes to send troops to areas where protests are taking place, he should make certain the local officials are well informed and are present to help with the monitoring.

Monitoring is exactly how the Border Patrol should have approached the “riots.” (Why was the Border Patrol sent to Portland, instead of the National Guard?)

Yes, the federal government has a right to protect federal property – which apparently, was being defaced. However, the Patrol should make every effort to de-escalate the tensions, not ignite a potential firestorm. Guards – dressed in less intimidating uniforms – calmly standing watch around the building might have been a better approach than riot-clad guards swooping in, chasing and corralling protesters. (In fact, if protesters were fleeing why did the guards pursue them? Wasn’t the CBP sent to disperse the crowd?) Seriously, how did the officials in charge think the demonstrators would react to such treatment? Have these leaders no training? If that is the case, then it is only fair that energies should be invested in expanding these officials’ knowledge.

As we deal with this unique moment of crises, it is easy for us to become totally engrossed in our own issues, including dealing with the spreading flu epidemic, attempting to balance finances, supporting and teaching off-spring, and that does not count any personal maladies or problems we might face. So, it’s easy to miss the importance of the Border Patrol agents grabbing protesters in Portland. Oh, we likely would cringe, but then lose track of the issue. That to me is scary. Granted, it almost slipped by me. Now, that’s really unnerving, especially since I tend to be a bit of a “Nervous Nellie.” I am prone to see danger looming around corners. In this case, my fear is that we will all become accustomed to unmarked vans, carrying agents dressed in camo, masks and helmets — carrying battlefield weapons, but no identification – cruising the streets of our towns, randomly picking up protesters – or perhaps just picking up people who are out for an evening stroll. What if that sight becomes normal, unnoticeable, even?

The thought is unnerving!

Yes, we all like to feel that our democracy is rock solid, unshakeable. However, I fear that it is far more fragile than we wish to believe. Unfortunately, our nation’s balance of governmental powers seem ineffectual at the moment. Actually, the power balance appears broken.

Without a vigorous and functioning check and balance system – a system our nation has relied on for the past 200-plus years – it will be easy for the administrative branch to declare a state of emergency and thus insist on the absolute need – for the sake of stability and the good of the nation, you understand – to remain in power. Plus, in order to ensure the administration retains power, military troops will need to be deployed throughout the nation, especially to areas that question such decisions.

Now, that’s chilling!

We must be vigilant.

Fortunately, many in the Portland area are vigilant. They noticed that the demonstrations – which started in May, shortly after the death of George Floyd, at the hands of police, on May 25, in Minneapolis – were, and have been, mostly peaceful.

According to an Oregon News article, dated, July 22, “Portlanders first started protesting police violence against Black Americans in late May. It wasn’t until 31 days later that federal officers were first seen at the nightly demonstrations.”

Apparently, the arrival of the Border Patrol inflamed the situation. Thus, some few protesters became agitated and responded physically.

In an effort to shine a spotlight on the situation, one Portland mom – who believes that people behave better when a mother figure is present – went online and formed a definitively peaceful group. On the evening of May 20, the ladies – wearing protective masks – joined the demonstrations outside the Justice Center. The group has since been labeled the “Wall of Moms.” Behaving like mothers, they instructed the guards, chanting “Moms are here. Feds stay clear” and “Don’t Shoot Your Mother.” Since the Wall of Moms appeared, a “Wall of Dad” – called “PDXDadPod”– joined the demonstrations. Recently, a “Wall of Vets” arrived. Naturally! Would we expect anything less from our veterans? After all, they take their oath to protect us and to protect our rights seriously.

Walls can be a comfort.

Walls of people formed to protect our rights to assemble and to protest are reassuring.

Those walls – formed by folks like you and me – indicate that we the people are alert to what our government is doing. That is remarkable given the ongoing crises folks are already handling.

Those walls mean that we the people are willing to form walls to help protect everyone’s rights.

Nevertheless, we all must remain watchful. We must not let our guard down.

We must not be lulled into believing that suppression of some people’s rights will guarantee the rest of us some abstract security.

We are so accustomed to our democracy functioning, that we tend to take it for granted.

Pat Nevada, whose opinions are her own, lives near Gettysburg.