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Protesters Injured By Law Enforcement Say They're Still Seeking Justice

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Some of the protesters injured on the streets of Portland, Ore., last summer say they're still seeking justice. While most were peaceful, some who took to the streets were violent. That drew a massive response from federal law enforcement. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports that some of those injured are now bringing lawsuits, saying they were simply demanding racial justice.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: It was late on July 11 of last year when Donavan LaBella stood across the street from the federal courthouse in downtown Portland. Over his head, he held a speaker pointed towards the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

WILSON: Video uploaded to social media shows federal officers directly outside the courthouse. One turns on a bright light. A moment later, an officer fired a less-than-lethal munition that struck LaBella in the face. His body collapsed onto the street.

DESIREE LABELLA: He does have a traumatic brain injury.

WILSON: Desiree LaBella is Donavan’s mother. She says her son, now 27, has a drastically altered life because he was shot in the head.

LABELLA: His ability to reason and impulse control are still impaired.

WILSON: LaBella says her son is now homeless.

LABELLA: Couch-hopping for the past few months and currently living in a tent.

WILSON: LaBella's attorneys say he suffered permanent brain damage. The family plans to sue. James Healy is one of LaBella's attorneys. He says federal prosecutors have told him they've opened a criminal investigation.

JAMES HEALY: They want to interview Donavan, but Donavan's not really in a position to be giving statements at the moment.

WILSON: For the last year, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General has been investigating use of force during Portland's protests. The agency declined to comment for this story. Two weeks after LaBella was hurt, Erika Clark says she was peacefully protesting when she was shot in the hand by ammunition and later pushed by two federal officers while she said she was complying with their directions.

ERIKA CLARK: And I turned, and a third officer comes up and he rips off my mask and he rips off my goggles.

WILSON: Then, Clark says, the officer sprayed her in the face and mouth with mace.

CLARK: And I remember just being livid and being like, protect and serve who? Who?

WILSON: In court filings, government attorneys have pushed back against releasing the names of federal officers deployed to Portland over concerns about their privacy and safety, which has made it hard for civil rights lawyers to take the most basic legal steps, like naming officers in lawsuits.

ERIOUS JOHNSON: Why can't you set the example and be accountable? Why are you forcing individuals to search for accountability?

WILSON: Erious Johnson is an attorney who represents other protesters who were seriously hurt by tear gas canisters fired by federal officers. He says withholding the officers' names is a delay tactic and that authorities overreached.

JOHNSON: Our government came in and did this to its people. If we just forget about it, it will happen again.

RENN CANNON: Clearly, there was a duty to respond.

WILSON: Renn Cannon was the head of the FBI's Portland office during the protests. He retired in January and describes last summer as chaotic and violent, with federal law enforcement officers reporting hundreds of injuries, too.

CANNON: And whether or not there were mistakes made by individuals or there was an overstepping of authorities is something that we're sorting out now.

WILSON: None of the dozen-plus lawsuits filed against federal law enforcement have led to any long-term changes that would prevent a similar response in the future. Desiree LaBella, whose son Donavan was shot in the head, says what it comes down to is an armed person shot an unarmed person.

LABELLA: If they're not held accountable, then they're in the future going to think that they're not going to have to be held accountable for their actions.

WILSON: LaBella says closure would mean the officer who hurt her son going to jail.

For NPR news, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.