Amid Minneapolis Uprising, Anti-War Veterans Call On National Guard to Stand Down

“We urge you to have the courage to do the right thing. Refuse activation orders.”

Sarah Lazare May 29, 2020

A man rides a bicycle up to a law enforcement checkpoint after the city endured a night of protests and violence on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who said he couldn’t breathe as white offi­cer Derek Chau­vin kneeled on his neck, has touched off an upris­ing in Min­neapo­lis that left a police precinct ablaze Thurs­day night. After Min­neso­ta gov­er­nor Tim Walz, a Demo­c­rat, acti­vat­ed the Nation­al Guard, Pres­i­dent Trump said on Twit­ter Fri­day morn­ing, when the loot­ing starts, the shoot­ing starts.” The ACLU said Trump’s remarks amount to direct­ing the Nation­al Guard to mur­der protesters.”

"Why do we think the military is a fix-all for all social problems that exist?"

With Nation­al Guard mem­bers now deployed in the streets of Min­neapo­lis, a city with a his­to­ry of police vio­lence, U.S. mil­i­tary vet­er­ans of the so-called war on ter­ror are call­ing on mem­bers of the Nation­al Guard to refuse orders to deploy against pro­test­ers. In an open let­ter to the Min­neso­ta Nation­al Guard pub­lished Fri­day morn­ing, mem­bers of About Face: Vet­er­ans Against the War (for­mer­ly called Iraq Vet­er­ans Against the War), declared, We urge you to have the courage to do the right thing. Refuse acti­va­tion orders. No amount of prop­er­ty is worth a sin­gle human life. Are you real­ly pre­pared to car­ry out the vio­lence Pres­i­dent Trump threat­ened against fel­low Min­nesotans? We ask that you stand up for Black lives by stand­ing down.” The let­ter comes amid reports that union bus dri­vers are refus­ing to trans­port pro­test­ers to jail.

About Face is com­prised of rough­ly 3,000 active duty mil­i­tary ser­vice mem­bers and vet­er­ans who have been in the U.S. mil­i­tary since Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 and are orga­niz­ing to end a for­eign pol­i­cy of per­ma­nent war and the use of mil­i­tary weapons, tac­tics and val­ues in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try.” This is not the first time the orga­ni­za­tion, which open­ly sup­ports G.I. resis­tance, has called for the Nation­al Guard to stand down from U.S. protests. In 2011, when then Gov­er­nor Scott Walk­er threat­ened to acti­vate the Nation­al Guard against Wis­con­sin work­ers protest­ing the governor’s anti-union mea­sures, the orga­ni­za­tion called on the Nation­al Guard to refuse and resist any mobi­liza­tion orders.”

In These Times spoke with Brit­tany Ramos DeBar­ros, the orga­niz­ing direc­tor of About Face, and a vet­er­an of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, who helped draft the let­ter. We’re con­di­tioned to think once you sign the dot­ted line you are trapped, you have no choice, no agency, you should avoid any polit­i­cal speech,” she says. I think that’s not true.”

Sarah Lazare: Can you explain how this call to action came together?

Brit­tany Ramos DeBar­ros: Obvi­ous­ly many of us in About Face speak from the place of being vet­er­ans and feel a respon­si­bil­i­ty because of the vio­lence we par­tic­i­pat­ed in to speak up against that vio­lence. I think folks get con­fused by the blur­ri­ness between the wars we’re speak­ing about and police vio­lence in this coun­try, but to any­one famil­iar to sys­tems of mil­i­ta­riza­tion in this coun­try, the con­nec­tions are as clear as day.

Many of us came into the anti-war move­ment from eco­nom­ic jus­tice and racial jus­tice strug­gles. We were watch­ing what was hap­pen­ing and unsure of how to plug in. When we saw the Nation­al Guard was called that was a very obvi­ous oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak out. The impor­tance of that became even more appar­ent once the pres­i­dent was brazen­ly tweet­ing, when the loot­ing starts, the shoot­ing starts.” I lit­er­al­ly saw that tweet and saw the Min­neso­ta Nation­al Guard tweet about how they are being mobi­lized to help communities.

I think so many of us iden­ti­fy with that brand­ing: We were told that we were going to help peo­ple, and end­ed up on the ground in a sit­u­a­tion where you can bare­ly process what you’re find­ing your­self to be part of. So we reached out to urge peo­ple to make the choice some of us had wished we had made.

Sarah: What mes­sage do you most want to send to mem­bers of the Nation­al Guard?

Brit­tany: I would want them to take away first and fore­most that they do have a choice. From our per­spec­tive, we now have strong feel­ings about choic­es we wish we had made. We are not peo­ple to sit in a place of judge­ment. We are peo­ple who were deeply harmed by the sys­tem we par­tic­i­pat­ed in and were used by, but we also acknowl­edge the fact that we are respon­si­ble for our actions and our harm. In my heart, I long for peo­ple to have the courage to say, I’m not going to par­tic­i­pate in this lega­cy of the Nation­al Guard being used to squash right­eous anger and right­eous protest.”

In the mil­i­tary, we’re con­di­tioned to think once you sign the dot­ted line you are trapped, you have no choice, no agency, you should avoid any polit­i­cal speech. I think that’s not true. In a moment like this, I just want peo­ple to stop what they are doing and under­stand they do have a choice and at the end of the day if they par­tic­i­pate in some­thing that turns into hor­ri­fy­ing vio­lence, it might be enough to tell oth­er peo­ple I was doing what I had to, but that’s not going to be enough for you to live with. I wish more of us had known we could pause and say, Do I real­ly sup­port this?”

Sarah: In this coun­try there’s an eco­nom­ic draft in which poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or, many of whom are harmed by sys­tems of exploita­tion and racist oppres­sion, are tar­get­ed for mil­i­tary ser­vice. Do you think there’s a case to be made that the Min­neso­ta Nation­al Guard should iden­ti­fy more with the pro­test­ers than with the police?

Brit­tany: With­out ques­tion. How do we get folks to stop try­ing so hard to dis­tance them­selves from the peo­ple they’re most alike? In the Unit­ed States, no one wants to say they’re poor. It’s a dirty word, but why isn’t rich” a dirty word? We all tell our­selves we’re just one break away from being anoth­er class up. As the Rev­erend William Bar­ber II says, it’s not left ver­sus right, it’s top ver­sus bot­tom, and right ver­sus wrong.

The mil­i­tary feels the need to cloak the truth of what you’re asked to do in all these sexy com­mer­cials and titles and cer­e­monies. At the end of the day you’re get­ting all these ben­e­fits, get­ting this fan­fare, because you’re say­ing you’re will­ing to kill when ordered. At the end of the day all of us are trained war­riors first for a rea­son. One of the things it’s going to take for all of us to come togeth­er is to stop speak­ing in euphemisms. Peo­ple get very offend­ed when you say your job in the mil­i­tary is to kill on com­mand. But that is the truth. The more we talk about it as serv­ing the coun­try, keep­ing peo­ple safe, lib­er­at­ing the Afghan peo­ple, etc., the more we deny the truth that can set us all free.

Sarah: About Face open­ly sup­ports G.I. resis­tance. Do you see a link between refus­ing to deploy to unjust U.S. wars abroad and refus­ing to deploy against pro­test­ers in Minneapolis?

Brit­tany: Usu­al­ly when we’re talk­ing about con­nec­tions across move­ments and sys­tems, we talk about ways the war on ter­ror repli­cates the ini­tial wars to col­o­nize this land, to exploit the orig­i­nal peo­ple of this land for eco­nom­ic gain. It’s inter­est­ing that you ask that ques­tion, because you can’t ful­ly under­stand what it means to demil­i­ta­rize our soci­ety unless you under­stand the roots of these wars go all the way back to the found­ing of this coun­try. And when we see those roots, we see that the state vio­lence we see today is made in the same image.

Sarah: I know you are a vet­er­an of the war in Afghanistan. Is there any­thing from your own expe­ri­ence that feels rel­e­vant to the call for the Nation­al Guard to stand down? 

Brit­tany: There are so many con­nec­tions — too many to name. When I deployed to Afghanistan, I was still a true believ­er. When I was hand­ed the mis­sion on a piece of paper that said I’m going in ser­vice of the inde­pen­dence of the Afghan peo­ple, and I was sup­posed to help them build up their infra­struc­ture, I believed it. It was while I was deployed I kept find­ing myself in my posi­tion where I was argu­ing with com­man­ders. We were sup­posed to be doing a draw­down, but you had all these com­man­ders who want­ed to do mis­sions so they could have high­er mis­sion counts. You had peo­ple look­ing for a fight, because they want­ed that com­bat action badge. I saw the tox­i­c­ness and racism and cor­rup­tion of lead­er­ship. It became unde­ni­able that even if that was the right mis­sion, the mil­i­tary was not the right insti­tu­tion to achieve it.

Why do we think the mil­i­tary is a fix-all for all social prob­lems that exist? How did that become a pop­u­lar­ly accept­ed and pas­sive­ly accept­ed belief in our soci­ety — that you can throw the mil­i­tary at any com­plex prob­lem and that’s the solu­tion, when real­ly the mil­i­tary is designed to be as lethal as possible?

Sarah: Is there any­thing you haven’t said yet that you want to get across?

Brit­tany: So many of us who joined About Face thought we were alone in our ques­tion­ing of what we were par­tic­i­pat­ing in and thought we had no options. We found that not to be true. I want peo­ple to know they’re not alone.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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