On June 2, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot firmly rebuked President Trump for threatening to unleash a military crackdown on Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country. Trump made his menacing remarks at a press conference the day earlier, declaring that he would deploy the U.S. military to any city or state that “refuses to take the actions” to quell mass protests against police, touched off by the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. Responding to Trump at a press conference, Lightfoot proclaimed, “It’s not gonna happen, not in my city. And I’m not confident that the president has the power to do that. But we have our lawyers hard at work, and if he tries to do that and usurp the power of our governor, and myself as the mayor, we will see him in court.”
But by the time Lightfoot spoke these words, military forces had already been deployed to Chicago, and military humvees were spotted in its streets, all at the mayor’s request. At a May 31 press conference days before speaking out against Trump’s threat of a military crackdown, Lightfoot announced that she’d asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker to send 375 National Guard soldiers to Chicago to help the police, a decision she claimed wasn’t easy, “but is surely the right decision for this moment.”
The idea that sending the National Guard to assist police in violently quelling protests does not count as deploying the military — and diverges sharply from Trump’s threat to unleash active-duty forces — has been repeated by Democratic politicians across the country. Illinois Gov. Pritzker said on June 1, shortly after Trump issued his military threat, “I reject the notion that the federal government can send troops into the state of Illinois.” Yet Pritzker announced that same day that he was activating 250 Illinois National Guard members to “support various jurisdictions throughout the state in their work to protect communities,” in addition to the 375 National Guard members activated in Chicago. Likewise, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee objected to Trump’s threat to send in the military by noting that the 300 National Guard members he’d already activated had it covered.
Yet the National Guard is part of the military, and it has long been used to fight brutal wars abroad, as well as domestic wars against protesters and striking workers. Any politician who objects to Trump’s threat to wage a literal war against Black-led uprisings should also oppose activation of the National Guard. But this has not been the case. The escalation from deploying the National Guard to deploying active-duty troops may offend a uniquely American sense of a firewall, of “turning troops” on “one’s own people” or pop notions of posse comitatus. But from a protester’s perspective, there’s not a significant difference between this escalation and the status quo: armed, occupying soldiers with humvees roaming major American cities, under the banner of the state National Guard. Yes, these National Guard forces are under the control of governors and not federalized under the command of our blood-thirsty president (save for Washington, D.C.), but the latter scenario can’t be the basis by which we measure the bad.
The National Guard, which emerged from state militias that were used to wage brutal onslaughts and massacres of Native American tribes, is often depicted as a more peaceful domestic counterpart to the U.S. military, focused on responding to domestic emergencies like floods and storms. But this is not how the Guard describes itself. As writer Rebecca Gordon noted in an article for Tom Dispatch, in its 2019 “posture statement,” the National Guard Bureau says its mission is “fighting America’s wars,”“securing the homeland,” and “building enduring partnerships.” The National Guard’s military purposes are clear: It is the reserve force for the Army and Air Force, subject to the dual authority of state and federal leaders. And the Guard has mobilized to participate in brutal wars. The United States heavily relied on the Guard to fight the U.S. war on Iraq, with Guard members comprising 41% of U.S. troops there, as of 2005. In December of 2011, the National Guard boasted that it had deployed “more than 250,000 Guard members” in support of the Iraq War. The fact that National Guard trainings are part-time does not change the fact that, once sent to war, Guard members become real troops.
In addition to the Guard’s role in fighting foreign wars, its domestic deployments — even in response to natural disasters — have been cause for concern. When National Guard troops were deployed to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many of them played a heavy law enforcement role. The New York Times reported in September 2009, “New Orleans has turned into an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, as well as National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers.” Guard members from Task Force Gator, a joint task force of the Louisiana National Guard and New Orleans police, remained on duty in New Orleans for three years, to assist the city’s notoriously racist police department.
The Guard has been deployed to participate in brutal chapters of U.S. history, particularly efforts to break and undermine strikes. The Guard was sent in to crush the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and in 1914 it participated in the Ludlow massacre that left 25 people dead. In 1970, President Richard Nixon sent more than 20,000 members of the National Guard to New York City to break a postal workers’ strike and get the mail moving again. More recently, the Guard has been mobilized to enact a brutal Trump policy. As Gordon notes, in October 2018, as Trump unleashed racist invectives against a “caravan” of migrants from Central America, the National Guard sent more than 2,000 of its members to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they helped U.S. border patrol with surveillance, intelligence review and other tasks.
The point is that the National Guard is neither innocent, nor separate from the tremendous war apparatus that has led to the United States accounting for 38% of all global military spending. And today, we are seeing this Guard deploy in support of a tremendous, nationwide police crackdown on Black-led protests against police violence, adding military might to the small armies of police viciously attacking protesters in the streets.
The National Guard says, as of June 2, nearly 41,500 National Guard members were activated in 33 states and Washington, D.C., to respond to “civil unrest.” (The Guard is now allegedly withdrawing from D.C.) This is on top of the 37,400 Guard members activated for the Covid-19 response. While this is not the first time the National Guard has been called out to quell protests, we’ve never seen these numbers before. These deployments have gone along with alarming threats on the part of the president. On May 29, Trump took to Twitter to declare his intention to deploy the National Guard to Minneapolis, tweeting, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” According to the ACLU, this amounted to “directing the National Guard to murder protesters in Minneapolis.”
Since Trump spoke those words, the National Guard has been implicated in at least two shootings related to the response to protests, one of them deadly. On June 1, Louisville, Kentucky resident David McAtee, a 53-year-old Black man, was killed after police and Kentucky National Guard members shot into a crowd with live ammunition in the city’s majority Black west end, under the auspices of enforcing a 9:00 p.m. curfew. Not a single member of the Louisville Metro Police Department at the scene had activated his or her body cameras, casting significant doubt on police claims that they had been fired upon first.
The other incident took place in Minneapolis, where local organizers responded with alarm when they found out the National Guard had been called in. On May 28, the Black Visions Collective a Black liberation organization, tweeted, “Community members: just got word that @MayorFrey has asked for the national guard to be deployed and THEY ARE AUTHORIZED TO USE DEADLY FORCE. Please protect each other and GTFO.” Just two days later, on May 31, a member of the Minnesota National Guard, working alongside police, fired three rounds from his rifle at a moving car in Minneapolis. While the pro-military publication Stars and Stripes claims that no one was injured in the shooting, such assertions are difficult to verify, as someone targeted by law enforcement might be hesitant to report the incident.
This wasn’t the only act of violence committed by the National Guard. Video footage posted to Twitter on May 30 by researcher Tanya Kerssen appears to show a military humvee escorting Minneapolis police as they do a sweep of a residential street, and shoot paint canisters at residents sitting on their front porches, shouting “light ‘em up!” The National Guard helped police violently clear the way for a Trump photo op at St. John’s Church on June 1. In Chicago, the National Guard has been used to enforce police perimeters, assert an intimidating presence in the city, where hundreds, and possibly thousands, have faced violent attacks by police. The image of humvees speeding down the street sends a message to residents, particularly those who are Black: “Stay home, don’t protest, you are under occupation.” (Chicagoans have boldly defied this intimidation.)
“The deployment of the National Guard should absolutely be viewed as a military occupation of Black and Brown communities,” author, educator and artist Benji Hart told In These Times. “While the mayor literally blocked off access the the loop and the wealthy neighborhoods surrounding it for most of the weekend, militarized vehicles patrolled mostly Black and Brown neighborhoods on the south and west sides, not merely menacing the threat of violence, but instigating it, unnecessarily escalating protests happening in those areas, and then blaming the residents for the ensuing violence.”
Of course, Trump’s alarming, if vague, threat to unleash the full force of the military would constitute a considerable escalation from National Guard deployments we’ve seen across the country, and there is no doubt the situation could grow far worse. Politicians are right to stand firmly against Trump’s bellicose threats, and those who have failed to do so quickly and unequivocally (including Democratic leaders) deserve sharp rebuke. But the fact that deploying the National Guard is relatively uncontroversial is a testament to the fact that Trump has pulled the political spectrum far to the right. Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) racist screed in the New York Times arguing that Trump should “send in the troops” to violently crush Black Lives Matter demonstrations rightfully provoked an uproar. But what of the troops that are already deployed in U.S. streets? Where is the overwhelming outrage about that?
It is unconscionable that mayors and governors have unleashed the National Guard on their people at exactly the moment that Black-led, multiracial movements are demanding an end to law enforcement violence. Social movements recognize this, including anti-war veterans with the group About Face: Veterans Against the War, who are calling on activated National Guard troops to “do the right thing and refuse to help in suppressing righteous protest demanding racial justice.” The fact that politicians hold press conferences criticizing Trump should not give them a pass for inflicting brutality on their own residents. The casual and widespread use of National Guard deployment against protesters only looks “moderate” in comparison to Trump’s chest-thumping threats. In absolute terms, it’s still a dangerous escalation that threatens protesters’ lives — and ought to be roundly rejected by anyone who claims to oppose a brutal crackdown on protesters.
In the words of Hart, “The only coherent demand real progressives support right now is the defunding and disbanding of police and other militarized bodies, which should of course include the National Guard. Anyone on either side of the aisle that does not clearly and definitively call for a reallocation of resource away from police and the military and towards community-led social programs isn’t merely off message with #BlackLivesMatter and communities of color, they are facilitating our genocide.”
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.