The National Guard Crushes Protests Just Like the Military Does

Democratic mayors and governors who oppose Trump’s threat to send in the military should take their own advice and end National Guard deployments.

Sarah Lazare June 8, 2020

A woman carries a 'Black Lives Matter' sign past U.S. National Guard troops in the Fairfax District, after the troops were activated by California Governor Gavin Newsom on May 31, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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.”

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.

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 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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