The National Guard was sent in to Ferguson, Missouri on Wednesday. Thus far, it hasn’t done much to quell tensions between police and protestors. In fact, by some accounts things got worse after Guardsmen entered, with accounts that guns were fired emerging over night.
In the annals of history, the National Guard has been called in to many protests that have turned chaotic, though outcomes have varied. In the most notorious example of National Guard intervention gone awry, Guardsmen opened fire on protesters at Kent State University in 1970, killing 4 and wounding nine others. Guardsmen alleged they fired in response to shots from a sniper, but the sniper has never been identified. In other instances, the National Guard has reported to protests without incident, or at least hasn’t tangibly exacerbated tensions that were already there.
President Obama said Wednesday he would be watching their presence to “assess whether it is helping rather than hindering progress.” Meanwhile, Governor Jay Nixon (D) said the Guard was sent in solely to watch over the police command center that he said had been the target of attacks the previous night.
Here are some things to know about what it means to Send In The Guard:
The National Guard is there to support the police, not the protesters.
The National Guard is perhaps best known for the times when it has been deployed by U.S. Presidents to usurp local power structures in the civil rights era, such as in 1957 when President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard to protect students’ right to attend public school in Arkansas, and when Lyndon Johnson sent in the guard to protect protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery. In these instances, the Guard was called in by the President to protect the protestors — in part against local authorities. This is what is known as “martial law” because the military becomes a higher power than civilian authority. When a state governor calls in his or her own state’s national guard, the dynamic is different. In this instance, the purpose of the national guard is to supplement local authorities without having to pull police away from other surrounding jurisdictions. They remain subordinate to the local agency, however, so that civilian forces — not the military — remain in charge.
Preserving the power of civilian police is a good thing, because the United States historically resorts to exerting military force domestically only in the most extreme circumstances. “You don’t want military control of the civilian population in the United States,” said Lieutenant General H. Steven Blum, a former chief of the National Guard Bureau under President George W. Bush. “That’s … rarely employed because it goes against how we would really like to run our government under the Constitution and that is the military remains subordinate to civilian leadership.”
But it also means that the military is not there to oppose the cops, even if they are engaging in aggressive or escalating tactics. So while there weren’t known reports of the National Guard engaging in tactics against protesters, they also didn’t do anything to stop the tear gas, smoke bomb or arrests, including of another journalist.
The National Guard is a military force. But it doesn’t have to look like the military.
When the National Guard is deployed, it takes its instructions from the governor and the person in charge of that state’s guard, known as the Adjutant General. They are a military force, but that doesn’t mean they have to look like the military. “What posture they are put in says a lot about how they intend to be employed or to be used,” said Blum. “The guard can go out there as men and women in uniform. They can go with or without body armor. They can go with or without base shields. They can go with or without helmets. They can go with or without weapons. They can go with or without ammunition.” “They’re not in there to do battle with the citizens of Missouri,” he said.
Photos snapped of the Guard on their first night show them wearing military garb and standing near military vehicles, but they also appeared to be significantly less armed than many of the police in Ferguson. The Associated Press describes their presence as, “stand[ing] watch outside a command post near a protest.”
If the Guard limits itself to that task, it will be much more likely to avoid exacerbating tensions. Blum says that in instances when the Guard has gone awry, it was when there was not a clear articulation of the guard’s mission, the task is outside of their training, or the rules of engagement are unclear. He questioned Texas Governor Rick Perry’s (R) decision to send Guardsmen to the border, for example, because of lack of clarity of what they would do there.
“You send troops in with the wrong equipment, the wrong idea of what they’re supposed to do … then that’s a formula for failure,” he said.