A number of public officials, retired military officers, and protesters were concerned with the Washington, DC, National Guard’s role in clearing Lafayette Square and suppressing protests in the nation’s capital last week for a presidential photo op. So, too, were the Guard members themselves, according to new reports.
According to reporting from the New York Times, when asked to employ “aggressive tactics” against local civilians, “black members of the D.C. Guard objected to turning on their neighbors.” Some members of the majority-minority force “were so ashamed in taking part against the protests that they have kept it from family members,” the Times’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt, and Helene Cooper report:
“Typically, as the D.C. National Guard, we are viewed as the heroes,” said another soldier, First Lt. Malik Jenkins-Bey, 42, who was the acting commander of the 273rd Military Police Company during the first days of the protests. But last week was different, he said.
“It’s a very tough conversation to have when a soldier turns to me and they’re saying, ‘Hey sir, you know my cousin was up there yelling at me, that was my neighbor, my best friend from high school,’” said Lieutenant Jenkins-Bey, who is African-American.
At a Sunday briefing, Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of DC National Guard, elaborated on the conflicts the Guard members faced in suppressing protesters demonstrating against the killing of George Floyd and police brutality and racism more broadly.
“I have some Guardsmen whose family members came out and criticized them: ‘What are you doing out here, aren’t you black?’” Walker said. “Of course, we’re all hurting. The nation is hurting.”
Of the many harrowing scenes, the use of two National Guard helicopters to terrorize protesters stands out. The choppers flew at low altitudes, blasting air out that sent activists running and knocking signs off of the sides of buildings. The DC National Guard is now investigating.
“The District of Columbia National Guard investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the operational employment of DCNG helicopter assets in and around the District of Columbia on Monday, June 1 is underway,” the Guard said in a statement released last week. “The investigation is looking into whether the aircraft in question flew at inappropriately low altitudes and whether they adhered to applicable safety standards and flying procedures while in flight.”
Beyond the specific intimidation tactics, many Guard members have issued complaints, feeling that they were asked to violate the Constitution’s First Amendment’s peaceful assembly rights.
In a Politico interview, a Guard member told reporter Daniel Lippman that “a lot of us are still struggling to process this, but in a lot of ways, I believe I saw civil rights being violated in order for a photo op,” adding that that “what I just saw goes against my oath”.
External voices like New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones have also critiqued the use of force against American citizens. Hannah-Jones tweeted, “Whew, I feel for our black servicemen being called out to suppress protesters marching for THEIR lives, too. The dual role we’ve always forced upon our black soldiers. Fighting for democracy abroad while often being denied it at home.”
On Thursday, the president contradicted much of these claims as reported in the Times Politico and elsewhere, tweeting, “Our great National Guard Troops who took care of the area around the White House could hardly believe how easy it was. “A walk in the park”, one said. The protesters, agitators, anarchists (ANTIFA), and others, were handled VERY easily by the Guard, D.C. Police, & S.S. GREAT JOB!”
Yet the military continues to distance itself from the president. Also on Thursday, Trump’s top general apologized for visibly walking around the capitol on one of the nights in which the National Guard was called to help quell protests for Trump’s photo op.
“I should not have been there,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in a recorded video commencement address to National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”