Pandemic Politics: Why the military should not intervene in domestic protests

Autumn Perkey

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The California Army National Guard has supported humanitarian assistance to food banks during the COVID-19 crisis, demonstrating the key role of the military in the US response to the pandemic. Image credit: The National Guard via Flickr.

In August, International Affairs has teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. International Affairs’ 50:50 in 2020 initiative is partnering with the FSF to support its mission of amplifying the expertise of women and share the insights of PhD students on COVID-19 and grand strategy; the military; and democracy.

This week in Pandemic Politics, Eleanor Freund and Leah Matchett’s introduction, as well as Bob Qu’s, Autumn Perkey’s, and Lauren Sukin and Katy Robinson’s blogposts discuss COVID-19 and the military.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the weakness of US federal institutions under the Trump administration, the concurrent crisis over the response to the Black Lives Matter movement has revealed a new fault-line in the norms governing civil-military relations. Earlier in the summer, as protests surged across the United States, President Donald Trump turned to the military for a solution. In his Rose Garden address on 1 June 2020, President Trump declared he was dispatching ‘thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers’ to Washington DC, threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807. While recent survey data indicates that 58 per cent of the American public supports this, using the military as a solution for civilian control during protests is deeply problematic — both for the military itself and more widely for the institutions of American society.

The Insurrection Act was last invoked during the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, following the brutal beating of Rodney King. These riots have been referred to as ‘the most costly urban unrest in American history’ demonstrating classist and racist divides mixed with ‘rapidly changing demographics and ethnic hostility’. In total, the Rodney King acquittal was followed by five days of rioting. When the riots came to an end, 54 people lay dead, almost 2,400 people were injured and over 13,000 people had been arrested. The US National Guard combined with several state and local agencies had largely restored order, but attempts to federalize the counter-riot initiatives had resulted in members of the US Marine Corps firing 200 rounds into a house in response to a domestic dispute. This failed military intervention demonstrated a clear need for ‘less lethal means’ of dealing with civil unrest.

Unfortunately, this experience from the 1992 Los Angeles riots seems to have fallen on deaf ears, as the military is once again being used as a means to address domestic issues without resolving the underlying problems. The protests sparked after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others. These deaths highlight the issues of institutional racism in the US. As federal troops are drawn in, we are left to question what the conflict between civil rights and police brutality could mean for perceptions of the military.

First, the military solution risks reducing civilian trust during an age of mistrust in authority. Trust in authority, the Trump administration and the police among American citizens has been decimated by the use of extreme force displayed by police departments across the country. In general, the American public supports the protests as a desire to hold police departments accountable has increased. Protests echo with chants of ‘defund the police’. The widespread use of smartphones to capture the everyday interactions between people of colour and police officers has thrust into public view the difference in police behaviour towards communities of colour. A primary concern for the protestors is mistrust between communities of colour and police, resorting to the military to provide civilian control may result in this mistrust being transferred to the national security establishment. The military should not be the means to make civilians behave when there is an observable civic institutional problem. Protests are not a national security threat.

Second, relying on the military to keep public order raises worrying ethical implications for those with a duty to one’s country, specifically whether the soldiers implicated should commence or cease firing on their own compatriots. What level of force should soldiers use on the civilians, particularly those they are intended to protect? When soldiers are called in to handle issues of domestic conflict, consideration needs to be given to the implications this has for their interactions with American citizens. Soldiers are often forced to operate in hostile conditions and are trained to ‘dominate a battlespace’. This risks dehumanizing American citizens as can happen when the military operates in a foreign country. The military should not be shooting civilians, however differences in institutional structures and behaviours may make instances like the ‘200 rounds’ fired after the 1992 Los Angeles riots more likely.

Lastly, ‘sending in the troops’ has implications for states’ rights under the tenth amendment. The tenth amendment states that the powers not delegated to the United States government are reserved for the states. However, the Insurrection Act grants the president a discretionary power to override state authority if they view them as incapable of maintaining public order. In most instances, the military is invited into states only at the behest of the governor. There are very few cases where this power should be overridden except when there is an insurrection that law enforcement cannot mitigate, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. While in most cases the governor invites the military in, such as in the case of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, this is not always true. The Insurrection Act can be invoked by the president ‘if the state is failing to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens’. Federalism exists to help maintain governance through local means, but by overriding this President Trump risks violating the rights of states and the people. In essence, by invoking the act against some governors’ wishes, Trump is asserting that the rights of the citizens are not being protected. While one might argue that in the case of systemic racism by the police this assertion is true, it is on the side of the police that Trump is purporting to intervene, thus rendering that argument void.

The military solution is not the right solution for addressing domestic protests. Not only does a military solution risk undermining civilian trust in authority, it also raises troubling ethical questions over the meaning of ‘protect and serve’. Moreover on the constitutional level the military solution has implications for overriding federalism and protecting states’ rights. The 1992 Los Angeles riots demonstrated the need for institutional change without relying on a military solution for civilian control. The underlying problem of systemic racism cannot be fixed via order from the military when further institutional changes are necessary. Failure to focus on those institutional changes, and instead using the military as a means to an end, will only result in danger for civilians and damage to the military without fixing the underlying problem.

Autumn Perkey is a PhD student in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. She specializes in International Relations and American Politics. In 2019, she received her BA in Political Science from The Ohio State University.

In August, International Affairs has teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. This series is made possible by The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG).

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