Police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd in Ferguson, Mo., on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014.
Police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd in Ferguson, Mo., on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. // Charlie Riedel/AP

So Much for Demilitarizing Ferguson, Here Comes the National Guard

The riotous scene on the streets of the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of Ferguson swelled again late Sunday, prompting Gov. Jay Nixon to send the state’s National Guard troops in to help restore order to the town.

Nixon’s decision to deploy combat troops against protestors and looters is a notable shift in response to a scene that many said last week already appeared overly-militarized by the Ferguson police department’s eagerness to don military gear. Local police were heavily criticized for wearing desert warfare clothing and arriving armed with armored trucks, sniper rifles, gas masks and bullet-proof vests, some purchased via the Pentagon’s so-called “1033 program.”

“I think it’s useful for us to probably review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars to make sure that what they’re purchasing [from the Pentagon] is stuff they actually need,” President Barack Obama said Monday at the White House. “Because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines to be blurred.”

“With respect to the National Guard,” Obama said on Monday, “I spoke to Jay Nixon about this, expressed an interest in making sure that if in fact the National Guard is used it is used in a limited and appropriate way. He described the support role they’re going to be providing to local law enforcement. And I’ll be watching over the next several days to assess whether in fact it’s helping rather than hindering progress in Ferguson.”

In wording that reflects the nearly 400-year-old roots of America’s storied use of armed civilians for community defense, Nixon’s executive order (pdf) calls for an “organized militia” to “employ such equipment as may be necessary in support of civilian authorities,” though Nixon has not elaborated on how exactly the new troops will be lending a hand in Ferguson.

The governor declared a state of emergency Saturday and instituted a curfew on the Ferguson streets over the weekend. That curfew is being lifted for Monday evening. Nixon’s efforts at restoring order to this largely black city of more than 20,000 residents follow a tense week of outrage and property destruction after a police officer shot and killed teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 9. United States Attorney General Eric Holder on Sunday ordered the Justice Department to carry out its own autopsy on Brown, citing the “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the shooting of the unarmed teenager. Brown’s family, too, requested their own private autopsy carried out by the same pathologist who testified in the O.J. Simpson, Drew Peterson and Phil Spector murder trials. That autopsy found Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head.

(Related: Congress Is Not Canceling the Pentagon-to-Police Weapons Program)

But the addition of National Guard troops to the scene in Ferguson marks at least the seventh time in six decades that the Guard has been called in to respond to race-related rioting on America’s streets. Below is a brief tally of additional race-relations flare-ups in U.S. cities that summoned various governors to call in their states’ “weekend warriors” to assist with escalating crises:

  • California National Guard responded to the Los Angeles riots in 1992;
  • Maryland National Guard arrived to the scene of Baltimore riots in April 1968;
  • Riots in Detroit on July 1967 led to the Michigan National Guard stepping in;
  • The Watts Riots of August 1965 Los Angeles called for a California National Guard response;
  • Race riots in Rochester, N.Y., a year earlier in July 1964, summoned New York troops;
  • President Eisenhower ordered Arkansas troops to ensure the safety of the “Little Rock 9” in 1957.

As many Americans tracked the Ferguson protests on virtually every television news channel last week, tensions subsided somewhat by the time Obama pleaded for calm from Martha’s Vineyard last Thursday. But on Friday Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson released the name of the officer involved in the shooting after more than a week of refusing to do so. Jackson also revealed that the officer, Darren Wilson, initially encountered Brown walking in the street and blocking traffic. It remains unclear what exactly happened between the initial encounter and the fatal shooting of the unarmed Brown.

But it is also unclear how exactly a surge of combat troops to a deeply segregated American city will ease a population already nervous at the sight of armored vehicles once used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Even Attorney General Holder found the Ferguson police response excessive, telling his deputies last Thursday, “Tell them to remove the damn tanks.” By noon Monday, photos emerged on social media of National Guard troop convoys rolling down Missouri streets. Noticeably absent: the heavily-armored personnel carriers.

Guard troops are trained to respond to a variety of domestic emergencies, including “civil disturbances.” Many of the same fundamentals that go into that sort of training are the core of the Army’s basic training curricula for new troops—operating roadblocks and checkpoints, securing a perimeter, evacuating casualties. Many Guard units undergo this sort of training annually as part of the National Guard’s Rapid Reaction Force, or RRF, mission. It is a key departure from the standard combat operations most troops train for in advance of a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

“This training will allow [National Guard troops] to decipher the difference in how to deal with the populace in our nation versus in a combat situation,” Lt. Col. Robert Bumgardner, a North Carolina Army National Guard commander, said in May 2013. “[These soldiers] are warriors first, but peacekeepers within our own nation.”

Units like Bumgardner’s RRF-assigned one can be mobilized within four to eight hours, with follow-on forces rounding out the deployment within a 36-hour window. Missouri’s rapid appearance of Guard convoys on the streets points to a RRF-assigned unit helping restore order in Ferguson. There are currently more than 350,000 Army National Guard troops in America’s 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. Their largest-ever domestic deployment of National Guard troops—more than 50,000 at the time—came in response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. 

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