Two days after activating the District of Columbia National Guard to aid police in tamping down violence and property damage among protests, troops from half-a-dozen other states are preparing to make their way to DC in what is expected to be a particularly contentious effort to maintain peace.
Members of the Utah, Indiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and New Jersey National Guards will join local police and DC Guardsmen tonight, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the National Guard Bureau chief, told reporters Tuesday, in addition to a battalion of active-duty military police from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina ― or about 1,500, coming to augment the 1,200 who were on duty Monday night.
“We strive to maintain to maintain that the troops are here to protect lives to protect property, to preserve peace and public safety,” he said. “That’s what we’re, we’re trying to do and we are uniquely suited to do this.”
Though protests have broken out across the country since what prosecutors say was the May 25 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, predictions are that DC will be particularly hard hit with violent and property damage.
“The DC National Guard is relatively small,” a senior defense official, whow as not authorized to answer questions on the record, told repoters. “And we were forecasting a relatively large ― in size and scope of protest activities ― that, that we felt needed additional support.”
The DC Guard is part of a security mission to support DC police, the official said, not working in a law enforcement capacity, which would involve deployment of weapons and making arrests.
“National Guard in DC did not have any non-lethal munitions,” a senior defense official clarified, including tear gas or rubber bullets used by local police. “They did not any point last night fire on any protesters or do anything of the sort.”
Generally, another official clarified, National Guard members wear riot gear in that type of situation, with shields and helmets and perhaps a baton, but no other weapons.
On Monday night, he added, some of those stationed on the very front lines carried sidearms and pepper spray.
Neither defense official could clarify why a UH-72 Lakota, generally tasked for medical evacuation, had been ordered to hover above a crowd at one point in the night, in a perceived show of force and intimidation.
More than 200 82nd Airborne Division MPs will also not be working in law enforcement capacity, CNN reported Monday, but as a security mission similar to the National Guard’s.
“This mission is an uncomfortable mission,” a senior defense official said, of troops having to confront their own neighbors. “We don’t like doing it.”
Nationwide, more than 20,000 Guardsmen from 29 jurisdications have been activated, according to Tuesday release from the bureau.
During a call to governors on Monday, President Trump said that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley would be “in charge” of the military’s protest response. He and Defense Secretary Mark Esper walked the streets near the White House Monday night, speaking to Guard members standing watch.
“Let them protest, but protest peacefully,” Milley told a small group of reporters.
Both White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and a senior defense official have since clarified that Milley’s role remains as an adviser to the president, not in control of any task force or mission.
Milley and Esper began their evening by briefing President Trump at the White House, according to a senior defense official, a detour off of their planned trip from the Pentagon to FBI headquarters.
“And while they were there, that meeting concluded. The president indicated an interest in viewing the troops that were outside and the secretary and the chairman went with him to do so,” the official said. “That’s the extent of what was taking place. And at that point, they were part of the group that was with the president. He continued through Lafayette Park.”
In order to do that, as was caught on camera, DC police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a group of peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square.
After they had been cleared, Trump and his entourage made their way across the square, where Trump held up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church and made brief remarks.
“It’s coming back, it’s coming back strong,” Trump said of the United States. “It’ll be greater than ever.”
Trump then took a photo with members of his cabinet, including Attorney General Robert Barr and Esper, as well as McEnany.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.