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Troops should not be used as law enforcement against protesters, Esper says

As thousands of National Guard and active-duty troops mobilize to Washington, D.C., to support local civilian police to control violence and property damage in the wake of protests over the alleged murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Defense Secretary Mark Esper sought to dispell the idea that service members will be asked to detain or fire upon their fellow citizens.

The Insurrection Act of 1807 allows the federal government to take command of National Guard troops and mobilize active-duty and reservists to put down civil disorder and rebellion, a law that President Donald Trump alluded to on Monday in a speech at the White House.

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

So far, the tens of thousands of National Guard troops mobilized around the country have been working at the behest of their governors, in a state-activated status. Part of that mission has included donning riot gear for protection, but has otherwise been limited to standing sentry to prevent property damage, as many did Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

In addition to D.C. Guardsmen, as well as back-up National Guard troops from a handful of states, 1,600 active-duty soldiers have been mobilized to the area.

They include members of an 82nd Airborne Division infantry task force, as well as the 16th Military Police Brigade’s headquarters element, both based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 91st Military Police Battalion from Fort Drum, New York.

“Active duty elements are postured on military bases in the National Capitol Region but are not in Washington, D.C.," Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a release Tuesday night. “They are on heightened alert status but remain under Title X authority and are not participating in defense support to civil authority operations.”

Despite that limited status, Guard troops have come under investigation for their conduct during the mission.

Esper said he has directed Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to conduct an inquiry into an Army Guard UH-72 Lakota helicopter, a medevac transport bearing a Red Cross, that was filmed flying low above protesters in Washington Monday night, in a perceived move to intimidate demonstrators.

“I got a report back that they were asked by the law enforcement to look at a checkpoint, a National Guard checkpoint, to see if there were protesters around,” Esper said. “So there’s conflicting reports ― I don’t want to add to that.”

But from what he saw on a video of the incident, Esper added, he thought the helo was too close to protestors.

“Look, I think when you’re landing that low in the city ... it looks unsafe to me, right?” he said. “But I need to find out why. I need to learn more about what’s going on. You would not be unsafe if they were medevac for picking up somebody who was seriously injured or something like that, right? It would be a different circumstance.”

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