Hundreds of Utah Army National Guardsmen were told to pack up and leave their hotel rooms with little warning late Thursday night, after returning from doing crowd control in downtown Washington, D.C., the National Guard Bureau said in a Friday news release.
The reason, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy confirmed to Military Times, is that they had checked into a block of rooms set aside for National Guardsmen supporting COVID-19 relief efforts, at the district’s expense.
“The way it was described to me, by [D.C.] Police Chief Peter Newsham ― she wanted to keep that pure and get those personnel out of those hotel rooms," McCarthy said. "So we made that accommodation, obviously, and we’re moving them to a different location.”
The soldiers had been staying at the Marriott Marquis, in downtown D.C. and across the street from the district’s convention center, where Guardsmen were meant to sleep while working in local hospitals or in the COVID-19 overflow facility in the convention center itself.
“It was very sudden to me, too,” McCarthy said. “I heard about it this morning. It was not communicated to us directly.”
McCarthy said the Army will be tapping into funds that are generally used to support drill periods and field exercises to cover Guard troops’ expenses while they’re in D.C. Utah is one of 11 states that has sent troops to help with crowd control during the past week of protests.
Bowser followed up Friday morning by sending a letter to President Trump requesting the withdrawal of out-of-state National Guard troops from the district. As D.C. is a federal territory, the federal government can request troops from other states, but the mayor has no control of their mobilization.
Bowser wrote that the “additional, unidentified units” have also added to the confusion by not wearing “identifying insignia.”
Boots on the ground
Thousands of troops have streamed into D.C. this week as protests have continued in support of George Floyd, a black man prosecutors say was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25.
As the district represents the political heart of the country, and is the physical home of a president protesters believe has ignited racial tensions and violence in the country, the assessment on the ground from police has been that it could see some of the most violent and damaging demonstrations.
Local authorities are following social media closely to track demonstration points and predict how many people will be gathering, McCarthy said, along with traffic flowing into the district.
“That’s the primary, to kind of gauge for the energy they’re going to see,” McCarthy said, in addition to factoring in crowd size of other large demonstrations in recent history.
The word a week ago was that thousands of back-up personnel would be required to help local authorities contain protests. In response, the Defense Department put together a patchwork of forces that could be used in several scenarios.
“We didn’t really know what we were dealing with,” McCarthy said, as intelligence surfaced Sunday night, calling for more personnel on site.
While National Guard troops have been in a state-activated status, three active-duty Army units also made their way to D.C. on Tuesday.
Those active duty troops ― which included an infantry task force from 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, and two military police units from Fort Drum, New York and Fort Bragg, North Carolina ― are now headed home.
Additionally, the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia-based 3rd Infantry Regiment, better known as the Old Guard, is also on a quick recall.
“We would like to get the alert status of the Old Guard off by the weekend,” McCarthy said. “That would be my recommendation, to try to get to that point.”
Comments earlier this week from the president alluded to the Insurrection Act, which allows active-duty troops to be used in civilian crowd control efforts.
McCarthy could not say how close the Defense Department and White House got to that decision, because those meetings happen with the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman.
"If the 82nd’s across the river, and we felt like we had lost control, you would’ve had to do it, legally,” McCarthy said of moving 82nd Airborne troops from their staging area at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, into the district.
For this weekend, McCarthy said, the rough estimate is more than 100,000, perhaps 200,000, on Saturday.
“It will be a large demonstration, but we need to watch this very closely to see how it progresses,” McCarthy said.
Despite earlier estimates, he said, the situation on the ground in D.C. has been largely peaceful the past few nights, with large, loud crowds, but not violence.
“I view that as part of the process. If people want ot demonstrate and express their anger and frustration for that horrible event, they should," McCarthy said. “We want to be able to help enable that. We just don’t want anybody to get hurt.”