For the first time in its history, the National Guard has a record 66,722 troops engaged in domestic operations at the direction of governors across the United States, U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau said today. Those numbers include National Guard personnel mobilized to combat COVID-19, as well as those supporting natural disaster responses to wildfires and flooding. The Guard also has troops deployed worldwide in support of global military operations.
“We plan, train and prepare for emergency response missions with our local, state, and federal partners,” Lengyel said. “We’re part of the communities we serve. We know the police, fire departments and hospital workers. We know their capabilities because we live with their capabilities.”
Since Memorial Day there has been civil unrest in multiple cities across the United States in response to the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died while in police custody. Protests have become violent clashes causing governors from 23 states and the mayor of the District of Columbia to activate more than 17,000 National Guard troops to help local authorities restore order, Lengyel said.
As of this writing there have been two incidents of Guardsmen using their weapons against protesters. On May 31, in Minnesota, a car sped towards a group of Guardsmen who were monitoring a protest. Guard personnel tried multiple times to signal the driver to stop, but the vehicle sped at them. A non-lethal method was deployed to get the car to stop, but the vehicle did not comply and continued towards Guard personnel. A National Guardsman fired three rounds at the vehicle. The vehicle then altered its course and drove away from the scene. It is unknown if anyone was hurt as a result of the shooting.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the same evening, David McAtee was shot and killed when National Guard members and police returned fire after they were fired upon by a group of protesters. It is not known if police or the National Guard are responsible for the death, but they confirmed that they returned fire when they were trying to disperse a group of protesters and were shot at. McAtee was not named as the suspect who shot at National Guard or police personnel.
“The hardest mission we do is responding in times of civil unrest,” Lengyel said. Guard members provide traffic control, support to law enforcement, transportation and communication capabilities. They have also helped in fighting fires ignited by protesters.
“Aircrews were using forest fire equipment, including helicopter water buckets, to put out building fires at protests last night,” Lengyel said in a Guard news story.
“Our troops are here to protect life and property, and preserve peace, order and public safety,” Lengyel added.
It should be noted that National Guard personnel are under state, not federal control. National Guard troops have been activated in Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and D.C., according to the National Guard Bureau.
This isn't unfamiliar territory for the National Guard. It was involved in quelling a few uprisings in the 1850s and 1860s, but it was the late 19th century and early 20th century where the force came to be recognized as a viable tool to help civic authorities with civil unrest. The National Guard was first used to quell uprisings when it was mobilized to suppress labor riots involving railway workers, coal miners and steel workers involved in aggressive labor strikes. The Guard would also get mobilized to quell racial violence around this period in North Carolina and Illinois.
In 1957, the National Guard was ordered by the Arkansas governor to prevent African American students from matriculating at a Little Rock high school. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had the forces withdrawn. Later in the 1960s, the National Guard was federalized to ensure integration of the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama.
Later, those same federalized Alabama National Guardsmen, nearly 3,000 of them, protected the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his marchers in Selma, Alabama, and later that year the Guard was asked to suppress racial protests in Watts, Los Angeles. Throughout the 1960s the National Guard was called in to restore order in several American cities due to racial tensions, but it culminated when the National Guard was called up and deployed to several American cities to help restore order in the wake of King’s assassination. Riots and looting took place in New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago and other cities. In Chicago, 12 people were killed, more than 160 buildings were destroyed and more than 3,000 were arrested. In comparison to the current Guard call up, there were 13,600 troops sent to occupy Washington, D.C. in the aftermath of King’s assassination. Not since the Civil War had a city been occupied with so many U.S. military troops.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the National Guard was used to help in labor disputes as manpower and they continued to be used as a force to help quell civic unrest. The Ohio National Guard was also involved in the 1970 shooting on the campus of Kent State University when Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed anti-war protesters killing four students and injuring nine.
In 1992, the Guard found itself back in Los Angeles combating violent protesters angry about the acquittals of police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. Sixty-three people died in those riots including one shot by National Guardsmen. More than 12,000 were arrested and the city suffered $1 billion in damage.
The National Guard has also been used extensively in natural disaster responses and in federal deployments in support of U.S. military operations overseas during war.