Social media roiled all day as users tried to figure out who were the soldiers in Washington, D.C. wearing no identification and saying they reported to the Department of Justice. Tonight the answer came: they were riot teams from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a law enforcement agency under the Department of Justice that oversees incarcerated people.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, according to Holocaust scholar Waitman Wade Beorn, who studies ethical decision making in the military, it’s a problem because soldiers are trained to defend civilians while prison guards are used to seeing civilians as their enemies, and are accustomed to using force, rather than de-escalation, to subdue them. The U.S. military, Beorn points out, does not like to be employed against Americans, and has a long tradition of that reluctance.
Their lack of name tags and insignia was also problematic. It hampers accountability-- how can you complain about the actions of an officer if you cannot identify him?-- and it blurs the lines between actual officers of the law and the men on the streets toting guns and demanding protesters answer to them. The use of unidentifiable police is common among authoritarian leaders.
And indeed, backed by Attorney General William Barr, Trump appears to be launching a bid to become an authoritarian leader himself. Law enforcement officers operating under his orders are attacking peaceful protesters and journalists, while the president is framing himself as a powerful leader in front of important Christian symbols: on Monday at St. John’s Episcopal Church, the famous “Church of Presidents” where his predecessors back to Madison worshipped, Tuesday at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C.
He has supporters in his quest. Today, the New York Times published an op-ed by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, calling for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” With no evidence, he claimed that “cadres of left-wing radicals like Antifa” are “infiltrating protest marches… for their own anarchic purposes.”
On Monday, Trump announced he would call in active-duty troops to “dominate” the streets, and about 1,300 troops were brought to Washington, D.C. early this week.
But his announcement sparked a widespread and concerted push back by American military leaders today, with the Pentagon saying it has no intent to use active-duty troops in any law enforcement roles.
General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Mark T. Esper, Secretary of Defense, were both caught in Trump’s photo-op walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church Monday after National Guard officers had cleared peaceful protesters from the square in front of it with tear gas and rubber bullets. Today, they distanced themselves from the president.
Milley issued a memo to all branches of the U.S. military reminding them to honor their oaths to the Constitution, a document “founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.” Milley’s wording reflects that forty percent of the nation’s active-duty and reserve troops are people of color who aren’t keen on seeing the president empowering white supremacists.
For his part, Esper told reporters that he did not believe active-duty military should be sent to American cities, contradicting the president, who later chewed him out for it.
But Milley and Esper were not alone. Eager to distance themselves from Trump and the imposition of martial law, a wave of military leaders from the Air Force, Army, Navy spoke up today to call for justice for Black Americans and to reiterate their loyalty to the Constitution.
John Allen, a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, called out June 1, 2020 as the day that might well “signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
“There is no precedent in modern U.S. history for a president to wield federal troops in a state or municipality over the objections of the respective governor. Right now, the last thing the country needs—and, frankly, the U.S. military needs—is the appearance of U.S. soldiers carrying out the president’s intent by descending on American citizens,” he wrote.
Allen pointed out that the dangers of “Antifa,” a loose designation for those opposing fascism, pale in comparison to “violent white supremacist groups,” who have “murdered, lynched, tortured, terrorized, oppressed, and discriminated against black Americans from the beginning of the idea of America.”
James Stavridis, the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, expressed dismay at the use of the military against peaceful protesters. Soldiers ”are not meant to be turned against their fellow citizens,” he wrote. “Our founding fathers feared the use of a standing army that could be used to further the aims of a dictator…. The idea of “boots on the ground” and “dominating the battlespace” in our American cities is anathema to America.” He invoked Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese government brutally suppressed protesters exactly 31 years ago, killing and wounding thousands, as a warning for what could happen if the military gets dragged into domestic politics.
General James Mattis, Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, wrote a scathing public condemnation of Donald Trump himself. “Angry and appalled,” by this week’s events, Mattis said Trump had ordered troops “to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens,” and warned that we should use uniformed military “only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors.” “We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.”
Remembering that in World War Two the Nazi slogan was “Divide and Conquer,” Mattis noted that Trump “tries to divide us.” “We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must,” he wrote, “reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.” He concluded: “Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.”
It is not just military leaders who have spoken out against Trump. As of today, all four living presidents-- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama-- have all called for racial justice and a better government.
Today, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison charged all four of the Minneapolis police officers at the scene of George Floyd’s murder. Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, has been charged with second-degree murder. The other three officers, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Kueng, are charged with felony aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. They face maximum sentences of forty years in prison.
Trump’s reelection campaign is faltering as his poll numbers drop, and his supporters are trying desperately to turn the nation’s focus back to the idea of “Obamagate.” Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings on the origins of the Russia investigation, interviewing Rod Rosenstein, the former Deputy Attorney General who oversaw the investigation after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. The committee focused on the applications to the court to allow wiretapping on former Trump aide Carter Page, and while Rosenstein defended those applications, Republicans pounced on his admission that they were poorly prepared. They also attacked presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Obama for what they said were abuses of power that rivaled those of Richard Nixon.
Trump supporters on Fox News media expressed frustration that no one seemed to be paying attention to the hearings.
Meanwhile, across the nation, protesters and city mayors are pulling down Confederate statues, a physical political ritual that is a universal herald for regime change.
A crazy number of notes tonight, folks, but this is a historic week….
Garrett Haake @GarrettHaakeJust In: NBC’s Mike Kosnar obtains a statement from the Bureau of Prisons about their un-badged officers in DC. It’s long so I screen-shotted it, and their previous statement, sent upon their deployment https://t.co/BbTdJNDpBg