The riots and protests that have roiled cites across the country over the last two weeks are dying down in the East Coast, but still raging on in Seattle, a bastion of far-left activism.
The ongoing chaos in Seattle is fueling new questions about whether decisions to disarm the state’s National Guard and have the Seattle police stand down are fanning the flames of protest and emboldening activists hell-bent on anarchy.
On June 1, after several nights of chaotic riots and looting in Seattle that included protesters setting several police cars ablaze, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called in the National Guard to help stabilize the unrest that erupted following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
“The guard are unarmed peacekeepers. They are here to help support the local communities,” Inslee, a Democrat who briefly ran for president before dropping out last summer, said at a press conference. “Their service is no different than what was provided during fire season or what they’re doing for our COVID-19 response.”
Eight days later, tensions were still running high after a weekend filled with clashes between Seattle police and protesters and an incident involving a man driving into a crowd of protesters and shooting one. On Monday night, a team of National Guard soldiers, armed only with batons and plastic shields and surrounded by protesters, pushed their way through the crowd and into a Seattle police precinct to remove weapons, ammunition and other supplies and allow all employees to leave, according to an eyewitness who spoke to RealClearPolitics.
Police Chief Carmen Best had ordered police to abandon the building, and the Guard soldiers appeared to play a key role in carrying it out.
Afterward, the police precinct, along with apartments and businesses on the block, were sprayed with foam fire suppressant to help protect them from a “credible threat” to burn the structure down. It was a prudent precaution after a Minneapolis police precinct was torched and suffered damage in the first few days of the protests over Memorial Day weekend.
Firefighters are standing by to protect the building and nearby businesses. Protesters, touting their victory against police, immediately declared the area a “cop-free zone” and sprayed barricades bordering the area with the words “now leaving the USA” and entering the “Capitol Hill autonomous zone” or “Free Capitol Hill.”
Still, protesters still weren’t satisfied. With police standing down Tuesday night, thousands of them broke into Seattle’s City Hall to demand that Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, resign over her failure to immediately embrace the push to defund the police. (Several members of the City Council had joined the frontlines of protests and earlier that day agreed to consider a proposal to cut police funding by 50%.)
The chaotic events that have unfolded in Seattle over the past several days offer the latest evidence of sharp political clashes over public officials’ responses to the violence and destruction accompanying more peaceful protests against racial injustice across the country.
The Black Lives Matter movement in recent days has renewed its push to demilitarize police forces around the country. Meanwhile, some on the right, including President Trump, Sen. Tom Cotton and others, have gone to the other extreme, calling on state and local officials to dominate the streets with military crackdowns on protests to stop the violence, looting and destruction.
Some 700 law-enforcement officers have been injured during the nationwide unrest over Floyd’s death, according to Justice Department data, and their lives matter too, Cotton argues, as do the livelihoods of all the business owners who saw their establishments looted and/or destroyed.
But activists on the left say the police have gone too far in trying to restore law and order in Seattle and elsewhere. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on Tuesday alleging that Best and Durkan had violated the constitutional rights of protesters by allowing officers, working with the guard, to disperse crowds with tear gas and flash-bang devices.
Even though Washington National Guardsmen were unarmed, aerial drone photos of police clashing with protesters over the weekend show a line of soldiers standing immediately behind the Seattle Police, who were facing off against a sea of protesters. Eyewitnesses told RCP that the protests were much more violent than previously reported – that there were pipe bombs thrown at police and guardsmen, that people were throwing bottles, rocks, fireworks and other “incendiary devices” and shining green lasers into the eyes of police and Guard soldiers.
The Seattle police Twitter feed said several police officers were injured Sunday with two taken to the hospital for treatment. At least one guardsman was struck in the head by a glass bottle, according to a police department tweet. Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department, which works with the National Guard, said the soldier was not injured and was back at work the next day.
Shagren also said that the role the Guard performed in Seattle wasn’t at odds with Inslee’s earlier assertion that they would offer peaceful support of police.
“They serve to ensure that the important message of those peacefully protesting in our communities isn’t overshadowed by criminals who are using the events to mask their dangerous and illegal activities,” she said, without referring to the constraints placed upon the police and Guard in performing that task.
“To suggest anything different is inaccurate and an unfair characterization. While the civil disturbance missions are different than COVID-related or wildfire missions – at the end of the day, our men and women leave their families and jobs to help our local communities preserve life and property,” Shagren added.
But Trump, Cotton and other critics says the hands-off approach is only spurring more needless deaths, injuries and costly destruction, which will take years for some inner cities to recover from, and does a disservice to Floyd’s death.
"One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers," Cotton said in a controversial New York Times op-ed titled "Send In the Troops," calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. The Cotton opinion piece lead to an employee protest at the Times, which issued a subsequent apology for running it.
An opinion editor under fire for green-lighting the op-ed later resigned, part of developments that have fueled an intense national debate over “woke” censorship of dissenting views.
The 213-year-old Insurrection Act gives the president the power to deploy active-duty military troops on U.S. soil to "restore public order and enforce the laws" when "domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted authorities of the State or possession are incapable of maintaining public order."
Over the last 60 years, presidents have used the law a number of times, including to uphold federal civil rights laws in the Deep South in the late 1950s, as Cotton pointed out in his op-ed. More recently, it was used to quell violence during the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King beating and police officers’ acquittal for it.
In early June, after days of violence and looting in Washington, D.C., President Trump declared himself the “law and order” president and threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military troops if the destruction in U.S. cities continued.
“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property,” Trump said.
The “heavily armed” part of that statement was largely untrue. As in Seattle, the vast majority of the National Guard troops deployed to D.C. were equipped with riot gear but didn’t carry firearms.
“At the request of the Secretary of the Army, National Guard forces will not deploy with weapons,” D.C. National Guard spokeswoman Darla Torres told RCP. “In limited circumstances, some guardsmen may be armed as necessary, to accomplish the mission of preserving life and property. However, the vast majority of the service members will be equipped with personal protective equipment such as shields, shin guards, helmets and batons.”
If Trump, along with liberal activists and other members of public, are confused about the National Guard’s ability to use lethal force against rioters, there’s a good reason for it. Governors ultimately have the final say over how to arm these soldiers operating in their states.
“Under state law, it’s the governor who decides how to equip and deploy the National Guard,” said John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who served as a legal counsel at the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration. “If the anyone is unhappy about the way the National Guard are equipped for deployment, in most cases, it’s because that’s the way the governor and his aides wanted it.”
Yoo last week wrote his own op-ed disagreeing with Cotton, arguing that the Insurrection Act isn’t needed at this time because “states still have the resources to respond to civil disorder.” (Yoo is no shrinking violet when it comes to the use of force. He is credited with co-writing the infamous Torture Memo in 2002, which provided a legal rationale for the torture of detainees during the Global War on Terror.)
Over the last two weeks, some 31 states have used the manpower at their disposal, mobilizing their Guard units. A confusing patchwork of state policies has emerged as a result: Some news photos show guardsmen toting M4 rifles while others show these troops carrying only batons and plastic shields.
In California, for instance, Gov. Gavin Newsom allowed National Guard soldiers to carry M4s, along with live ammunition, during a week-long mobilization that ended over the weekend. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti reluctantly mobilized the Guard in early June in the wake of massive looting and the torching of police cars – unrest that subsided in a matter of days after the armed troops were called in to support police.
In contrast to the protesters storming Seattle City Hall Tuesday night, the armed Guardsmen in L.A. helped monitor City Hall there as the downtown was cleaned up.
Newsom didn’t respond to a request for comment about the rationale for allowing the soldiers to carry rifles.
“California National Guardsmen deploy with their assigned individual weapon they are qualified on and a reduced ammunition load for self-defense,” said a spokesman for the California Military Department.
When Inslee was asked at a press conference last week why he decided not to arm guardsmen working with police, he turned to Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the commander of the Washington National Guard, to respond.
“We always arm ourselves to the level that’s appropriate for the threat that we face, and right now that threat appears to be looters who are breaking windows and stealing merchandise – clearly criminal activity worthy of being arrested and sent to jail but not deadly force,” Daugherty said, noting that he would discuss any changes to the threat level and those recommendations with Inslee.
He referred to an incident in which two Kentucky National Guard members shot and killed a protester in Louisville, although Louisville police fired too. A Kentucky official Tuesday night said evidence shows the gunshot that killed the man came from the Guard member, not a police officer.
Other state National Guards surveyed by RCP said states were using their soldiers in less public-facing roles, arming some and not arming others.
A spokesman for the Arizona National Guard said some soldiers are carrying M4s while others are armed with 9mm pistols, depending on their mission.
“There are some missions where they are not required at all,” he said. “The majority of our missions are behind the scenes, and we are rarely interacting with the community. Other states have their guard members on the front lines with riot gear. We do not. We are serving in capacities that enable more law enforcement [officers] to interact with the community.”