The United States has faced days of mass demonstrations and civil unrest across the country following the death of 46-year old African American man George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25th. One officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second degree murder, with three others faced with charges of aiding and abetting murder. In an attempt to quell the protests and violence, United States President Donald Trump has threatened to use military force in a speech he made from the Rose Garden in the White House.
“If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them”.
For the President to do this, it has been suggested that he would need to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807. The 213-year-old law allows for the President to mobilise federal troops for the purpose of domestic law enforcement in certain situations:
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the pre-requisites of the law in that respect”
According to a 2006 Congressional Research Service report, before invoking the act, the President must “first issue a proclamation ordering the insurgents to disperse within a limited time”. If that fails to solve the situation “the President may issue an executive order to send in troops”.
The Act has been invoked several times to clamp down on protests during periods of heightened racial tension. It was last used by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 as riots broke out in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four white LAPD officers who were filmed beating African American Rodney King. Bush also used it to quell wide-spread looting in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989. President Lyndon B. Johnson also invoked the Act due to violence between African American residents and police officers in Detroit in 1967, and again in 1968 as protests and riots broke out following the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King.
While this may suggest that the Act exists solely to put down protests and riots, it has also been used to aid the struggle for Civil Rights. President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the act in 1957 to allow for the army to accompany nine black students to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas after State Governor Orval Faubus had prevented them from attending. President John F. Kennedy also used the act to enforce desegregation of schools in Alabama in 1963. However, it would take a stretch of enormous proportions to frame Trump’s invocation of the Act as an effort to promote racial equality – this is about clearing the streets.
With regards to the current situation, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has openly opposed the President’s threat to deploy federal troops, saying that “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, a former soldier and member of the National Guard, does not believe that the United States is “in one of those situations now” and that he does not “support invoking the Insurrection Act”.
The invocation of this Act by President Trump is evidence of the seriousness of the situation facing the United States. It would seem that the President is looking for a quick and easy solution to the current wave of protests – clear the streets, whatever it takes. But the anger people feel when confronted with the most overt form of racial injustice will not be solved by stopping protests through the use of violence.
Esper’s opposition to using the Insurrection Act suggests that at least some in the Trump White House disagree with the President’s desire for the use of “Overwhelming force” and “Domination” of the nation’s cities, especially as Trump is famous for the hiring of yes men and his propensity for firing his staff – if the Secretary of Defence is willing to risk his job there must be something amiss.
Today, June 3rd, marks the ninth consecutive day of what is now an international protest. An end to the violence is not yet in sight. And an end to racial injustice? It could be just getting further.