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Homeland Security

What Is US Military's Role in Times of Civil Unrest?

By Carla Babb June 01, 2020

More than 17,000 members of the U.S. National Guard are supporting state and local law enforcement, as they respond to civil unrest in 23 U.S. States.

Those members, along with the approximately 45,000 National Guard members supporting the COVID-19 response and the hundreds of others helping with the U.S. southern border wall mission, wildfire and flood response, and cyber support, combine for a historic total of at least 66,700 activated for domestic operations, as of Monday.

What is the National Guard?

The National Guard consists of civilians who serve the United States as soldiers or airmen on a part-time basis.

Unlike Marines, sailors or regular soldiers and airmen, the National Guard is tasked with a dual mission to support state and federal operations. State governors can call them to service during local or state emergencies such as storms, earthquakes or civil unrest.

"We are here to protect life and property, and preserve peace, order and public safety," General Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Monday.

Minnesota, where African American George Floyd died in police custody last week, is among the states that have deployed the National Guard to help with civil unrest.

The state's top soldier, Army Major General Jon Jensen, said on Sunday that members have responded to fires, provided security for hospitals and ambulances, created traffic control points and secured critical infrastructure, such as the federal reserve of Minneapolis.

He added that his soldiers were armed after receiving an FBI warning about "credible, lethal threat" against his forces.

The U.S. president can also activate the National Guard for federal missions, such as fighting the war against terrorism in the Middle East.

The current number of National Guard activated for domestic operations far surpasses the number of members activated in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when more than 51,000 were activated to assist with recovery in several southern U.S. states.

But as the domestic deployment of the National Guard has swelled in recent days, the commander of the Georgia National Guard cautioned Sunday that U.S. citizens should not continuously accept the military, rather than law enforcement, to provide security within the United States.

"While we're glad to do it and honored to do it, this is a sign of the times that we need to do better as a country. … We stand ready to do this mission anytime we're called on to do it, but I pray I never have to do it again," Army Major General Thomas Carden, the adjutant general of the Georgia National Guard, told reporters.

What other military assets are involved in keeping the peace?

Currently, no active duty service members have been requested to help with the recent civil unrest.

An official confirmed to VOA on Monday that hundreds of military police from three Army bases have been ordered to prepare to deploy to Minnesota, should the governor ask for active duty assistance.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Saturday the military had raised the alert of several units as "a prudent planning measure," although no request for active duty assistance has been made from Minnesota Governor Tim Walz.

Under the Insurrection Act of 1807, the president can deploy the military "to suppress, in any State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy."

If deployed, it would be the first time that active duty military service members kept the peace amid civil unrest within U.S. borders since the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

The California city erupted on April 29, 1992, after a jury found four L.A. police officers not guilty in the beating of an African American man that was filmed by a bystander and broadcast around the globe.

Active duty service members were also deployed within the U.S. to keep the peace and maintain order in the 1950s during desegregation, during the 1967 Detroit riots, and following the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968.

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