Following the tragic and senseless death in police custody of George Floyd, protests, riots, and lootings in Minnesota compelled Governor Tim Walz to activate the National Guard to “help provide security and restore safety,” according to an emergency executive order issued on May 28. Initially, 500 members of Minnesota’s 11,000-strong National Guard had been called in to help control the dire and developing situation. On May 30, that number was increased to around 10,000.
As a result of this heart-sickening tragedy, a powder keg of anger, grievance, and animosity toward law enforcement threatened to explode, both in Minnesota and nationwide. The National Guard may well be tasked with more than just protecting life, preserving property, and ensuring the rights of demonstrators going forward. Could deploying in the Guard be a prelude to martial law in Minnesota – and beyond?
Domestic National Guard deployments are not entirely unprecedented. Units have been activated by state governors during the Watts riots in 1965, the Rodney King riots in 1992, and the Ferguson riots in 2014, to name but three occasions. It is far less common, however, for a president to mobilize the National Guard – something that has occurred just 12 times since the enactment of the 1952 Armed Forces Reserve Act. The Selma Civil Rights March of 1965, the Detroit Riots of 1967, and the nationwide upheaval that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, were instances when the president assumed control of the National Guard to attempt to quell unrest that was beyond the power and purview of state governors to control.
Mishandling a Crisis
Painful questions – that must be asked and answered – surround the cry of fury in Minnesota over Floyd’s death. It calls for legitimate and urgent discussions about whether the incident was motivated by racism or was simply the use of excessive force without bigotry. One of those problematic considerations is how local and state officials – and law enforcement – have responded to this moment. Are Minneapolis leaders and police allowing their city to burn? And if so, is it from fear of what might happen if they intercede, or because they tacitly or reluctantly condone unlawful actions that have included incinerating a police station as well as looting and destroying businesses like Target and local establishments such as a black-owned sports bar?
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey issued a stand-down order to the police and defended his decision by referencing the “pain and anger” in the city and “the symbolism of a building” being unable to “outweigh the importance of life, our officers, or the public.” From one perspective, this can be seen as an honest attempt to protect police and the citizenry from further reprisal and violence, but from another, it can easily be seen as justification for doing nothing while the rule of law itself is set on fire. If the primary concern is the regrettable wages of standing up for what is right and lawful, why have a police force at all – or an army, for that matter?
Weighing constitutional rights to assembly and protest against the realities of how such demonstrations often metastasize into rioting, looting, violence, and death is a tricky business. More than 60 people were killed in the many successive days of rioting after the Rodney King Jr. verdict was announced. This seems unconscionable, though the issues and anger undergirding such a devastating outcome are readily understood.
The Problem of Partisanship
Human suffering doesn’t end at lives lost during incendiary flashpoints: it includes the uncounted hundreds, or thousands, who suffer from the destruction of businesses and livelihoods – the terrible collateral damage of rioting. Estimates are that one billion dollars in property damage resulted from the Rodney King riots. As is the case with the coming tidal wave of deaths from suicide, alcoholism, drug overdose, and child abuse from COVID-19 quarantines, the ripple effect of actions undertaken hastily and with little forethought is already having disastrous unintended consequences in Minnesota and elsewhere. The neighborhoods that suffer the most are almost always the lower- to middle-class communities in which the riots begin.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media and Leftist elites cheering on the arson, vandalizing, and mayhem do so from the comforts of their hermetically sealed lifestyles in places far from the epicenter of the violence. The usual race-baiting suspects, Michael Moore and Maxine Waters, weighed in almost immediately to fan the flames of racial hatred. Moore said the police headquarters in Minneapolis had to burn as an act of “contrition to black America” while Waters naturally blamed George Floyd’s death on President Trump.
The hope was that Trump’s quick directive to the Department of Justice to prioritize a criminal investigation into George Floyd’s death would sufficiently blunt the rioting in Minnesota enough to encourage peaceful protesting instead. Despite this proactive measure from the president and the news that Officer Derek Chauvin was charged with the murder of George Floyd, the hope for a de-escalation of tensions has proven an errant wish. Trump’s intemperate tweet about how riots often quickly descend into violence didn’t help matters, and protests and riots spread to major American cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Detroit.
Deploying the National Guard in Minnesota during this crisis may help: these are not police officers, while the men and women in blue are at the eye of a storm that is gaining in intensity. But it also leaves the mayoral and gubernatorial leadership in that state open to charges that they have abandoned their sworn duty to serve and protect their citizens at a moment of grave need. Estimates are that 170 businesses have been damaged or destroyed in Minneapolis so far, with few attempts, if any, by law enforcement to mute the mayhem.
Can the Center Hold?
Martial law has rarely been invoked by any state. It occurred after the Chicago Fire of 1871, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and Pearl Harbor, to cite three examples, but has never been ordered by the Federal government. It is therefore unlikely that the presence of the National Guard and the establishment of curfews will occasion martial law in Minnesota or elsewhere. For now.
In his rending poem, The Second Coming, the great W.B. Yeats wrote that “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Though it may feel very much like that in this time of shattering cultural despair – this is not that moment. However vigorously an inciting Fourth Estate uses its media bellows to fan the flames of division, there has rarely existed a moment when more Americans felt the same way about an issue of national importance. Anyone who watched that video saw a man’s life taken from him by an officer of the law for no ostensible reason – and it was sickening and heartbreaking. Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) stated that the anger was justified and that “there’s a very clear injustice there.”
Virtually everyone feels the same. It appears evident that blunt brutality took George Floyd’s life. The howl of pain and anger in the protests is justifiable, though cynical and often violent opportunism has become a factor in much of the rioting that has riven the country in the aftermath. Before we can examine these things, however, we will first need to see justice served. Only then can we begin the fundamental and well-worn healing America has had to undergo so often in our shared history.
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