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Illustration by Security Management

Trump Vows Use of Military to Suppress Violent Protests

In a statement made 1 June from the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump addressed the protests that have emerged in several cities across the United States since the graphic video showing the death of George Floyd, a black man who was detained by Minneapolis police officers, stoked moral outrage. Proposing a potential escalation in tactics to subdue the protests, Trump said, “If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Instances of the U.S. military being directed by the federal government to serve in domestic law enforcement and peacekeeping capacities are rare. As reported by several news outlets after the president’s remarks, two laws primarily define how and when the president may use the military in domestic capacities. The Posse Comitatus Act, first enacted in 1878 to limit federal monitoring of elections in the post-Civil War South, prevents use of the U.S. military in domestic law enforcement functions except where Congress has carved out specific exemptions. One of those exemptions is the Insurrection Act, which had been signed into law earlier by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807.

The Insurrection Act enables the president to use federally controlled forces to suppress insurrection if a state’s governor asks for assistance. In addition, the act gives authority to the president to use federal force when “unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” (See this paper for an extended analysis of the Insurrection Act.)

In general, it is not uncommon for state governors to utilize its state’s National Guard, which is part of the U.S. military, during emergency situations, and many states have done so over the last few days. The Posse Comitatus Act specifically provides for governors to take this action with the National Guard.

What is exceedingly rare is for a governor to cede control of the National Guard to federal authority or for other U.S. military branches to be used in domestic law enforcement beyond advisory capacities. The Insurrection Act was invoked in 1992 to use the military to help restore order after violent Los Angeles protests erupted after police officers were acquitted of wrongdoing in the beating of Rodney King. Prior to that, it was used in the 1950s and 1960s to enforce desegregation of schools and for other civil rights protections. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that the act was “one of the tools available” if the president wants to send troops to U.S. cities. In addition, U.S. Attorney General William Barr served in the same capacity for President George H.W. Bush when the Insurrection Act was invoked in 1992.

As the unrest continued Monday night, there is no indication that Trump has taken action to invoke the Insurrection Act. However, the protests continued to have consequences, including the following:

In Atlanta, Georgia, six police officers were charged in an incident during Saturday protests in which officers approached a car, broke its windows, used a stun gun to subdue two college students inside, and pulled them from the vehicle. Five of the six were charged with aggravated assault and two of them were fired on 31 May.

Four police officers were shot in St. Louis, Missouri, during the early hours of 2 June. The injuries are not expected to be life-threatening.

A retired St. Louis police captain was shot and killed at a pawn shop in the city just before 2:30 a.m. on 2 June. At publication time, it was not known if the man was working for the pawn shop.

In Las Vegas, Nevada, a police officer was shot in the head and was on life support as of early this morning. A man suspected of the shooting is in custody.

Protesters have also seen casualties. In Louisville, Kentucky, David McAtee was shot and killed early Monday morning by either Louisville Police or National Guardsmen. McAtee was in a protest crowd, and officials said law enforcement was returning fire.

A video from weekend protests in Austin, Texas, appears to show a police officer firing into a crowd and a teenager falling as a result. That teenager was hit in the head with bean bag ammunition and remains hospitalized.