Trump just threatened to deploy the US military against Americans. Is he serious?

The US president has warned he could to send thousands of ‘heavily armed soldiers’ into the streets. Can he do that, and what will it mean if it happens?

What’s all this then? 

Protests have been raging across the US for almost a week now, after the suffocation of Minneapolis man George Floyd by a police officer. It was another tragic example in a long list of predominantly black people being killed by police, and set off a wave of anger. Some of the protests then resulted in looting, arson and vandalism, which the president now says he will quell through the use of the US military.

That sounds serious. Is this martial law?

The specific term was not used by Trump, nor did he explicitly invoke the Insurrection Act – the law that gives the president the ability to deploy the US military within the US to fight civil unrest. But that isn’t a long way away from what has been declared.

He said “all available federal resources, civilian and military” would be mobilised, and that would include “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers” deployed to “stop the rioting and looting”.

Where will the troops be sent?

Specifically, he said they would be deployed around the capital, Washington DC, which has been one of the centres of protest for obvious reasons. Reporters on the scene noted the surrealness of hearing explosions from tear gas canisters and flash-bang grenades while they waited for Trump to begin speaking. Fires have also been burning in the city over previous nights, including at the symbolically significant St John’s Church.

But in an important development, Trump also “strongly recommended” that state governors mobilise their National Guards against protesters, and said that military personnel would be sent in if local law enforcement didn’t “dominate the streets” against protesters. Washington DC is the one place Trump can order that to take place without consulting the state government first, as opposed to every other state where it is more complicated.

Why does that matter? 

The question of where state government power ends and where federal government power begins is an especially touchy subject in the United States. The Civil War was in part fought over whether states should have the right to set their own laws around slavery. More recently, Trump has clashed with state governors over Covid-19 lockdowns, and sanctuary city provisions – that refers to whether or not undocumented immigrants can live openly without fear of Immigration Control persecution.

So the threat to overrule state governors who don’t follow Trump’s wishes is a major one. So far, several state governments have refused offers from the federal government for military personnel to be deployed, including the state government of Minnesota.

Who is at fault for the violence?

Trump blames “professional anarchists” and Antifa – a loose collection of activists under the banner of anti-fascism that he erroneously describes as a formal group and wishes to designate as terrorists. Yet Trump also acknowledged that many of the protests had been peaceful, and they had every right to continue going ahead.

However, this particular quote from his Rose Garden remarks was telling about the attitude of the White House right now: “These are not acts of peaceful protests. These are acts of domestic terror. The destruction of innocent life, and the spilling of innocent blood, is an offence to humanity, and a crime against God.”

There’s also plenty of evidence that the violence is being driven by police themselves. That is both through the original killing of George Floyd (and countless others) and through increasingly violent tactics against protesters. In some cases, that police violence appears to be entirely unprovoked. That has included the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and baton charges. In some instances, police officers have even attacked clearly marked reporters, which strongly suggests that those particular officers aren’t particularly concerned about the consequences of their actions. And Trump’s rhetoric as president, many say, has only emboldened it.

When will we know what will happen next?

At the time of writing, the US is heading towards another night of protest, amid curfews across dozens of cities. According to Trump, this is basically the night that decides what happens next – if the curfews are followed, then the troops won’t be sent in. And if not, well, that could mean a lot of violence happens very quickly.

In all seriousness – will international observers be sent in to prevent this authoritarian regime from killing citizens for their political opinions?

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has so far issued a call for protesters to remain peaceful, and for law enforcement officials to show restraint. As anyone who follows these matters around the world will know, such remarks tend to be followed by terrible consequences.



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.