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Global Skywatch

police state

Police Shooting Missouri

The National Guard protects Ferguson’s police,

not its people

Backing a militarized police force with civilian soldiers makes a mockery of the right to protest

On August 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called National Guard troops into Ferguson to “ensure the safety and welfare of the citizens.” This call came amid international debate over the militarized police response to protests that were sparked by the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Commentators have questioned why, on top of heavily armed riot teams, the governor needs the National Guard?

Rarely deployed to deal with civilian unrest, in most instances National Guard troops lay sandbags and hand out bottles of water. But as troops turned up in Ferguson on Monday clad in military fatigues and equipped with rifles, they aroused memories of America’s past.

In Ferguson these civilian soldiers were clearly not there to just hand out water. As Monday night’s images of excessive force showed, the National Guard was called in to protect the police, not the people. Through wafts of tear gas, with guns ready, these troops provided military backup to an already militarized police force. For many, this is like rubbing salt in a community’s wounds. And as a closer look at the history of National Guard deployments makes clear — from Kent State to the Los Angeles riots — its presence often serves to justify police violence.

Justification of force

Media accounts have referred to previous times the National Guard was brought in, armed and ready, to defend the police and protect property from the aftermath of injustice.

But conspicuously absent from some reporters’ accounts of the National Guard deployment to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s foreboding words, “They have M16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.”

This justification of militarized force put Hurricane victims in the firing line. In an exposé on the spree of killings that occurred after Katrina, the cultural critic Rebecca Solnit argued that Blanco’s directive gave license to kill. White vigilantes murdered black residents, while police gunned down unarmed black men. As James Ridge wrote for Mother Jones, “What took place in this devastated American city was no less than a war, in which victims whose only crimes were poverty and blackness were treated as enemies of the state.”

National Guard deployment following the Los Angeles riots likewise resulted in a militarized police response that exacerbated the racial violence that had led to the uprisings. According to statistics compiled by University of Wisconsin–Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver, of the 53 people killed during the riots, 41 were Black and Latino, with 11 of those dying at the hands of the police or National Guardsmen. Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice told the BBC that the Rodney King beating, caught on camera, marked “the first time the black community’s complaints couldn’t be denied and swept under the rug.”

But two decades after promises of a reformed Los Angeles Police Department, not much seems to have changed. Just last week police allegedly killed an unarmed black man, Ezell Ford. Echoing calls in Ferguson, Ford’s aunt told the Los Angeles Times, “Justice is all we want. Not just for my nephew, but for all the police have shot.”

The National Guard’s arrival in Ferguson validates the police force and signifies to the world that the only choices are chaos or military order.

Recollections of National Guard violence against Kent State students are perhaps the most deeply etched into history books. On May 4, 1970, 113 guardsmen moved against 2,000 students, setting off a barrage of tear gas before firing 61 rounds, killing four young white students, and wounding nine. While the racial injustice that is fueling unrest in Ferguson should not be collapsed with the anti-war dissent that sparked the Kent State protests, what these events share is popular defiance of a militarized police response seeking to outlaw resistance by imposing curfews and protest bans.

Likewise, Ferguson and Kent State share a cycle of blame, where police and state press offices scramble for excuses to justify the escalation of force. While in Ferguson false claims of looting have brought on excessive force, after the Kent State shootings, blame was first placed on communists reportedly dressed up as troops. Papers also wrongly announced that a National Guardsman had been killed.

In Kent State as in Ferguson, the deployment of the National Guard sought to add legitimacy to the governor and police’s version of events. Presented as a neutral party, the National Guard’s arrival on the scene is, rather, used to validate the police force and to signify to the world that the only choices are chaos or military order. In this way, the arrival of National Guard troops is as much a public relations move as it is a show of force.

Narrative control

The past shows us this approach is often coupled with a crackdown on reporters, as we have seen in the tear-gassing in Ferguson of Al Jazeera America journalists and Monday’s arrest of Getty photographer Scott Olson.

Here, another history lesson comes in handy. During protests outside the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968, 600 National Guardsmen were pulled in as reinforcements for the police to serve as a “fence” to protect property and restrict protesters’ movements. Moments before police and National Guardsmen violently cracked down on protesters in what came to be referred to as a “police riot,” protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching.” Press cameras rolled while officers chased journalists out of the way, batons swinging. NBC’s Chet Huntley declared, “Chicago police are going out of their way to injure newsmen, and prevent them from filming or gathering information on what’s going on.”

It’s a sobering reminder that when the National Guard is called in to reinforce the police, it not only further militarizes the situation, it also shifts blame away from a culpable police force. By turning the focus toward the containment of riots, under the guise of citizen welfare, the initial injustice that sparked the uprisings is masked. It becomes the police who are seen to need the protection of the National Guard, not the people.

This perpetuates a system in which officers’ lives are worth more than civilian lives, one that makes a mockery of the right to protest. The presence of the National Guard in Ferguson should not be allowed to overshadow Michael Brown’s death or the larger epidemic of racial killings at the hands of law enforcement that plagues U.S. history. As a veteran rallying for justice in 1932 told the National Guardsmen sent in to police him, “This ain’t going to stop here. The whole country is gonna hear about this.”