‘What I saw was just absolutely wrong’: National Guardsmen struggle with their role in controlling protests

POLITICO spoke to 10 national guardsmen who have taken part in protests across the country since George Floyd’s murder in police custody. Many guardsmen said they were uncomfortable with the way they dealt with the riots because demonstrators brought them together with the police. They felt that their presence, even though they swore an oath to uphold the constitution, sometimes prevented Americans from expressing their opinions and even escalated the tension.

And in the case of guardsmen involved in the Lafayette incident, some felt needed.

“As a military officer, what I saw was more or less in a good mood,” said a DC guard who was stationed in Lafayette Square last Monday and, like some others, spoke anonymously to speak freely. The White House official line that the demonstrators had become violent was wrong.

“The crowd was loud but peaceful and I never felt in danger and I was right there in the front row,” he said. “Many of us are still having trouble processing this, but I think I have seen in many ways how civil rights have been violated to take a photo.

“I am here to support and defend the United States Constitution, and what I have just seen contradicts my oath and to see that everyone is trying to cover up what really happened,” the guardsman continued. “What I saw was absolutely wrong.”

Lafayette Square

Since last Monday’s Lafayette Square protest, much of the public’s attention has focused on deciding to vacate the area so Trump, flanked by advisors, can pose with a Bible for photos in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

In the following days, the debate shifted to whether the police used tear gas to end the protests. The White House insisted that this was not the case, but later a spokesman for the park police recognized towards Vox that it was a mistake to be so final, because tear gas is an umbrella term covering a number of chemical irritants.

One of the guards at the scene said the White House was not true.

“I’ve been gassed before. I was there the night before when we were gassed, there was tear gas,” he said on Monday night. He added that he and some of his soldiers were affected by the tear gas from felt her colleague because they had no masks on.

In a statement, Captain Chelsi Johnson, a spokesman for the DC National Guard, replied to reports from guardsmen who were accidentally hit by tear gas.

“They were instructed to put on their gas masks when / when they were ordered to do so, or when they noticed that the police were putting on theirs. A gas mask was issued to every guardsman, ”she said. The US park police have confirmed that pepper balls are shot into the crowd, which is also a chemical irritant.

While the park police cleared out the demonstrators, some guardsmen said they felt there to actually prevent the police from beating protesters, rather than the other way around.

“I felt that we were protecting people more from the police,” said D.C. Guardsman Spec. Isaiah Lynch, who has nothing to do with Si’Kenya Lynch.

The event called for some guardsmen.

“We have many national guardsmen who struggle with it, because unlike in combat, when you have an enemy, these are our neighbors, our friends, our family,” said the first officer on watch.

The official said he even told General Mark Milley, the head of the joint chiefs of staff, shortly before the park police moved in, that the protests had been peaceful that day, a feeling shared by three other guardsmen who were there.

MP Max Rose (DN.Y.), a guardsman who was activated for the coronavirus pandemic but not for the riots, said the National Guard’s campaign against deterrence during a peaceful protest was “not really the right kind”, deploy the armed forces. which should instead be used as a partner in local law enforcement and as a de-escalating force.

Torrie Osterholm, director of mental health for the DC National Guard, said in an interview that many guardsmen had contacted them over the past week to express the pain and confusion they had to deal with both during and after the mission what they saw and how the demonstrators reacted.

A guardsman said to her, “I never thought I would throw a bottle at myself and tell myself to die and kill myself,” said Osterholm. “There is not enough Kevlar to protect you from statements made in your own language.”

Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the DC National Guard, recognized the challenges the guardsmen faced with reporters during a Sunday briefing.

“I have some guardsmen whose family members came out and criticized them. “What are you doing out here, aren’t you black?” Said Walker. “Of course we all hurt ourselves. The nation hurts.”

But not all encounters were negative. Maj. Brent Mangum, who has been with the Utah National Guard for 17 years, said that a colleague who wore a bracelet to commemorate a fallen police friend had a warm encounter with a demonstrator during his week in DC.

The protester asked him about the bracelet and why he was wearing it. So he took it off and handed it to her so that the woman could read it.

“‘Oh, so you’re hurting too?’ She asked,” Mangum recalled.

A change in attitude

One of the DC’s national guards said he was concerned that much of the goodwill the Guard had built due to its response to the coronavirus and the annual July 4th celebrations with local Washingtoners was at risk.

“Within 30 to 40 minutes, all of that was washed away because of political issues,” he said.

Osterholm said the guards were ill-prepared for the demonstrators’ hatred, which was reminiscent of the anti-military mood during the Vietnam War. The move of heroes to heroes during the coronavirus pandemic to villains that suppressed citizens’ right to protest happened overnight, she said.

“This generation doesn’t know what that feels like. This generation knows” Thank you for your service “. This generation knows they can go to Lowe and Home Depot and get a 10 percent discount,” said Osterholm. “Many of us still deny the intensity and traumatic impact this has had on everyone.”

Isaiah Lynch said that as an African American, he was described as a traitor by some demonstrators who insulted him, and was also seen as an oppressor who protected the police.

But he said a moment he would remember was when a man who hit him with a brick the first day came up to him a few days later to apologize.

“He shook my hand and said to me,” Hey, I’m sorry. Do you need water or something? “

Stop bleeding

By Monday, 42,700 National Guardsmen had been deployed in 34 states and DC to deal with protests. At the height of the response last week, 1,200 DC National Guardsmen and another 3,900 from 11 states were patrolling the country’s capital. Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered the guardsmen to leave the state on Friday. Everyone is expected to return home by Wednesday.

Guardsmen across the country have tried to signal to the Americans on the streets that they are on their side in a number of ways, including some kneeling, watering demonstrators, punching the elbows, and even the Georgia Macarena in dance a dance Video that went viral.

While working with the local police, some of them expressed contempt for how the police behaved.

“The police had lost credibility and considerable ground in their city, so we were a last attempt to stop the bleeding,” said Captain Maggie Gregg of the Minnesota National Guard. She ordered a group of around 75 cooks, mechanics, medical professionals, and even some HR professionals, to provide security in South Minneapolis after unrest broke out a few days after Floyd’s death.

Capt. Richard Gilberti, a guardsman from Nevada, initially said he was nervous and unsure of how the residents of Reno would react to armed soldiers in uniforms on American streets. He was worried about whether some people would be hostile to him and his fellow soldiers. But he quickly realized that most people were happy that they were there after the city was plundered and vandalized.

“We are here to ensure that everyone can exercise their constitutional rights safely,” he said, adding that the soldiers were reminded that “these are all US citizens, all Nevadans, just like us, so treat them them accordingly. “

Other guardsmen who were activated during the protests and riots said they felt “armed” against other Americans.

“The message that was given to the public was that we were used as another weapon. We were taken there because of fear. We were the scarecrow, ”said Gregg, who found that some of the soldiers who responded to the Minneapolis protests were ordered to travel in ambulances, mainly because of the“ shock value ”that caused mixed emotions.

Because many guardsmen are young, “their friends protested out there, but they were here and they felt part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” said Gregg.

She said that the presence of the National Guard in the community on the first night of their deployment may have caused more unrest. Some Minneapolis residents, she said, were more upset when they realized that the guard had been called in to protect the community rather than taking action against the protesters.

“It was difficult for people to come up with the idea: How do you help us if you have guns and ammunition?” Said Gregg.

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

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