“I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said this week, referring to government response to protests happening across the country.
But our communities are not a battlespace. And the reason protests have broken out in all 50 states in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd is that we refuse to go back to the “normal” that has destroyed lives and failed so many for so long.
As a Quaker organization, AFSC stands against violence in all its forms, and recognizes that the best way to prevent violence is to pursue just policies and build relationships of trust that create greater safety and well-being for all. A militarized response from local, state and federal authorities to protesters exercising their First Amendment rights is violence—a deep additional harm heaped upon the destructive, racist enforcement that communities are protesting in the first place.
In recent days:
- President Trump threatened that if governors did not deploy National Guard troops to “dominate the streets ... I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” raising the possibility of invoking the Insurrection Act.
- 62,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen deployed to protests in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
- At least 40 cities—including Minneapolis, New York, Louisville, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and others—instituted curfews.
- In Washington, D.C., Trump had military police clear a path through a group of protesters in Lafayette Square with batons, pepper spray, and an Army Black Hawk helicopter so he could pose for a photo in front of a church.
- U.S. Customs and Border Patrol flew an unmanned predator drone over Minneapolis, presumably to surveil protestors.
- Unmarked federal law enforcement officers, dressed in paramilitary uniforms and wearing no insignia, appeared at protests in Washington, D.C.
National Guard troops respond to a protest in Washington, D.C. Photo: Victoria Pickering via Flickr Creative Commons
These tactics are the result of a decades-long escalation in the domestic use of militarized tactics and gear. But the Trump administration has set the tone for violent responses to protest—and green-lighted violence unlike any seen in our nation’s capital for generations. Where past leaders saw a need to unite the country, Trump sees an opportunity to usurp power. And widespread condemnation from protesters, politicians, pundits, and even from military brass, is not going to be enough to stop him. One commentator has described these actions by Trump as performing fascism.
We cannot allow people in communities exercising their First Amendment rights to protest to be seen as “the enemy” by domestic law enforcement, and even more ominously, the U.S. military.
How did we get here?
Militarization of the police and civil unrest can be traced back to the “war on drugs,” through the anti-globalization movement, but it really escalated after 9/11, with the passage of the PATRIOT ACT and the federal 1033 Program, which allowed local law enforcement to purchase excess military equipment.
In the post-9/11 “war on terror” era, new weapons, methods of surveillance, and violent tactics were developed and used in Iraq, Afghanistan and multiple other countries. Gradually, those methods seeped into local police departments, and are directed overwhelming against communities of color. Local police departments have tested these military-style interventions at Standing Rock and during Black Lives Matter protests. Today, with the Trump administration calling for militarized responses and using the power of the presidency to push them even further, we are in dangerous territory.
We need to resist these escalations and not allow them to become normalized.
Disinformation campaigns are trying to sow racial division and plant false narratives that leftist anti-fascist groups are responsible for violence in the protests—making it more crucial that we be clear about where we stand. This is not a time when we can be neutral and wait to see what happens. Even some National Guard units and active-duty military are refusing to deploy to cities, saying no to complicity in repressing protests. We must be clear that we are anti-racist, anti-fascist, and on the side of the protesters.
I hope you will join me and people across the country in resisting militarized responses to protests. Resist with the signs you carry when you march in the streets. Resist in letters to the editor of your local news outlets. Resist in conversations with your friends and family. Resist in calls to elected officials. It is up to us to all of us to stand up for our rights—because it is through our collective, nonviolent, persistent, protest that we exercise a power that can create a nation based on shared well-being.
About the Author
Coordinator of AFSC's Communities Against Islamophobia Project
Mary Zerkel is coordinator of AFSC's Communities Against Islamophobia Project and has worked at AFSC for over 20 years. In addition, Mary is co-founder of the art collective Lucky Pierre, which works on political and social issues in a variety of forms.
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About the Publication
American Friends Service Committee
American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization devoted to service, development, and peace programs throughout the world. Our work is based on the belief in the worth of every person, and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) founded organization working for peace and social justice in the United States and around the world. AFSC was founded in 1917 as a combined effort by American members of the Religious Society of Friends to assist civilian victims of World War I. It continued to engage in relief action in Europe and the Soviet Union after the Armistice of 1918. By the mid-1920s it focused on improving racial relations in the U.S., as well as exploring ways to prevent the outbreak of another conflict before and after World War II. As the Cold War developed, it moved to employ more professionals rather than Quaker volunteers, over time attempting to broaden its appeal and respond more forcefully to racial injustice, women's issues, and demands of sexual minorities for equal treatment.