WASHINGTON — Largely peaceful protesters have gathered near the White House the past few days to sing hymns, chant “Black lives matter,” and take a knee in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. But after outbreaks of violence over the weekend, the downtown location of the demonstrations increasingly has looked like a war zone.
Black fencing was erected around Lafayette Park to keep protesters from getting too close. Nearby roads have been blocked with military vehicles. Stone-faced officers in bulletproof vests and long body shields — some in fatigues, others in ominous dark, unmarked uniforms — have formed intimidating barriers. And helicopters have patrolled over mostly deserted streets with boarded-up storefronts.
Donald Trump won the election espousing old notions of law and order, often delivered with a clenched fist, and a rallying promise to build a wall along the southern border. Since taking office, he has embraced the trappings of authority, touting his relationship with police and uniformed sheriffs, summoning military vehicles and jets for a Fourth of July extravaganza, and expressing his admiration of dictators and strongmen.
Now, as the nation convulses with anger over racism and police brutality, he has put on a show of force in Washington to demonstrate the type of response to protests he’d like to see in other cities should they fail to quell the civil unrest.
But how much of it is show in a presidential election year? And how much could actually translate into use of force?
Military and law enforcement officers and experts said the answers to those questions remain fluid. But many called Trump’s actions in response to peaceful protests a potentially dangerous escalation that could eviscerate any progress toward rebuilding trust between law enforcement officers and their communities.
"Perhaps, he hoped that with a little bluster he could bluff his way through this and calm this down,” said Cedric Leighton, a military analyst and former Air Force intelligence officer. “But ... it doesn’t take much for bluster to get out of hand.”
Trump first sparked concerns from defense officials on Monday when officers plowed into peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square, gas drifting through the air, as the president delivered a speech in the Rose Garden. Trump urged governors to deploy their National Guard units and said he would invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send active duty military troops to cities and states that failed to stop the unrest.
He then walked from the White House to St. John’s Church, where a small basement fire had erupted during protests a day earlier, and posed for a photo with some Cabinet members, Bible in hand.
“You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks, you have to arrest and try people,” Trump had told governors in a call obtained by CNN before the events.
Amid the outcry, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard on Wednesday ordered an investigation into the use of helicopters to hover over protesters on Monday night. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper distanced himself from the president, saying troops “should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”
In a statement in the Atlantic, James Mattis, the Marine general who in December 2018 resigned as Defense secretary in protest of Trump’s Syria policy, called Trump “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.”
Other former military officials said the militarization could interfere with decades of work by defense officials to improve the image of the military since the Vietnam War.
“I found it abhorrent, personally as a citizen and a veteran and as someone who spent over a decade in the Pentagon working on how states can use federal forces and resources and use them responsibly,” said Gary Crone, a former deputy prosecutor in Indiana and retired Air Force Reserve colonel with 30 years of military experience.
David Cohen, an associate professor for political science at the University of Akron, said the militarized scene in Washington was not the first time that the US military and the National Guard have swept a city’s streets. Only a month ago, Kent State University held memorials in honor of four students killed in May 1970 when the Ohio National Guard opened fire at a Vietnam War protest.
“But you have whole generations of Americans who have never experienced anything like this,” he said. “It is very jarring for people and Americans who are used to their political system being very stable. This is the kind of thing you see in other countries.”
There are several laws — and exceptions in the law — that the president can use to send active duty troops to cities and states or to federalize National Guard members, experts said. But those options, including the Insurrection Act, have been used rarely, most notably to protect Black Americans in Southern states during the civil rights movement.
Some former military and Pentagon officials on Thursday said they had been alarmed to see Trump announce he was prepared to use the Insurrection Act to clamp down on people demanding that the rights of Black Americans be protected.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said the currents in the initial wave of protests — and Trump’s “show of force response” ― had parallels to past social unrest in Latin American countries, such as Chile, Colombia, and Guatemala, and to protests now in Hong Kong.
In those movements, peaceful demonstrations have been infiltrated by law enforcement and slandered by government propaganda, she said. “What they did is infiltrate the movement in order to justify action in order to justify oppression,” she said.
She and other experts said Trump’s recent show of force in Washington is similar to his effort to further militarize the US southern border in response to a humanitarian crisis. There, Trump and his administration officials have deployed active duty troops and corralled migrants in a pen under an international bridge for days. Before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump sought to stir the ethnic and racial fears of his base with a militarized response to a caravan of migrants arriving in the United States from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Leighton said the United States could be headed down a dangerous road in taking a military-like approach to policing its cities and states. “It’s pretty slippery,” he said. “Every agency of government has to make sure that each law enforcement agency stays in its own lane.”
Law enforcement officials said the protests should be handled by local authorities. “It should be left up to the local police who train for those types of protests, and they also train for civil unrest,” said Cedric Alexander, the former police chief of Rochester, N.Y.
But Trump doesn’t seem to be viewing it that way, at least in Washington. About 1,600 soldiers from Fort Drum and Fort Bragg were flown to military bases near the city, the Defense Department said.
The potential for active-duty troops on the streets of Washington eased on Thursday, as Trump agreed to begin sending home the troops he had ordered to the region, The New York Times reported.
On Wednesday, like other days this week, hundreds of people marched through downtown streets — holding placards and chanting, “No Justice, no peace, no racist police” — past police cruisers and armored vehicles as a helicopter flew overheard. There were signs for Floyd and also for other Black people who died at police hands: Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark, as well as Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed this year by armed white men in Georgia.
Near Lafayette Square across from the White House, the wall of officers watched when hundreds of protesters kneeled on one knee and sang “Amazing Grace." The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins told the crowd the protesters weren’t going anywhere.
“Are you going to be here tomorrow? Are you going to be here the next day?” he shouted. “Are you going to keep coming back until justice rains down like water?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated who the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins told the crowd wasn’t going anywhere. It was the protesters.