They were dressed head to toe in camouflage, but against the backdrop of one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, it did little to conceal the troops that have lined the streets of Boston in recent days.
Over by the Panera Bread on Boylston Street on Thursday, a handful of soldiers stood in their fatigues, one leaning against a black van, arm resting on the rifle slung over his shoulder. A block away, in front of an upscale women’s fashion boutique, a soldier sat on the hood of a massive military vehicle, feet dangling.
And on Newbury Street — where the biggest threat to residents typically is overpriced lattes — another cluster of armed troops kept watch near the teal awnings of Tiffany’s and the boarded-up Burberry store.
It does not need to be said, of course, that these are strange times. The country finds itself in both the maw of a devastating and deadly pandemic and faced with an equally extraordinary call to action against police brutality and racism toward Black people.
But even amid this historic backdrop, the sight this week of armed military personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard filling Boston’s streets has been, for some, jarring.
“It’s just not something you expect to see on the streets of Boston,” said Samuel J. Walker, a 29-year-old Jamaica Plain resident who was disquieted to see the military presence while biking through Back Bay earlier this week.
On Wednesday afternoon, while driving his older neighbor home from a doctor’s appointment, Andrew Harmon of Dorchester decided to take a pass down Newbury Street.
“We turned the corner and bam, right in front of a church, there were two Humvees and armed national guards,” said Harmon.
“I had only seen that kind of heavy ammunitions in pictures in the media, and mostly that was in other cities, at night,” he added. “But this was a sunny day on what would’ve been a high-shopping season, on a commercial street.”
The Massachusetts National Guard arrived in Boston on Sunday, at the request of Governor Charlie Baker. That night, the city experienced what has thus far been the only time that now-daily local protests have devolved into violence. Various businesses throughout the city were broken into and looted, resulting in more than 50 arrests and the hospitalization of at least 27 police and protesters.
Since then, however, there have been no major issues — not during a massive protest attended by thousands at Franklin Park on Tuesday, and not at any of the various other demonstrations held throughout the city.
Still, the Massachusetts National Guard has been a regular presence in Downtown Crossing and Back Bay and around the Common, even as some worry that it might further inflame tensions.
“Everyone is high-tension, and I think the last thing people want to see is things that are more stressful,” said a woman named Kristina, who asked that her last name not be used. “I don’t think having military and extra police walking up and down the street makes people feel safe.”
Indeed, even as President Trump has threatened to send troops into states to tamp down protests, some local officials have gone the other way, seeking to remove outside enforcement agencies from their cities.
In a letter to the president on Thursday, Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington D.C., requested that all “extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence” be removed from the city.
“The deployment of federal law enforcement personnel and equipment are inflaming demonstrators and adding to the grievances of those who, by and large, are peacefully protesting for change,” Bowser wrote.
During his scheduled meeting with the media Friday, Baker praised the state’s efforts to keep the peace, saying that “both the lieutenant governor and I have heard over and over again from city councils, city managers, mayors, selectmen and others that they really appreciate the support they’ve gotten from us in ensuring that these events go off safely and peacefully.”
But Jason Dempsey, a retired Army officer and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that inserting the National Guard into the current situation puts its members in a “horrible” position.
The National Guard is a reserve military force made up largely of part-time service members. With units in every state, the Guard can be called upon by governors or the president, and while they can be deployed overseas, guardsmen primarily operate in the state where they live.
Though unaffiliated with law enforcement, and on scene to maintain peace, “it’s hard to avoid the symbolism that they’re being brought in to [contribute to] those very injustices that the people are protesting,” Dempsey said.
“The military in America has a very distinct and specific role, because they focus on external enemies,” he added. “Once you start getting involved with internal disputes and protests, and taking sides, then you put the military’s reputation and professionalism at risk.”
The mere presence of unfamiliar forces on city streets, some said, might add to the general anxieties that many across America are facing.
“This is a very traumatic moment for the country, and people are not used to seeing these heavily militarized presence in their environment, and it’s confusing, I think, to some people — what that means and represents,” said Dr. Risa Brooks, a political science professor at Marquette University.
How long the state’s National Guard might remain in Boston is unclear; a spokeswoman for Baker’s office did not address the question on Friday, and a spokesman for the state National Guard said the timeline for the Guard’s stay is not definitive.
“It’s based on the need,” said the spokesman. “As the need continues to exist, we’ll continue to be committed to the people of the Commonwealth.”
In the meantime, residents are continuing to adjust to what is quickly becoming a new normal.
While having coffee on Newbury Street on a recent afternoon, Kristina, who is Black, found herself unsettled by the incongruous show of force — and wondering what, exactly, this was meant to protect.
“They care more about protecting the Ugg store and Gucci and Georgetown Cupcake,” she said, giving voice to the concerns that some shared about deploying the Guard in the first place. “They’re going to protect some cupcakes, but not Black lives.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.