For more than a week, the Massachusetts National Guard has patrolled the streets of Boston in camouflage fatigues, carrying rifles and wearing black vests that read “military police” in white letters.
The troops were called in to Boston by Governor Charlie Baker on the night of May 31, after confrontations broke out between police and protesters and some people smashed windows and stole goods in Downtown Crossing and the Back Bay. The chaos followed a series of large, peaceful gatherings throughout the city protesting the killings of Black people by police.
But some activists, elected officials, and scholars say the continued military presence in Boston may have a chilling effect on free speech and assembly. They also say it is the wrong response to a movement fundamentally concerned with law enforcement’s excessive use of force.
“I don’t think it’s helpful to bring armed men out to corral and contain a protest that is in direct response to armed men killing black people," said Martin Henson, a core member of Black Lives Matter Boston, who helped organize last week’s rally in Franklin Park.
It isn’t clear how long the troops will stay, though Mayor Martin J. Walsh has signaled it won’t be much longer, and some city leaders think their exit is overdue. A spokesman for the Massachusetts National Guard said they would stay as long as they are needed. They were originally called in by Baker at the city’s request, the governor’s office said.
Since May 31, near-daily protests in Boston have been overwhelmingly peaceful.
The troops have been stationed along Newbury and Boylston streets, in front of high-end shops, as well as on downtown corners. The symbolism of a military occupation in Boston has not been lost on onlookers: A photo went viral this past weekend of a National Guardsman next to a Humvee parked in front of the Old State House, near the site of the Boston Massacre, which helped catalyze the Revolutionary War.
Irony is dead. pic.twitter.com/UJTQAdBOVO— Jake @ HUB History (@HUBhistory) June 7, 2020
Optics aside, historians say that bringing in military troops can be problematic.
“The intention with deploying military resources to deal with civilian disorder is to intimidate people and to chill the exercise of their First Amendment rights,” said Tom Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who now teaches criminology and criminal justice at Emmanuel College. “There will be people who might be inclined to express their constitutional right to assemble peacefully and to speak freely who might not do so because they’re frightened of the soldiers."
The military police units undergo federally accredited police training, a Massachusetts National Guard spokesman said. While troops assisting law enforcement have the authority to make arrests, he said, they haven’t made any during the most recent missions.
Some business owners have welcomed the troops, saying they protect the neighborhood and should not be seen as putting a damper on the city’s massive peaceful protests.
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, the president of the Back Bay Association, said the group supported protests and addressing systemic racism but saw the destruction of property and stealing as a separate issue that needed a strong response.
“We do think that the additional presence has been helpful as a defense against bad operators," Mainzer-Cohen said.
Governor Baker said in a press conference on Friday that feedback from local governments about the recent National Guard deployment has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“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," he said. Asked whether Guard members needed to carry large weapons, he said with a shrug: “I think it’s pretty much their uniform.”
That uniform, and the military equipment the Guard members bring with them, has left some residents frightened, some city councilors said. (The Guard declined to say whether the troops have ammunition, citing members’ safety.)
“The feedback that I’ve received from residents has resoundingly been that people do not feel safer with a heavily armed law enforcement presence on our streets," said City Councilor Michelle Wu.
City Councilor Kenzie Bok, whose district includes the Back Bay, agreed.
“I don’t think that we should be having the Guard in place indefinitely as a reaction to that Sunday night experience," she said. As people return to normal life, and venture out more often to shop, work, and socialize, the safety that comes from a bustling city will also return, Bok said.
Mayor Walsh indicated that he appreciated the National Guard’s support over the past week but that their visible presence in the city would soon end.
“They’re not there to intimidate anyone. They’re there to make sure they can assist the police in the events of what happened a week ago Sunday," he said in response to a caller question on WBUR on Monday. “We’re going to be really scaling back in a big way today with the National Guard and over the course of the next couple of days, I’m assuming you won’t see them in Boston.”
Activating the military in response to mass protests has been a point of contention between governors and President Trump in recent weeks. At the beginning of June, Trump threatened to send troops into states that did not activate their own Guard units or establish “an overwhelming law enforcement presence,” claiming that he would "deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem.”
But most civilians can’t tell the difference between National Guard troops and active-duty troops, said Jim Craig, director of military and veterans studies at the University of Missouri St. Louis. That’s partly by design.
“One of the great things about the National Guard and the reserve system is that they are as fully capable and competent as the active force," Craig said. "Maybe a problem on the flip side is that the civilian community can’t tell the difference between the National Guard and the active force. The symbolism might look like the active duty has come in.”
Instead of bringing in troops, activists and scholars suggested that officials should work to address police brutality and racism, which spurred the protests in the first place.
Heather Ann Thompson, a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Blood in the Water,'' pointed to a history of violent escalation from the National Guard during moments of civil unrest, including Kent State in 1970 during which the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed student protesters, and the Detroit riots of 1967, during which thousands of National Guardsmen descended on the city, further heightening tensions over racial inequality; ultimately 43 people were killed.
She also pointed to the National Guard’s assistance in forcefully clearing peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, so that Trump could take a photo at a nearby church.
“If you don’t want people to come out to the streets every night, and you don’t want any risk of looting or violence, then address the problem," Thompson said. “It’s very simple.”