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Colorado Leaders Rebuke Those Who Want Troops To Crack Down On Protesters

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Rae Solomon/KUNC
Tear gas disperses protesters in front of the state capitol late Monday night.

As protests against police brutality enter their second week in Colorado and across the nation, the military’s role is under intense scrutiny.

Initial protests in Denver were marred by clashes between police and demonstrators – particularly at night. Police used tear gas and foam bullets on crowds. Though there are still skirmishes, protests have become largely peaceful in recent days.

Yet troops in combat gear are standing by going into the weekend. Who are they and what role are they playing during the protests?

Colorado Edition spoke with KUNC military reporter Michael de Yoanna to sort through the issues.

 

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Given that the protests have been largely peaceful, there’s some debate over whether more troops should be brought in – or whether they are even still needed. What have you been learning?

Michael de Yoanna: The sight of troops on the streets has a long and, frankly, scary history in this country. One incident would be the Ohio National Guard’s shooting of student protesters during the Vietnam War. I’m not drawing any comparison. What’s happening in Colorado is far from that. National Guard troops were activated last Saturday by Gov. Jared Polis. They are part of the National Guard’s reaction forces.

What are reaction forces?

These are rapid-response troops that are able to provide law enforcement or security support. Earlier this week, the leader of the Colorado National Guard, Maj. Gen. Michael Loh, told reporters that the Guard had not used force against any protesters. Their presence, he said, has been to back up police and to protect critical facilities, like hospitals. One hundred of these troops are deployed at nine sites in Denver.

Meanwhile, there’s been a larger debate about the use of active-duty military at protests. What’s that about?

That’s coming right from the top: President Donald Trump, who, as we know, is also commander in chief of the military. In a call with governors earlier this week, the president urged a crackdown on protests, calling demonstrators “terrorists.”

Tape of that call was posted by The New York Times. The president later raised the possibility of invoking an 1807 law called the Insurrection Act, saying that if cities or states decline to take action to defend life and property, he will “solve the problem for them” and deploy the U.S. military.

Explain why this can be controversial…

Because there’s another law called Posse Comitatus. It generally prohibits U.S. military personnel from direct participation in law enforcement activities. The idea is that U.S. troops should not be used against Americans; that troops defend America, its citizens and their rights. The Insurrection Act can be invoked in dire circumstances and the last time that happened was in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush mobilized troops during the L.A. riots that began after police accused of beating motorist Rodney King were found not guilty.

Given that, how can the National Guard be on the streets, then?

Posse Comitatus doesn’t apply to them. So Gov. Polis ordered the National Guard to back up Denver police -- to help protect infrastructure, if needed. Mayor Hancock supports that. So that’s different from what President Trump is saying. The president is saying he could intervene in any U.S. city or state where he thinks protests are out of control. And the president’s words led to a sharp rebuke from both Polis and Hancock.

So, what are the actual chances Colorado will see U.S. military troops on the streets?

Probably low, considering what leaders here are saying. But there’s still a debate going on about this and not everyone agrees, particularly some conservatives. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas had an opinion piece in The New York Times Wednesday. Its title is “Send In the Troops.”

On the other side, Trump’s own defense secretary, Mark Esper, distanced himself from his president and the idea of invoking the Insurrection Act. Esper said using the military on America’s streets is a last resort and the country is “not in one of those situations now.”