Put down your protest banners – or I shoot

Cracking down: The National Guard has been deployed in 23 of the USA’s 50 states. © Richard Grant

Is using the army to quell civil unrest ever justified? Troops from the US 82nd Airborne Division were moved to Washington last night. Americans are terrified that Trump might use them.

The peaceful protesters outside the White House on Monday were taken completely by surprise.

Donald Trump was giving a speech promising “an overwhelming law enforcement presence” to deal with violence in US cities. As he did so, police and members of the National Guard surged forward behind riot shields, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to drive the protesters back.

The scene summed up Trump’s response to the unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. While the protesters ran and scrambled for safety, and military vehicles rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump crossed the street to St John’s Church – the scene of an arson attack on Saturday night – and held up a Bible as he posed for photographers.

His actions prompted outrage. “Donald Trump just tear-gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op,” tweeted Kamala Harris, the Democratic senator for California. The Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde, complained that the president’s use of a Bible to justify his message was “deeply offensive”.

But some believe that Trump’s tough stance is exactly what is needed. Though most of the protests across the country have been peaceful, some have degenerated into violence and looting, resulting in more than 4,000 arrests.

Targets in New York have ranged from a Dolce & Gabbana fashion outlet to the historic Macy’s department store. In Long Beach, California rioters carried off bin bags full of clothes from a Forever 21 shop; in Las Vegas, they threw Molotov cocktails at police.

In his speech, Trump boasted that he was sending out “thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers”. He added that “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary [...], then I’ll deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

To do that, he would have to invoke the Insurrection Act, which was last used during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Joe Biden, who is likely to be his Democratic opponent in the forthcoming presidential election, has accused him of “using the American military against the American people”.

Is using the army to quell civil unrest ever justified?

Iron fist

Some say that, in the current crisis, Trump is making the right call. The rioting across America is on a huge scale, and the police do not have the numbers to deal with it – besides which, since police brutality is what started the protests, their involvement only aggravates the situation. An army presence can reassure innocent people who feel threatened, and deter rioters who are bent on violence.

Others say that this is the kind of behaviour associated with despotic rulers rather than a democratically elected president. Free countries have armies to protect them against outside aggressors, not to control their own people. The sight of soldiers in uniform can only reinforce the idea that protestors are being denied their rights – and lead to further violence.

You Decide

  1. If you were a shopkeeper whose shop was in danger from looters, what steps would you take to protect it?
  2. Imagine that you are a state governor who has refused to call out the National Guard. How else would you go about putting an end to the riots?


  1. Songs have played a big part in protest movements. Write a song about an issue that concerns you.
  2. The National Guard is also called on to deal with natural disasters. Imagine that you are an officer who has been sent to deal with a major flood. Write a two-page diary entry about your experience.

Some People Say...

“I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it. I learned that patriotism includes protest, not just military service.”

John Kerry, American politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The National Guard is the US’s military reserve, consisting mainly of part-time soldiers. It has its origins in the militias formed by colonists before the US came into existence, and is under the joint control of state governors and the federal government. It has been used both against and in support of black people during race-relations crises. During the anti-Vietnam War protests in 1970, one of its units opened fire on students at Kent State University, killing four of them.
What do we not know?
How long American soldiers are likely to be on the streets. In Northern Ireland, in 1969, the British Army was deployed to restore order and to protect Catholics and Protestants alike after civil-rights protests resulted in sectarian violence. But it came to be seen as a hostile force by the Catholic community, and ended up as a permanent presence, locked in a bloody struggle against the IRA until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Word Watch

Rubber bullets
Ammunition used to disperse crowds and designed to cause pain rather than serious injuries. They are supposed to be fired at the ground and hit people when they ricochet. However, they can also kill, particularly if fired at someone directly. They are a British invention, first used in 1970 in Northern Ireland.
Pennsylvania Avenue
A road in Washington DC which connects the White House to the US Capitol. It has long been used for parades and protests.
Founded in 1843, it is famous for its elaborate Christmas window displays.
Molotov cocktails
Home-made bombs, named after a Russian politician who was a loyal supporter of Stalin.
Los Angeles riots
The riots began after four police officers charged with assaulting a black driver, Rodney King, were found not guilty. They lasted six days, during which 63 people died and millions of dollars of damage was done.
Put an end to (a rebellion or other disorder), typically by the use of force.
Makes worse or provokes. It originally meant putting a heavy weight on something.
Tyrannical. Historically, it meant a minor ruler giving allegiance to the sultan of Turkey.


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