News / USA

National Guard Deployments for Civil Unrest Uncommon in US

National Guard troops arrive at a mall complex that serves as staging area for the police in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 18, 2014.
National Guard troops arrive at a mall complex that serves as staging area for the police in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 18, 2014.

With violent protests continuing in Ferguson, Missouri, nine days after an unarmed black man was shot by a white police officer, the state’s governor on Monday called in the National Guard.

Governor Jay Nixon’s decision came as an unofficial autopsy report released by the family of Michael Brown found that Brown, 18, had at least six bullet wounds from the August 9 incident.

That shooting resulted in days of riots, looting and clashes with law enforcement, violence that prompted two nights of curfews over the weekend and widespread criticism of the police response. Police officials have said the officer, Darrell Wilson, shot Brown during a nighttime scuffle.

While Nixon’s decision indicated concern that violence was spiraling out of hand, National Guard deployments for civil unrest in the U.S. are uncommon.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many troops would be sent, nor what their exact duties would be, though Nixon did say that some would be protecting a police command center.

In the United States, around 460,000 so-called “citizen soldiers” serve in National Guard units across all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, according to the National Guard Association of the United States, a lobbying group.  Around two-thirds serve in the Army National Guard; about 106,000 in the Air National Guard.

FILE - After Hurricane Katrina, an armed National Guard soldier patrols a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Oct. 4, 2005.FILE - After Hurricane Katrina, an armed National Guard soldier patrols a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Oct. 4, 2005.
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FILE - After Hurricane Katrina, an armed National Guard soldier patrols a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Oct. 4, 2005.
FILE - After Hurricane Katrina, an armed National Guard soldier patrols a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Oct. 4, 2005.

Typically, guard assignments range from supporting law enforcement to, more commonly, helping clean up after natural disasters. 

In 2005, Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states called in National Guard units to help in the aftermath of deadly Hurricane Katrina and its flooding and mayhem. In drought-stricken Western states, they’re battling wildfires. In flood-prone areas, they fill and stack sandbags.  

Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called up about 1,000 National Guard troops to patrol the border with Mexico amid an influx of young child migrants.

National Guard units, however, are increasingly called up for national defense, as well. Several states’ Air National Guard wings helped patrol U.S. air space in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

More than half of all Guard members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – sometimes multiple times – as well as other foreign locations, according to John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association. 

“What the National Guard offers governors – in the case of Ferguson or fighting wildfires – is units of disciplined, uniformed personnel,” he said. They “can be quickly trained to do things, to carry out missions.”

There are federal law enforcement agencies: the FBI being the best known example. But, as Steven P. Bucci, a retired Army colonel who is currently an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, pointed out, the United States, unlike most countries around the world, doesn’t have a national police force.

Instead, he said, “we’ve given that power through our constitution to the governors and the mayors, all the way down.”

Federal mobilizations

For now, the presence of the Missouri’s National Guard in Ferguson is strictly a state affair, authorized by the governor under state laws. That conceivably could change if the situation were to worsen.

“The use of the National Guard, even in state status, to quell civil disturbances is usually a last resort and not very common,” Charles J. Dunlap, a Duke University law professor, told VOA in an email interview.

On Monday, President Barack Obama said that his attorney general, Eric Holder, would be traveling to the St. Louis suburb to meet with federal investigators looking into the shooting.

One extreme possibility—something, no one appears to be discussing at this moment— would be for the federal government to step in and take control of the guard. 

At least one 19th century federal law provides the legal basis for that, along with the 1952 Armed Forces Reserve Act, which, among other things, enables the federal government to supersede a governor’s authority and take control of the National Guard for a specific mission – a relatively rare act.

Since World War II, presidents have “federalized” National Guard for domestic law enforcement missions 10 times. The most recent example came in 1992 when the acquittal of four white police officers, charged with brutally beating a black man in Los Angeles, California, sparked widespread riots and looting.

The decision to call in the Guard for law enforcement— state or federal—is fraught, given the constitutional and statutory restrictions that restrict the U.S. armed forces from having domestic police duties.

“Although the U.S. military is generally prohibited from exercising domestic law enforcement authority, a state National Guard unit may do so unless it’s called to federal service,” said Dunlap, who is also a retired Air Force major and former deputy judge advocate general. State law defines its exact law enforcement authority.

Here, from the National Guard Bureau, are some notable examples of National Guard deployments in U.S. history that were later “federalized”:

1957-58 – Little Rock, Arkansas  President Dwight D. Eisenhower orders the takeover of National Guard troops that had been called up by Gov. Orval Faubus to keep black students from attending Little Rock’s all-white Central High School. Eisenhower also deployed U.S. marshals and paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to assist in maintaining order after rioting broke out.

1962 – Oxford, Mississippi  After the University of Mississippi in Oxford flouts a court order and bars a black student from attending classes there, President John F. Kennedy federalizes Mississippi National Guard troops to prevent violence toward the student, James Meredith, and rioting in the broader community.

1963 – Tuscaloosa, Alabama  A year after Oxford, Alabama Gov. George Wallace physically blocks black students from entering a University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa building, despite a court order. That prompts President Kennedy to take control of the Alabama National Guard to enforce the court order allowing black students to enroll.

1965 – Selma, Alabama  President Lyndon B. Johnston federalizes the Alabama National Guard to protect peaceful protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery to protest racial discrimination. At an earlier march, protesters were brutally beaten by state police and deputies.

1968 – Detroit, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.   Johnson orders deployment of thousands of National Guard units from those two states, and the federal district, to patrol streets and prevent rioting that erupted after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

1970 – New York City   After thousands of postal workers walked off the job, President Richard M. Nixon orders thousands of National Guard troops to help deliver the mail in the city’s financial district. Others sort mail and keep picketers from interfering.

1992 – Los Angeles, California  Rioting erupts in Los Angeles after four white police officers are acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King, a black man. President George H. W. Bush calls up more than 10,000 California National Guard troops to help quell the unrest.

VOA's Mike Eckel contributed to this report.

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by: Bob Venn from: Lexington, KY
August 19, 2014 11:57 AM
You forgot the most notorious of all National Guard Deployments:
Kent State, May 4th, 1970
4 Students killed (murdered)
9 Students wounded
Many of the students were just walking to class and not involved in the protest. Sad Day for America
In Response

by: Kimmyb from: philly
August 27, 2014 4:09 AM
I live in a major city and there is a reason the national guards are called in because these people are making it an excuse to fight, cause lots of damage and to steal over something they know deep down in their hearts they kid was Guilty of what they said he did. Once you get Al Sharpton out there is just about happens all the time. The truth is those kids going after the police if given the chance they will hurt one of the officers and we need extra help because ppl love a reason to fight no matter hoe little or big it may seem..They will not turn on you for no reason.

by: meanbill from: USA
August 19, 2014 8:47 AM
Barack Obama warned about the black "Quite Riots" on June 05, 2007..... when he warned that prior black riots just didn't erupt overnight, and that black "Quiet Riots" have been building from California all across America, and these black "Quiet Riots" take place everyday.... Barack Obama "quote" said;.. "The Bush administration had done nothing to defuse a "Quiet Riot" among blacks.".... (NOW?).... What has US President Barack Obama done in his 51/2 years as President to defuse the "Quiet Riot" among blacks?...... (Hypocritical isn't he?).

Democrat President Obama, and the Democrat Missouri governor Nixon criticized the local police handling of the black "Quiet Riot" that erupted into a full blown riot, and Democrat governor Nixon sent in the State police under captain Johnson, who tried to pacify the black rioters by disparaging the policeman, the local police, whites, and everybody but the black rioters.... and when he failed to stop the black riots, Obama and Nixon agreed the National Guard was needed to quell the black riots, that still continue on.... but Obama, Nixon, Johnson, Sharpton, Jackson, Holder, and other black leaders (didn't blame the black rioters, but instead blamed the police and everybody else) and just poured a can of gasoline on the black "Quiet Riots" fires, that turned into violent black riots..... (the more you feed the beast, the more the beast wants, and the larger the beast grows, until you destroy it?).

by: traffikator from: USA
August 19, 2014 3:02 AM
I hate teh Republicans and practicaly everytihing they stand for. But Furgusson and Bundy made me rethink. Americas should be armed. particularly blacks and hispanics. Armed to teeth like those wh faced down federal police with guns aimed at them. Not one situation where white people faced policed officers with guns were they ever arrested or killed. Almost daily blacks are killed unarmed. If they were all armed like those at the Bundy Ranch, this situation may begin to change. If we had all those black people in Furgusson armed with snipers watching over the street, I bet daren would think teice before approaching two unarmed teens let alone murder the child in cold blood. Blacks are the only only ones calling for peace when faced with oppression by law enforcement. White people cal for armed resistance when law enforcement attempt legal enforcement. What a contrast.

by: Xaaji Dhagax from: Somalia
August 18, 2014 10:39 PM
Why minorities (special Black people) living in civilized world have got to fight all the time for their God given rights?. How come the principal of "rule of law" do not function when citizens of African background needed it most? In this modern world why racism against black people is flourishing among the most educated people in USA?

by: Steve from: Maryland
August 18, 2014 9:23 PM
You forgot about Virginia Beach 1989. I was there...!

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