The mobilisation of the National Guards, in at least 30 US states, and of other forces, and curfew in major cities including a week-long curfew in New York, and the floating of an idea for the deployment of active-duty troops on streets tell the width and power of the people protest, writes Farooque Chowdhury
CURRENT domestic developments in the empire’s political sphere are a re-exposure of an old fact — failure of the centuries-old bourgeois ‘republic’. The propagandists of the empire engage all their skills to hide the fact and sermonise to other countries: democracy, equal opportunity and rights. But, today, anyone from any peripheral country can ask: what about Minneapolis and the following developments, dear?
Hundreds of thousands of people’s protest from coast to coast, the imposition and defying of curfew in cities across the country, the arrest of close to 10,000 people, assault on journalists and many such developments are well known to international media audience. The same is the outburst of long-pressed discontent. There are pain, rage and defiance. There is a demand for justice. There is a resurrection of millions’ spirit for a humane life.
The mobilisation of the National Guards, in at least 30 states, and of other forces, and curfew in major cities including a week-long curfew in New York, and the floating of an idea for the deployment of active-duty troops on streets tell the width and power of the people protest. Trump, as media reports said, discussed invoking the little-used 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops in US cities. However, that act was not invoked. Nevertheless, the discussion of the subject — invoking the Insurrection Act — tells (1) the force of the people protest, (2) the reaction of a sub-faction of the ruling classes and (3) the extent state machine may go to control situation arising out of aspiration for equity.
The people-protest, in real terms, has not ended yet. Its appearance has changed only.
Elements, not part of the protesting people, resorted to sporadic anarchic moves, which were incidents with dubious identity and character and totally isolated from the protest, entirely isolated from the people’s message —citizens’ safety and life is inviolable. The anarchic moves, which are essentially harmful to people’s cause, could not overwhelm the massive peaceful people-protest.
A few of the developments were startling: police officers expressing solidarity with and taking knees along with the protesting people. The defiance of curfew is an astonishing act — a show of people power.
Appearance of a few individuals with firearms among the protesting people in places is a development with a serious question: who were these armed individuals among the pain-pressed people marching peacefully and why those persons were with arms? The acts of loot and arson, detached from the peaceful marches, are of the same character and questions. The appearance of firearms, the loot and arson are not part of the people-protest. Rather, the opposite: hurt the people, harm the protest, distort the message, create opportunity for anti-people forces.
A disagreement, a shift
AT THE same time, within the establishment, a few developments were astonishing. ‘President Donald Trump’s Pentagon chief shot down his idea of using troops to quell protests across the United States, then reversed course on pulling part of the 82nd Airborne Division off standby in an extraordinary clash between the US military and its commander-in-chief’, said an Associated Press report. (June 4, 2020, ‘Pentagon-Trump clash breaks open over military and protests’, datelined Washington)
Esper, the report said, ‘angered Trump early Wednesday when he said he opposed using military troops for law enforcement, seemingly taking the teeth out of the president’s threat to use the Insurrection Act. Esper said the 1807 law should be invoked in the United States “only in the most urgent and dire of situations.’ He added, ‘We are not in one of those situations now.”’
After Esper’s subsequent visit to the White House, according to the report, ‘the Pentagon abruptly overturned an earlier decision to send a couple hundred active-duty soldiers home from the Washington, DC, region, a public sign of the growing tensions with the White House amid mounting criticism that the Pentagon was being politicised in response to the protests.’ Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the Associated Press that the decision was reversed after Esper’s visit to the White House.
Another report (The New York Times, June 3, 2020, ‘Esper breaks with Trump on using troops against protesters’) said: Esper’s ‘comments reflected the turmoil within the military over Trump, who in seeking to put American troops on the streets alarmed top Pentagon officials fearful that the military would be seen as participating in a move toward martial law.’
Speaking at a news conference at the Pentagon, according to the report, ‘the defence secretary said that the deployment of active-duty troops in a domestic law enforcement role “should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”’
The army, the report said, ‘had made a decision to send a unit of the 82nd Airborne’s rapid deployment force, about 200 troops, home from the capital region. But, Trump ordered Esper during the angry meeting at the White House to reverse it, the administration official said. The reversal was first reported by the Associated Press.’ Esper said, ‘I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.’
‘Esper’s explicit opposition to invoking the act came only days after he described the country as a ‘battle space’ to be cleared, a comment that drew harsh condemnation from a number of former senior military officials — the kind who usually do not criticise the successors across the Pentagon leadership. The use of the term, bandied about in battlefield command centres, implies a piece of terrain, disassembled in grid squares, characterised by threats and awaiting one solution: military force through violence’, said the report.
There was also controversy over Trump’s visit to a church across from the White House and Esper’s presence there turned out as an issue. Esper said he was unaware of his destination when he set out with the president for what he thought was a visit to view troops near Lafayette Square. ‘I didn’t know where I was going’, Esper told NBC News in an interview on Tuesday. ‘I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.” (NBC News, June 3, 2020, ‘Esper revises account of what he knew about Trump’s church photo op’)
In addition, news reports said: White House officials were furious and Esper tried to walk back his comments the next day. He acknowledged that he did know that he was accompanying Trump to St John’s Church for what turned out to be a photo op after the authorities used some form of chemical spray against protesters to clear the way.
A question has also cropped up with helicopters. Esper said: ‘[I]t took nearly 24 hours for the authorities to determine that a flight of helicopters that descended to rooftop level — kicking up debris and sending peaceful protesters running for cover — belonged to the District of Columbia National Guard. He said that episode was under investigation.
‘Esper’s remarks about the delay in finding information on the helicopter mission stand in stark contrast to the level of military planning that occurred beforehand. An email obtained by The New York Times indicated that Ryan McCarthy, the Army secretary, and Gen James C McConville, the Army chief of staff, made clear their intent for the evening, including the clearance of airspace. The two men, officials said, were on hand in a command center in Washington belonging to the FBI, where they pored over maps, looking at streets.’ (NYT, op cit)
The reported contention, the shift, the photo-op, the helicopter, the confusion, the dissent, management/mismanagement, etc show something significant within the statecraft. And, the people-protest was at the root of all these. Had there been no such rising by people, there would not have been such oscillation, seems ‘ripples’, within establishment. Someone looking at the protest marches joined by hundreds of thousands over days across the country will look at more deeply, which will furnish insights in the state of the state machine, factions and fractions of the factions of the dominating classes, way and level of efficiency of dealing situations. For organising people’s initiatives and moves, these/such insights are a requisite in all lands.
Not the same orientation
NOT all parts of the state machine are on the same orientation.
On at least two occasions, Trump criticised a few governors who did not deploy the NG during the protest marches. Once, he told Fox News Radio: ‘You have to have a dominant force. We need law and order.’
On an earlier occasion, the US president, in a conference call with governors of both parties on June 1 told them that they need to arrest people, and that ‘most of you are weak.’ ‘You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.’ (Tennessean, June 1, 2020, updated June 2, 2020, ‘“Nowhere to be found”: Governors blast Trump after he tells them they are “weak” on phone call’)
But governors including one Republican pushed back at the president. Democratic Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer called the phone call ‘deeply disturbing’. Whitmer added that instead of offering support or leadership to bring down the temperature at protests, Trump told governors to ‘“put it down” or we would be “overridden”.’ ‘The president repeatedly and viciously attacked governors, who are doing everything they can to keep the peace while fighting a once-in-a-generation global pandemic’, Whitmer said in a statement. ‘The president’s dangerous comments should be gravely concerning to all Americans, because they send a clear signal that this administration is determined to sow the seeds of hatred and division.’ At least one Republican governor joined the criticism. Governor Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican, said: ‘I heard what the president said today about “dominating” and fighting.’ ‘I know I should be surprised when I hear incendiary words like this from him, but I’m not.’ Democratic Illinois governor JB Pritzker raised concerns about Trump’s remarks directly to the president on the phone call. Pritzker told Trump he’s been ‘extraordinarily concerned by the rhetoric that’s been used by you.’ He called it ‘inflammatory’. ‘[T]he rhetoric that’s coming out of the White House is making it worse’, Pritzker said.
Washington Democratic governor Jay Inslee said on Twitter that Trump’s remarks are ‘the rantings of an insecure man trying to look strong […].’
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made a biting comment. During a campaign roundtable talk, Bottoms said: ‘To see the president of the United States say that he’s going to send the military into our communities, but hasn’t mentioned sending a single dime of support into our communities, speaks to where we are in America.’ It’s a fact about state machine: No money for people, but force to dominate people.
A serious rupture, a serious allegation
THERE appeared a serious rupture as former US secretary of state Colin Powell strongly criticised Trump’s handling of the protests, saying Trump has ‘drifted away’ from the constitution. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff condemned Trump’s threats to use the army to quench the protest. Powell said he would vote for Democratic candidate in the coming presidential election. (BBC, June 8, 2020, ‘Trump “drifted away” from constitution, says ex-military chief Colin Powell’) A president’s drifting away from constitution is a serious allegation, especially when the allegation is made by a person who was a responsible member of the establishment.
Speaking on CNN’s ‘state of the union’ on June 7, Powell said: ‘We have a constitution. And we have to follow that constitution. And the president has drifted away from it.’ Referring to Trump, the former top military officer said: ‘He lies about things, and he gets away with it because people will not hold him accountable.’ (ibid) ‘Lies’ is also a serious allegation.
In the interview, he also backed former top US military officials who have criticised Trump. The list of these officials is not short.
Gen Martin Dempsey, JCS chairman under Barack Obama, told ABC’s ‘The Week’ earlier that the president’s words had hurt relations between the US public and the military. Former US defence secretary James Mattis last week accused Trump of deliberately stoking division. (ibid)
Along with the dissension, a fact unexpected came out. As a reaction to Powell’s comments, Trump said on Twitter, Powell was ‘a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars’.
Trump referred to the 1990–93 Gulf War and the US-led 2003-Iraq invasion. The wars were really disastrous for the empire and the Empire now admits the fact. Therefore, along with other meanings of the statement, it can be claimed that the empire is not always wise, and a general/military leader, as a president, also commander-in-chief, claims, in a democracy can play determining role in engaging into a war. What’s the state of the democracy if the president’s/C-in-C’s claim is correct? Then, how decisions are made in the democracy, which claims to be a system of people? What’s the role of the political leadership, which is principally embodied in the system’s legislative chamber?
Question of public support
SENIOR Pentagon leaders, said a report by the New York Times, were ‘so concerned about losing public support […] that Gen Mark A Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released a message to top military commanders on Wednesday affirming that every member of the armed forces swears an oath to defend the constitution, which he said “gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly”.’ (June 3, 2020, op cit)
Milley acted after they came under sharp criticism, including from retired military officers, for walking with Trump to a church near the White House.
As anger mounted over the president’s photo op at the church, former defence secretary Jim Mattis offered a withering denunciation of the president’s leadership.
‘Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try’, Mattis said in a statement. ‘Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.’ (ibid)
Other former military figures focused on the spectre of the military being used to police protesters.
Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, a retired vice chairman of the JCS, said in an e-mail: ‘We are at the most dangerous time for civil-military relations I’ve seen in my lifetime. It is especially important to reserve the use of federal forces for only the most dire circumstances that actually threaten the survival of the nation. Our senior-most military leaders need to ensure their political chain of command understands these things.’ (ibid)
A memo from the Air Force chief of staff, General David L Goldfein, deplored the killing of George Floyd as a ‘national tragedy’. Goldfein said every American ‘should be outraged.’ (ibid)
Since then, several service chiefs and secretaries released messages expressing solidarity to the armed forces. They cited the military’s history of staying out of politics. (ibid)
General McConville and McCarthy sent letter to troops and their families underscoring the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’ (ibid)
Admiral Michael M Gilday, the navy’s top officer, said in a message to all sailors: ‘I think we need to listen. We have black Americans in our Navy and in our communities that are in deep pain right now. They are hurting.’ (ibid)
More from Milley
GENERAL Milley, according to BBC, said that he was wrong to have joined Trump during his walk to a church near the White House. The June 1 event created ‘a perception of the military involved in domestic politics’, he said. He was speaking in a video for a National Defence University commencement ceremony. (June 11, 2020, ‘George Floyd death: Gen Mark Milley sorry for joining Trump walk to church’)
‘I should not have been there. [….]
‘[…] it was a mistake […]
‘We must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military […]’ (ibid)
He also said he was outraged at the ‘senseless, brutal killing’ of George Floyd. ‘The protests that have ensued not only speak to his killing but also to centuries of injustice toward African Americans.’ (ibid)
Such a statement is rare in US politics. Significant is the incident — overtly thrusting of the issue of military in US politics.
Peter Bergen, director of international security at the think tank New America, and author of Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos, said: ‘[T]his is the biggest split between the military and the civilian leadership. I can’t recall a time where there was more of a fissure.’ (The Guardian, June 14, 2020, ‘Why Trump loves the US military – but it doesn’t love him back’)
I am George Floyd
The people’s surge stirred other areas also. More than 280 retired diplomats, generals and senior national security officials on June 5 called on president Trump not to use the US military for political ends, warning American democracy was at risk. ‘As former American ambassadors, generals and admirals, and senior federal officials, we are alarmed by calls from the President and some political leaders for the use of US military personnel to end legitimate protests in cities and towns across America’, the former officials said in a statement posted on the JustSecurity web site, which listed the authors as retired senior diplomats Douglas Silliman, Deborah McCarthy and Thomas Countryman. (NBC News, June 6, 2020, ‘Retired diplomats, generals slam Trump over using US military to “intimidate” protesters’)
Black officers posted emotional videos expressing the agonies of bearing witness to systemic racism and they ‘were backed by the top brass.’ (The Guardian, June 14, 2020, op cit)
The movement strengthened efforts to shed symbols of the Confederacy. ‘The navy and marine corps banned displays of the Confederate flag and the army has been taking steps to review whether 10 of its bases should be named after Confederate officers.’ (ibid)
‘Ahead of a recent West Point graduation ceremony, hundreds of its graduates wrote to the class of 2020. “We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country,’ the open letter said, in a reference to Esper, class of 1986. ‘Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military.”’ (ibid)
Resounding was a message on Twitter. Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth O Wright of the Air Force, who is black, wrote a Twitter thread declaring, ‘I am George Floyd.’ (NYT, op cit)
These voices and positions/shifts signify people-power, on the one hand, and, on the other, the state of a few parts of a state machine perceived by many as the most powerful in the world. And the two — people and the state — are related to politics with respective dynamics and power that make/have far-reaching implication.
Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion