I believe deeply that how our government’s security forces are seen by the American public is critical to their ability to protect us and our ability to maintain a healthy democracy. That belief comes from experience: I served for decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, as a Department of Defense spokesperson, and as the Trump administration’s first Department of Homeland of Security spokesperson. It’s as an American who cares profoundly about the missions of both DOD and DHS—and believes their reputations are essential to achieving those missions—that I’ve followed the Trump administration’s heavy-handed response to protests across the country in recent months, and especially DHS’s role in that response. And I’m appalled by what I’m seeing. It’s damaging to DHS, and it’s damaging to American democracy.
Last month, the sight of U.S. military forces on the streets of our nation’s capital surprised and angered many Americans, including military and veteran communities, former diplomats, former senior national security leaders, and the general public. While federal, state, and local law enforcement officers were actively involved in the response to protests in Washington, D.C., it was the mixing of men and women in military uniforms and equipment as part of the law enforcement response that sparked particular concern for me. Images of military and military-looking individuals threatening the use of force, and in some instances actually using it, raised crucial questions about the appropriateness of a militarized response to civil unrest.
During the protests in D.C., the military units deployed in and around the city were a mix of National Guard and active duty forces. They wore their normal camouflage uniforms. Some were armed, some were unarmed. Although the active duty units were not called into action, the deployment of a rapid response force from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division raised serious questions about the nature of the military’s response. National Guard units from the District and several states were deployed on the streets of Washington for several days. Some were involved in the controversial clearing of Lafayette Park for the president’s photo op at a church; and low-flying National Guard helicopters were used as crowd control measures. These actions sparked widespread condemnation and led the Secretary of Defense to order a formal investigation as well as Congress to hold oversight hearings.
It is through that prism—of a militarized response to protests and harsh public criticism of that response—that we should examine the ongoing federal response to protests in Portland, Oregon. In Portland, there are no military units – active duty or National Guard – currently involved. However, there is the perception of a military response—which is understandable, as DHS and other federal agencies have deployed law enforcement officers in military-style uniforms, wielding weapons associated with combat forces abroad. Their uniforms, equipment, and tactics have created the distinct appearance of yet another armed military response to protest and elements of civil unrest. Making matters worse, DHS’s leadership has indulged in harsh—indeed, militaristic—rhetoric in explaining and justifying its aggressive response. These actions, and others, are wrong, even dangerous. [Continue reading…]