On the seventh evening of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump was set to address the press and the people in the White House Rose Garden. In the minutes leading up to his address, reportedly peaceful protestors were doused with tear gas and hit with flash-bang explosions by police, before the city’s 7 p.m. curfew, in order to clear a path for Trump to walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church to pose with a Bible. Then, during his speech, the president vowed to end “the riots and lawlessness.” He called protestors "thugs," and threatened to invoke a centuries-old law that allows him to deploy the U.S. military known as the Insurrection Act.
“If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” said Trump in his short statement before he made his way to his photo-op.
The protestors which Trump denounced were gathered in response to the police killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people. But the moment where officials charged at demonstrators to pave room for Trump's announcement that he will institute the Insurrection Act felt surreal and left a lot of questions about what this meant and how far the president was willing to go to stop the Black Lives Matter movement.
It's been centuries since the Insurrection Act first came into law. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Insurrection Act in an effort to squash civil disorder and rebellion. The Act gives the sitting president authority to deploy the military within the United States and was last used in 1992 to suppress the Los Angeles riots which erupted after four white police officers were acquitted for the brutal beating of Rodney King, a Black man, that was caught on video. It was also used during the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The law's clear history of attacks on racial movements has left many wondering what kind of violence this would incite if enacted. There are some caveats, however, such as a section which states that in order for a president to deploy troops without the direct request from a state’s governor, they must make an announcement ordering protestors to disperse within a limited timeframe. Without such a proclamation, Trump cannot move forward with his unilateral decision.
Governors were quick to express their disagreement. Shortly after Trump’s comments, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker told CNN: “I reject the notion that the federal government can send troops into the state of Illinois. The fact is that the president has created an incendiary moment here. He wants to change the subject from his failure over coronavirus, a miserable failure, and now see a moment when there’s unrest because of the injustice that was done to George Floyd that he now wants to create another topic and something where he can be the law and order president.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has dealt with numerous verbal attacks from Trump, also issued a statement following a call between Trump and governors across the country: “The president’s danger 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, which I fear will only lead to more violence and destruction. We must reject this way of thinking.”
Though many states with active protests have issued curfews, Trump has made no formal announcement demanding protestors disperse and go home by a specific time. Advocates who have spoken out against Trump's Insurrection threat say that the message of this particular act, and the history of when it's been instituted, is a clear attack on activism in defense of Black lives in America.