Publication / decodeDC/ Scripps
August 20, 2014
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Officials have often relied on the National Guard in times of civil unrest

Guard can quell violence but not underlying issues

Washington, DC – Local and state officials have tried a variety of tactics to quell the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of unarmed teenage Michael Brown on August 9.  First it was the local cops armed with military style vehicles and riot gear. Then the head of the state highway patrol took over, a curfew was imposed. On Monday, the Missouri National Guard troops arrived and the curfew was lifted.

Governor Jay Nixon promised that the Guard would only have a limited role – protecting  the police command center, and not patrolling the streets or controlling protestors. And so, while violence broke out for another night, soldiers from the National Guard did not leave their post.

That’s not always been the case. The National Guard and its predecessors have history of being deployed to suppress civil unrest.

Both state governors and the President have the authority to call on the National Guard in times of great disturbances or natural disasters. And as history has shown—it’s a rule that has often pitted state and federal government leaders against one another.

Little Rock Central High School integration in 1957

World Telegram photo by Walter Albertin.

Following the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision in 1954, efforts to desegregate the nation’s schools hit stiff resistence in Arkansas, when a group of nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus, ordered in the National Guard to “preserve the peace” by keeping the black students out of the school. Outraged by the action, President Dwight Eisenhower trumped Faubus, taking the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and ordering them to protect the students while they entered the high school.

The Watts Riots in LA in 1965

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The roadside arrest of 21-year old African-American Marquette Frye in the pre-dominantly black neighborhood of Watts in south central Los Angeles quickly escalated into what became the most severe riot in the city’s history to that point. After a scuffle at the scene with arresting officers, news spread in the neighborhood of police brutality, including the kicking of a pregnant woman. Angry mobs formed and the ensuing riot spanned 46 square miles.

The next day the Los Angeles police chief called on the state National Guard. At one time almost 4,000 Guardsman were on the scene. Martial law was declared and a curfew was put in place. The riots lasted for six days and resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 3,438 arrests.

The Holy Week Uprising

Leffler, Warren K., photographer (National Archives)

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, major cities and towns across the country reacted violently to the civil rights leader’s death. The wave of civil disturbance that swept the country came to be known as the Holy Week Uprising.

The biggest riots occurred in cities with heavy African-American populations: Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Louisville,, Kansas City and New York.  In Chicago, more than 6,700 Illinois National Guard were called in. In the nation’s capital, President Lyndon B. Johnson himself called in almost 2,000 troops to assist the overwhelmed local police force. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol Building and the White House was heavily guarded. In Wilmington, Delaware, the National Guard occupied the city for nine and half months.

1970 Kent State University riots

Image via University of Washington Madison Libraries

Following President Nixon’s announcement in April 1970 that the U.S. was invading Cambodia, students at Kent State University in Ohio staged a campus-wide protest. In the evening intense altercations between students and the local police lead to bonfires, damaged police cars, and broken store windows. The entire town’s police force was called to duty and the local mayor announced a state of emergency.

By the end of the night students dispersed back to campus but the mayor feared a repeat and called in the National Guard. When the Guard arrived the next night they found buildings ablaze. Tear gas filled the campus. But it was the shooting of 13 students, four who died, that made the incident a national outcry. To this day it hasn’t officially been determined whether the National Guardsmen’s shooting into the crowd was justified. The case ended with an out-of-court settlement that gave $675,000 to the wounded students and the parents of the students who had been killed.

Rodney King Riots

In Los Angeles in 1992, the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King sparked riots in the city. The mostly white police officers were videotaped beating King, an African-American, after they pulled him out of his car.

Six days of rioting, looting and arson followed in areas throughout the city. The National Guard was called in along with the Marines. In total 53 people were killed during the riots and 2,000 injured and property damage was estimated at $1 billion.

While the National Guard can quell violence in the streets – they are not charged with solving the deep seeded issues that underlie so many of these incidents. That may take decades.