George Floyd protests: Which US presidents have used the Insurrection Act to stop riots?

An 1807 law has allowed previous presidents to bolster federal hard power at moments of domestic crisis

Andrew Naughtie
Tuesday 02 June 2020 16:03
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Trump threatens to deploy 'heavily armed' US military to crush George Floyd protests

As the protests over the death of George Floyd have spread across the US, many of them seeing vandalism, looting and police violence, Donald Trump has spent days calling for “law and order”.

But while some cities have called in the National Guard to help calm the situation, the protests continue – and so Mr Trump has now proposed a military intervention.

Specifically, he and his administration have mooted the creation of a “central command centre”, to be led by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, which White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters will allow the president to “dominate the streets”.

While military troops are usually not permitted to be involved in domestic law enforcement, there are laws that allow the federal government to intervene militarily in case of disorder. Among them is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which authorises the president to commit military forces to deal with an insurrection or civil disturbance.

It is not clear that Trump could legally invoke the act if governors object to having the military deployed in their states. Certain of his predecessors have done so in cases where states were depriving their citizens of their civil rights, but it’s hard to see how the administration could use the same pretext in the context of what’s happening now.

Still, the act has been invoked to powerful effect many times, including in recent decades. Here are four times it’s been used – both with states’ consent and without it.

1957: Little Rock

When nine black students arrived to attend a previously all-white high school in segregated Arkansas where they had enrolled, the state’s governor, Orval Faubus, ordered in the National Guard to block them from entering the building. President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalised the entire Arkansas national guard and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students as they arrived for class.

1962: Ole Miss

In another incident involving segregated education in the South, John F. Kennedy used his authority under the act to federalise the Mississippi national guard when violent crowds assembled to stop the integration of the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”.

On the night that James Meredith arrived to become the university’s first black student, he was greeted by a crowd of around 3,000 white people assembled to violently protest his arrival. Meredith was guarded by hundreds of federal agents, but a riot soon erupted and further military police were deployed.

Meredith was ultimately able to register, and completed a political science degree in 1963 – but between his registration and his graduation, he was guarded by hundreds of troops night and day.

1967: Detroit

After long-simmering tensions over policing and racism boiled over after a raid on an unlicensed bar, Detroit was rocked by some of the worst rioting and widespread police brutality the US had seen in a century.

As the scale of what was happening became clear, Lyndon B. Johnson was relayed a message from Michigan governor George Romney that state and local forces were overwhelmed. He was initially reluctant to do so, but ultimately signed an order that sent in thousands of paratroopers from the army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

At least 43 people died in the riots, and well over 7,000 were arrested.

1992: Los Angeles

Sparked by the acquittal of four police officers who had brutally beaten a black man, Rodney King, the Los Angeles riots saw several days of social disorder and violence, much of it along racial lines.

At the request of California governor Pete Wilson, George H.W. Bush invoked the act via an executive order on the third day of the riots, and thousands of federal troops were sent to the city to back up the many thousands of National Guard troops already deployed. It was the second time Bush invoked the act; the first was in 1989, to help put a stop to rioting in the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Hugo.

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