On a call with governors across the country on Monday, President Donald Trump said that chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley ’80 will be “in charge” of the response to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
A senior Defense official told reporters the next day that Milley’s “role has not changed”. Milley, a former Princeton ROTC cadet, will continue to serve in his advisory position as the highest-ranking and most senior military officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. Nevertheless, a number of Trump Administration statements on the potential use of military force against protestors have sparked concern from various current and former public officials.
Since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, there have been demonstrations against police brutality across the country, including in Princeton. Some of these protests have drawn criticism due to looting and violence that has occurred. However, it has not always been clear exactly where the violence has stemmed from — with at least one report of white supremacists inciting violence, and some arguing that police presence in riot gear and use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets has led to escalation.
The Monday statement about Milley came as part of a call during which Trump told governors to “dominate” protestors and “take back your streets,” scolding states’ responses to demonstrations as “weak.” On this same call, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper urged governors to “dominate the battlespace,” — referring to U.S. cities — a phrase multiple public officials have since criticized.
“The sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper said on the call. “You have deep resources in the Guard. I stand ready. The chairman [Milley] stands ready. The head of the National Guard stands ready to fully support you in helping mobilize the Guard."
Later on Monday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said “there will be additional federal assets deployed across the nation,” and the White House will establish a “central command center” including Milley, Esper, and Attorney General William Barr.
A spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Princetonian.
The potential for military involvement in the protest response prompted outrage from multiple current and former public officials. After this news broke, Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who held the position Milley now occupies from 2011 to 2015, tweeted that “America is not a battleground” and “Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”
Trump has also stated that 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.”
According to reporting from NBC News, the President is considering invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 in order to deploy troops domestically. McEnany said on Monday that evoking this act is “one of the tools available” and whether to do so is Trump’s prerogative, though Esper said on Wednesday that he does not currently support invoking the 1807 law.
A group of Democratic Senators sent a letter to Milley and Esper on Wednesday to express “grave concern” over the possibility of Trump invoking the Insurrection Act, writing that “America is not a ‘battlespace’ and protestors should never be ‘dominated’ by the government or the military.” The Senators referred to Milley’s appointment to lead the protest response as “a highly disturbing delegation of authority.”
“The inappropriate use of U.S. federal military personnel in this context could result in irrevocable damage to our nation,” the Senators added.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement on Tuesday demanding details about potential deployments of U.S. military personnel within the United States.
“The role of the U.S. military in domestic U.S. law enforcement is limited by law. It must not be used in violation of those limits, and I see little evidence that President Trump understands this fundamental premise,” Smith wrote.
“I remain gravely concerned about President Trump’s seemingly autocratic rule and how it affects the judgement of our military leadership,” he added, calling on Esper and Milley to testify before the Armed Services Committee “to explain this domestic engagement to the American people.”
In a memo obtained by CBS, Milley wrote on Wednesday that the National Guard “is operating under the authority of state governors” and instructed the officers of each branch of the military to “remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
According to reporting from Axios published on Wednesday, Esper and Milley are “in talks to testify” before the House Armed Services Committee about Trump’s threats to federalize forces and respond to protests.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) sent a shorter message to Milley, a letter simply reading, “Do you intend to obey illegal orders from the President?”. Milley said during his confirmation hearing last July that he would “not be intimidated into making stupid decisions,” by Trump and would provide the best military advice “regardless of the consequences to himself.”
“I worked with General Milley at the Pentagon and I hope he’s thinking seriously about the moral and ethical issues surrounding his role in the coming days,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) also noted in a Monday tweet.
Multiple governors have pushed back on Trump’s threat to deploy the military. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wrote in a statement that, “Our country is defined by our collective character and democratic ideals, not by reactionary calls for division and not by threatening Americans with their own military."
Other officials have already criticized the existing protest response for being too militarized, including Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who called for the ending of a program that supplies excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies.
A 2018 study published by University Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs Jonathan Mummolo found that militarized policing “is ineffective in decreasing crime and protecting police, and may actually weaken the public’s image of police.” This study also found that “militarized police units are more often deployed in communities of color.”
In a statement to The Daily Princetonian, Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) co-president Masha Miura ’21 wrote that she sees the calls for tougher crackdowns in the face of protests “that are themselves about police violence/state-sanctioned violence” as “directly contradictory.”
The President has also called for 10-year prison sentences for protestors, something Miura considered “disgusting, especially considering the disproportionate arrests of Black protesters and the long, multi-generational detriment mass incarceration has caused in Black communities.”
“The calls made by Trump and other officials for more enforcement highlights how Black people, and people of color more broadly remain unheard and their demands ignored. It is an incomprehensible disconnect to demand the presence of more officers during protests when the protests are about the oppressive nature of the police!” she wrote.
During a peaceful protest in Princeton on Tuesday, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church Reverend Lukata Mjumbe expressed a similar sentiment about the militarized nature of the response to protests thus far, saying there is “a difference between keeping the peace and making the peace.”
“You keep peace with riot shields. You keep peace with armored cars that the Mercer County Commission has purchased … You keep peace with guns. You keep peace with bullets. You keep peace with curfews. You keep peace by holding people down,” Mjumbe said. “But when we make peace, it means we all come together.”