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When the war comes home – the US National Guard

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The National Guard is on the streets of the US once again. Ken Olende looks at four key moments when troops were used to combat struggle at home—and how they reveal our rulers’ fear of resistance
Issue 2418
Striking sanitation workers and National Guard troops in Memphis, 1968
Striking sanitation workers and National Guard troops in Memphis, 1968 (Pic: AFSCME union)

The intervention of the National Guard to try and quell protests in Ferguson, St Louis, has shocked and angered many people. The protests exploded after the police killing of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

Yet the US military has a long history of intervening in domestic struggles. Four earlier examples highlight the development of resistance in the US and why protesters should never look to the military for aid.

The National Guard was created in 1916 as a reserve controlled by each US state. The president could take federal control of it in emergencies.

The new formation got an early test. In 1917 whites angry at black people moving to the city for war work rioted in East St Louis, killing up to 200 black people. The National Guard was deployed, but contemporary witnesses said they joined in with the white mobs.

Little Rock, 1957

Two striking images of soldiers come from the Little Rock desegregation campaign. The first is of the Arkansas National Guard blocking black teenagers from going to school at Little Rock in 1957.

The second is of federal troops marching the teenagers into school with bayonets fixed.

The US Supreme Court had ruled that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Nine black students registered for the previously whites-only Central High School.

The new school year began on 3 September and racist mobs gathered outside the school to stop integration. They harassed the black students and stopped them getting in.

The next day state governor Orval E Faubus called the Arkansas National Guard to restore order—by keeping the black students out.

Faubus said, “I found it necessary in order to preserve the peace and order of the community and to protect the lives even of the negro students and the negro people to take the actions which I did.”

At the time the US government was promoting itself as the democratic leader of the “free world” standing up to tyranny and injustice. The reporting of such blatant injustice within its own borders was humiliating.

President Dwight D Eisenhower was no left winger. But to end this embarrassment he federalised the entire Arkansas National Guard to stop it blocking entry to the school. He sent in 1,000 soldiers from the regular army.

The nine were escorted into school by 22 soldiers. This escort became a daily routine.

For similar reasons president John F Kennedy later federalised other National Guards through the South to force them to protect Civil Rights marchers from murderous mobs. But by the mid 1960s military units were taking on a different role.

Detroit, 1967

Unlike those struggling for civil rights in the south, poor black people in the northern states had legal equality. But they still bore the brunt of economic problems and faced constant police harassment.

A series of riots in inner city ghettoes began with the Harlem riot of 1964. They became urban uprisings against racism and police repression—and the National Guard and federal troops were brought in to put them down.

The biggest battle took place in the 12th Street area of Detroit in 1967.

Police raided an unlicensed bar frequented by local black people. That night it was hosting a party for soldiers who had returned from Vietnam.

The partygoers refused to leave and police waded in, arresting 85. 

Local people fought back. In the days that followed the authorities lost control of the 12th Street area of the city. This time many rioters had military training and police reported snipers holding them off.

The state governor called out the Michigan National Guard. On the first day of their deployment 16 people were killed.

The next day president Lyndon Johnson moved 2,000 paratroops into the city. They patrolled in tanks and armoured cars.

A total of 43 people were killed. Four of these appear to have been killed by rioters, another was a firefighter who died on duty. Police or soldiers shot the rest down during the riot.

Some were shot for looting—such as Charles Kemp, who allegedly took five packs of cigars. The youngest to die was four year old Tanya Blanding, shot by National Guards.

Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King was troubled by the shift away from his non-violent strategy to the uprisings.

Yet he said, “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.

“I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, ‘So what about Vietnam?’

“Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”

Memphis, 1968

A year after Detroit, refuse workers in Memphis, Tennessee, struck against their awful pay and conditions. They were infuriated that they were still at the bottom of the pile despite civil rights legislation.

Local police used tear gas on a peaceful protest in support of the strikers. As anger grew police shot dead 16 year old Larry Payne.

The strike terrified US rulers. And it was linked to a disciplined mass movement.

Mayor Henry Loeb declared a state of emergency and brought in 4,000 National Guard troops. The following day over 200 striking workers continued their daily march, carrying signs that read, “I Am a Man”.

King went to Memphis to support the strikers. He made his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech to a strike rally of 15,000.

King responded to questions about how the strike might be won by arguing, “get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”

King was assassinated the next day. As riots and rage spread across the US the mayor tried to hold the line. But the strike won.

The repressive role of the troops continued both in Vietnam and the US. Ohio National Guards gunned down anti-Vietnam protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, killing four.

President Richard Nixon didn’t feel the need to intervene to reassert control at that point. But the same year he did federalise the National Guard in New York in an attempt to break a bitter postal workers’ strike.

After this troops were called in less often. The police became more directly paramilitary in response to rebellions during the 1960s. They developed their own Swat (Special Weapons and Tactics) units.

But the state didn’t always feel that these had the firepower to deal with challenges it faced.

Los Angeles, 1992

The Los Angeles rebellion broke out on 29 April 1992, the day four white police officers were acquitted of the brutal beating of motorist Rodney Glen King. The attack had been videoed by a witness and thousands of people thought, “That could have been me”.

Over five days the revolt moved out of the black ghettoes. More than 9,800 California National Guard troops were sent in.

There was a much more visible class divide among black people than in the 1960s.

The mayor of Los Angeles was Tom Bradley, a black man. He called in the National Guard, saying “I will enforce the law”.

The riot also followed police Operation Hammer, which had terrorised young people for five years in an attempt to crack down on drug gangs.

Police chief Daryl Gates wanted officers to “harass people and make arrests for inconsequential kinds of things”.

Gates had said that more blacks died than whites after being held in police chokeholds because “the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people”.

The uprising left more than 50 people dead, and more than 2,000 injured.

But as events in Ferguson show, however much the state ratchets up repression people will find ways to fight back.

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