SALT LAKE CITY — A convoy of Utah National Guard Humvees rumbled eastbound on South Temple late Thursday afternoon before thousands gathered at the Utah Capitol for another night of largely peaceful protests.

Similar scenes, which most Americans would place in a war-torn, struggling democracy, have played out across the country over the past week as governors exercised their executive power to activate their National Guards.

But their decision to do so — a rare one — was made not only in response to sometimes heated confrontations between police and demonstrators protesting police brutality against African Americans. President Donald Trump had threatened to deploy active-duty military if governors didn’t send out a dominating military force.

But while the president has clear legal authority to deploy troops, the issue has resonated with a broad swath of the public that have the same worries shared by the nation’s founders, said constitutional scholar Robert Schapiro.

“There was great suspicion of a standing army because that’s what tyrants do. They have a standing army inside their country and use it to take away people’s liberties,” the Emory University law professor said. “We’re a long way from King George III, but I think it remains something that plays on the political sensibilities of people in the United States, to have the armed forces engaged in enforcement activities within the United States.”

Trump’s threat unleashed a rare public rebuke this week from retired top military brass denouncing the use of the armed services to enforce what they viewed as a political agenda rather than protecting civil liberties.

While rare, past presidents have sent federal troops into states to quell civil unrest when it has overwhelmed local law enforcement. And governors have activated the National Guard for the same purpose.

The protests — and in some places looting and violent confrontations with police — that have rocked cities across the country since last week were ignited by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, allegedly by a white Minneapolis police officer. Many cities responded with strict curfews.

That echoed the safe-at-home orders of previous months and stoked the ongoing debate over the authority of governors and mayors to enforce quarantines and restrictions on business activities to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and whether the White House has the authority to force cites to reopen economies.

But even when elected leaders have the authority and justify their executive orders as the best way to protect public health or safety, the decisions to invoke those powers are politically fraught, particularly when they involve calling up the military to contain people exercising a constitutional right to protest government policies.

Utah National Guard soldiers line the street as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers late last month. | Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Lindsay Cohn, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College with expertise in civil-military relations, explained that while a president or governor has the legal right to activate troops to disperse protesters, that’s usually not the most effective way to resolve the problem people want addressed.

“Protesting is a political activity and the problem it is highlighting requires political solutions. I think that’s really important for people to think about,” she said, noting her views don’t necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College. “Obviously criminal activity should be dealt with, but treating all protesters as criminals because a few are is neither helpful nor appropriate.”

Send in the troops

Early this week, Trump threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and deploy military troops to states where governors and local leaders didn’t deploy “overwhelming” numbers of law enforcement and National Guard in response to the protests.

“If a city or a 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,” he said Monday in the Rose Garden.

Past presidents have sent troops to restore order within a state, including Utah. In 1857, President James Buchanan dispatched federal troops to the territory to escort a new governor to replace Brigham Young, who was also president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and enforce federal law.

Four years later, Gen. Patrick Connor was ordered to Utah where his regiment established Fort Douglas, which still overlooks Salt Lake Valley. Connor’s mission was to protect overland routes through the state and quell any uprisings during a period of tense relations between Latter-day Saint settlers and the federal government.

It’s unlikely Trump would dispatch federal armed forces to Utah again. For the first time in nearly a century, Gov. Gary Herbert activated the National Guard to respond to civil unrest on May 30 after pockets of violence and looting erupted at a protest in Salt Lake City.

“That decision was made internally and without direction from Washington, D.C.,” said a statement from the governor’s office.

Typically the National Guard is activated in response to natural disasters like flooding. Utah Guard members were also deployed during the 2002 Winter Games to assist with security. But the last time a Utah governor called up the National Guard to deal with a public disturbance was in 1922, when Gov. Charles Mabey sent a small contingent to Helper to deal with a coal miners’ strike, said Bill Ward, a researcher at the Fort Douglas Museum.

Herbert also sent 200 Utah National Guard members to the nation’s capital on Monday at Trump’s request to help civilian authorities around the Washington, D.C., metro area. On Friday, the Utah troops were caught in the middle of power struggle between Trump and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser over who controls that city’s streets.

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Bowser has requested help from the D.C. National Guard, but said Thursday she didn’t want outside military forces in her city. She canceled the contract with a downtown Marriott that was housing 1,200 National Guard members, including those from Utah, forcing them to move to another hotel outside of the city.

Protest is political

Sometime last Saturday, as the protest rocked Salt Lake City, Herbert, Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Utah Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson and Utah National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael Turley consulted with one another about how to respond.

Neither Herbert nor Mendenhall agreed to an interview, but they issued statements about their decision-making.

“As the protests were escalating and when there was violence and threats to public safety, the governor let me know that he was activating the National Guard,” Mendenhall stated. “Given what we had been and still are seeing around the country, I was grateful for the state’s support, as well as for the support of so many of our sister cities and police departments across the state.”

The governor’s office stressed the Guard’s role as “an important secondary part of the state’s strategy to maintain law and order while facilitating citizen rights of peaceable assembly.” 

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ response to civil unrest,” the statement said. “Each state and each locality present their own challenges.”

Executive officeholders typically weigh the political consequences of their public orders and directives. But the stakes are highest when deciding whether to call in military support and impose curfews.

Cohn said consultations among political leaders around deploying the military should consider how the troops will be deployed, whether they should be armed and the morale of those called up.

“They are usually not too enthusiastic about these operations,” she said. “They are put in an awkward position when they have to stand in front of their friends and neighbors and tell them to calm down when they may have very good reasons to be upset.”

She said there have been instances in the past when National Guard troops took sides in labor disputes and federal forces were called in to take over.

The political repercussions go beyond electoral prospects. Cohn explained that public protest is inherently political, not criminal, and the most effective way to calm an uprising is to address the public’s interests and feelings through statements and legislation.

“Public protest is primarily a political problem that requires a political solution,” she said.

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During Thursday’s protest, the first since the citywide curfew was lifted, Utah’s chapters of Black Lives Matter and the ACLU called a curfew “the wrong approach,” saying it further widened a divide between minority Utahns and those who are white and unafraid of police.

In her statement, Mendenhall acknowledged trying to strike a “delicate balance” when she issued orders shutting down the local economy in response to the coronavirus, imposing a curfew and welcoming the National Guard after Saturday’s protests. “My primary concern is for the health and safety of all individuals. I am committed to the right to peacefully protest and when the protests remained peaceful, I was more than happy to dial back on that level of intervention,” she said.

In response to the concerns expressed at the nightly protests, she said she’s talking with constituents to refine her “equity plan” that she says will correct “systemic inequities and grossly imbalanced access to opportunities” in the city.

Public backlash

The presence of military personnel can either calm or escalate a situation, depending on how elected officials manage the forces, Cohn explained.

Bringing in National Guard troops can calm things down when they are used as support, she said. The mere presence of soldiers standing guard around government buildings or manning checkpoints in armored vehicles can keep people in line. They usually don’t have policing authority, such as making an arrest.

After Saturday’s episode in Salt Lake City that resulted in a looted convenience story, spray paint on the Utah Capitol building grounds and a couple of overturned and torched cars, one a police cruiser, ensuing demonstrations were peaceful and crowds dispersed after the 8 p.m. curfew as sizable convoys of National Guard Humvees slowly rolled through downtown streets.

But when soldiers are armed and put in situations where they engage physically with protesters, violence can break out, Cohn said. And when those confrontations are broadcast via news and social media, policymakers can expect a public backlash to the enforcement dynamics they set in motion.

An example of that backlash was public reaction to the White House ordering military and park police to forcefully clear the streets of protesters with smoke canisters, explosive devices, rubber bullets and horses on Monday to make way for a presidential photo op.

“I think people are feeling the difference between police dealing with a real problem and the president simply wanted these people out of his way,” she said.