Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said he doesn't support invoking the Insurrection Act, which would allow active-duty service members to act as law enforcement in quelling unrest in American cities.
At a Pentagon news conference today, Esper said the National Guard is handling the situation on the streets and is the organization best-suited to assist local law enforcement.
Esper called the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis policemen a horrible crime. "The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder," he said. "It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times."
The secretary said racism is real in the United States, and "we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it and to eradicate it."
In the past, the United States military has been asked to support governors and law enforcement to help maintain law and order so that other Americans can exercise their rights, free from violence against themselves or their property. For example, the 101st Airborne Division deployed to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to protect integration efforts at Little Rock High School, and troopers from the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But the support usually comes from the National Guard, and thousands of guardsmen are deployed across the nation right now. "It is not something we seek to do, but it is our duty, and we do it with the utmost skill and professionalism," Esper said. "I'm very proud of the men and women of the National Guard who are out on the streets today performing this important task and, in many ways, at the risk of their own welfare."
"The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," Esper, who once served in the National Guard, said. "We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act."
Esper praised the job National Guard service members have done over the past few months. "The National Guard … has gone from tackling natural disasters, such as floods, to combatting coronavirus across the country, to now dealing with civil unrest in support of law enforcement on the streets of America," he said. He noted that, at the same time, many thousands of guardsmen are also deployed overseas.
The U.S. military has often led the way in race relations, integrating African Americans into the ranks in 1948, for example. The nature of the military is to embrace diversity and inclusion, he said. "While we still have much to do on this front, leaders across DOD and the services take this responsibility seriously, and we are determined to make a difference," Esper said.
All members of the military have taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. That means defending the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment: freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly and to petition the government.
"The United States military is sworn to defend these and all other rights," he said. "And we encourage Americans at all times to exercise them peacefully. It is these rights and freedoms that make our country so special. And it is these rights and freedoms that American service members are willing to fight and die for."