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US defence chief opposes deploying troops to quell protests despite Trump threats

Protest in Washington against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. Picture: Reuters

Protest in Washington against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. Picture: Reuters

Published Jun 3, 2020

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Washington – US Defence Secretary Mark

Esper said on Wednesday he does not support invoking the

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Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty forces to quell civil

unrest for now, despite President Donald Trump's threats to

militarise America's response to mass protests.

Trump said this week he could use military forces in states

that fail to crack down on sometimes violent protests over the

killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a

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white police officer in Minneapolis.

"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

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the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of

those situations now," Esper told a news briefing.

"I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act."

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To deploy the military on US soil for law enforcement

purposes, Trump would need to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act – something last done in 1992 in response to the Rodney King

riots in Los Angeles.

The military has prepositioned 1,600 active duty forces on

the outskirts of Washington DC to deploy if needed.

Esper said he regretted using the term "battlespace" this

week to describe areas gripped by protests.

"In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to

distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some

to suggest that we are militarizing the issue," he said.

Trump's threats to deploy active duty troops – even in

states that oppose its use to address civil unrest – has

stirred alarm within the US military and in Congress, where a

top Republican warned it could easily make troops "political

pawns".

Esper said he was unaware that he would be part of Trump's

politically charged photo opportunity on Monday, when law

enforcement forcibly cleared a park outside the White House of

peaceful protesters so that the president could take a picture

in front of a church holding a Bible.

He acknowledged the difficulty of deploying the military

without entering the political fray.

"I work very hard to keep the department out of politics,

which is very hard these days as we move closer and closer to an

election," Esper said.

Retired Navy admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the

Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was "sickened" to see how law

enforcement – including the National Guard – had cleared the

area and warned against over-use of the US military.

"Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never

become so," Mullen wrote.

Reuters

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