By Arul Louis
New York, June 4 (IANS) Controlling the rioting and looting that have accompanied the nationwide campaign against police encounter killings in the US has become a contentious issue and Defence Secretary Mark Esper has openly opposed President Donald Trump’s suggestion to use the military to quell the disturbances.
Esper said on Wednesday that the nation was not in a situation that would legally allow Trump to call out the troops for domestic operations.
“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.
“We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” the Defence Secretary added.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who will be the Democratic Party candidate to challenge Trump in the November election, has also blamed the President for the turmoil, saying that he “is part of the problem and accelerates it”.
Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused him in an MSNBC programme of promoting divisiveness and turning the country into a “banana republic”.
But rifts have also developed in the Democratic Party on tackling the riots.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wanted the national guard, the equivalent of the territorial army but under state control, deployed in the city after widespread looting but it was opposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
While most of the protests against police brutality towards the African-Americans has been peaceful, a section of the protesters have turned to violence.
After a weekend of criminality and rioting, Trump threatened on Monday to use the act to empower himself to deploy troops to quell the “thugs”.
A Morning Consult poll of registered voters found that 58 per cent supported deploying the military to back the police in cities facing protests.
He and Esper had asked Governors to send in their national guard to control the looting.
Some of the states deployed the national guard, which is made up of part-time volunteers under state control but can be deployed abroad by the federal government as part of the military as has been done in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the states to call out the national guard is Democratic-controlled Minnesota, where the killing of an African American man, George Floyd on May 25 by a policeman who choked him to death by kneeling on his neck triggered the nationwide outrage and protests.
The murder charge against the policeman, Derek Chauvin, was upgraded to a more serious charge on Wednesday and the three other policemen with him were charged with abetting murder.
The worst of the rioting took place on Monday night. In New York City, some protesters attacked Macy’s flagship store, which is said to be the world’s largest department store and a city landmark, and looted it and also several other famous branded stores like Chanel and Rolex causing millions of dollars in damages.
Cuomo, a moderate, criticised de Blasio, who belongs to the party’s left bloc, for his failure to stop the looting despite having 32,000 police personnel under his control, and said that the national guard should have been deployed.
But he said that he did not want to use his gubernatorial powers to deploy them as it would have required him to sideline that mayor and that would have made the situation worse.
The telecast scenes of unhindered looting before and after the curfew caused outrage, as did the looting across the nation.
The violent section of protesters also targeted many small businesses owned by immigrant minorities and also African Americans.
While some leaders like Cuomo see the danger of the unrest helping Trump and undercutting their party, others – along with some media – are hoping that Trump would be blamed and they accuse him of creating the conditions for it.
According to the Morning Consult poll, 49 per cent of registered voters considered the protesters to be peaceful, while 42 per cent are trying to “incite violence or destroy property.”
Pelosi, Biden and others have criticised Trump for having protesters cleared by the national guard and other law enforcement personnel with flash grenades before walking to a church across from the White House for what they said was a photo op.
But they were careful to not condemn the demonstrators who set the house of worship.
“If the protesters were so peaceful, why did they light the church on fire?” Trump asked in a tweet.
White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany denied that military was not involved in clearing the protesters outside the White House and teargas and rubber bullets were not used in clearing the protesters outside the presidential mansion and defended Trump’s visit to the church hyperbolically likening it to Winston Churchill’s symbolic actions during World War II.
She said that several police personnel have been injured by the protesters, four of them shot, and an African-American former police captain was shot dead by looters.
Barack Obama, the first person of African descent to be elected President, said that there was a sense of awakening to the problems of racial injustice and it should be mobilised to bring about reforms in policing, banning chokeholds and strangulations by police.
While Trump has been blamed for the police brutality, another African-American man was choked to death by a policeman in New York in 2014 when Obama was President.
The policeman was not charged in the video-recorded incident and was dismissed more than five years later by de Blasio’s administration.
(Arul Louis can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)