Senator Reed Discusses Police Brutality Protests on the Senate Floor
Mr. President, for the past week, our Nation has been engulfed by protests in dozens of cities over the senseless murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers. Americans are angry, frustrated, and grieving, not just for Mr. Floyd’s and Ms. Taylor’s deaths but for centuries of injustice and brutality against African Americans. The instances are too numerous to count.
Yet these instances of violence keep happening while meaningful reforms have not taken place. The protests are set against the backdrop of the deadly novel coronavirus pandemic. As our country copes with this crisis, African-American communities have suffered disproportionately high infection and death rates. Compounding this tragedy, we are in the midst of an economic downturn that rivals the Great Depression, with communities of color bearing the brunt of the economic fallout.
Millions of hard-working Americans have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. They are struggling to provide for their families, put food on their table, and keep a roof over their head. These protests are not isolated. They are taking place in every State in the Nation and in many other countries. Protesters are of every race and ethnicity and run the gamut in age from high school and college students to parents and grandparents. The people participating in these protests represent the diversity that is the strength of America.
The overwhelming majority of these protests are emotional but nonviolent. They embrace a fundamental tenant of civil engagement, which is the American right and tradition of peacefully protesting to make their voices heard and to rectify injustice. On the fringes of these peaceful protests, there are opportunists who are sowing mistrust and division. Their primary goal is to loot and destroy property, that cause chaos that puts innocent lives in harm’s way.
Let me state clearly, theft and looting are a crime. They are unacceptable and undermine the powerful message of thousands demanding justice and change. They offer an easy way out to those who would rather turn away from this challenge of justice and simply indulge in their own petty objectives of violence, diversion, and destruction. Our Nation is in pain. We need leaders who bring calm, unity, empathy, and aid. Instead, our Nation has a President who treats it as a field of war. He does not even attempt to bring people together, to listen to others, or to accept the reality that leaders in a democracy are neither infallible nor omnipotent.
In a tweet on May 30, President Trump said: "Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis will never be mistaken for the late, great Douglas McArthur or great fighter General George Patton...Get tough and fight." In a call with our Nation’s Governors, Secretary of Defense Esper said: ‘‘I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal.’’
These are American city streets that we are talking about, filled with Americans exercising their rights, not battlefields filled with the enemy. Then, in a statement in the White House Rose Garden on June 1, President Trump said: ‘‘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.’’
America learned shortly thereafter what actions the President was prepared to take. The U.S. Park Police and others near Lafayette Park used tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets to aggressively push back a peaceful crowd 30 minutes before the DC curfew went into effect. Why was this assault undertaken? It wasn’t to step inside St. John’s Church and offer a prayer for George Floyd, his family, or the countless other Americans who have been victims of police brutality. It wasn’t to reflect on the pain and division that is rife within our country and contemplate what actions he could take to heal our Nation, like President Lincoln often did during the Civil War. The President crossed a street, aggressively cleared of peaceful protesters for a photo op that was meant to say he was strong, and he was in charge. Unfortunately, for him, it had the opposite effect.
President Trump’s rhetoric and some of the events that have occurred are not ones that many of us ever thought we would see on American streets or hear from an American President. They are the words and actions that happen in authoritarian states, words and actions that past American Presidents have condemned. They are words and actions that violate the democratic norms our Nation has stood for and American servicemembers have died for.
While the President does have the authority to call up military personnel under the Insurrection Act, it does not mean he should. It was last invoked in 1992 when California Governor Pete Wilson requested Federal military assistance from President George Herbert Walker Bush to respond to the L.A. riots following the acquittal of police officers for the beating of Rodney King. Before that instance, the act was invoked in the 1950s and 1960s to enforce civil rights laws and end segregation in the South. The Insurrection Act serves as an exception to posse comitatus and to the broad principle embedded deeply in American democracy and history that the Active Armed Forces should not be used to enforce State laws or to exercise police power reserved to the States unless absolutely necessary as a last resort. The act is, by design and tradition, rarely invoked.
The Insurrection Act envisions that, when Active military forces are used to supplement State police forces to enforce State laws, they do so only at the request of the Governor or legislature, which is ultimately responsible for the execution of the laws within the States. In the present moment, I am not aware of any Governor or legislature calling for the Federal Government to step in and take control. Put simply, if they need help, I have no doubt they will ask for it. The President’s ability to invoke the Insurrection Act without the Governor or State legislature requesting assistance rests on the need to enforce or protect Federal law, which is not the case here. If President Trump were to invoke the Insurrection Act today, absent a request from a State, it would only be to further his own political interests. He would be using Active military forces as a political and propaganda tool in contravention of everything our military stands for. Using the Insurrection Act on a whim risks politicizing the military.
The military’s mission is to defend and serve the Constitution and the American people regardless of who is in office. Bringing the military into domestic politics risks a rupture in the sacred trust between the civilian and military leadership and undermines fundamental American values. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey stated shortly after the 2016 Presidential conventions, ‘‘If senior military leaders—active and retired—begin to self-identify as members or supporters of one party or another, then the inherent tension built into our system of government between the executive branch and the legislative branch will bleed over into suspicion of military leaders by Congress and a further erosion of civil-military relations.’’
Over the last few years, that erosion has increased steadily as recent events have made eminently clear. This erosion is a toxic force that will undermine one of the most essential ethics of the American military. Soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coastguardsmen serve the Constitution, not the President. That is the oath many of us took as young men and women. That is the oath that defines the military of the United States, unlike many other countries, fortunately, for us.
According to press reports, Secretary of Defense Esper told senior military leaders to ‘‘stay apolitical during these turbulent days,’’ but I would urge Secretary Esper to heed his own advice. Traditionally, the Secretary of Defense, while a Cabinet member and appointed by the President, has taken a nonpolitical stand—staying away from campaign events and avoiding even the potential of a political photo op. As General Milley discovered Monday evening, once the civilian leader of the military joins the political fray, it is difficult for the military to stay neutral.
Our Nation is in crisis, but it is not a crisis that can or should be solved by American military force against its own citizens. I think, if you ask any young man or woman who took the oath to join the forces of the United States—whatever branch—was he or she doing it to go fight Americans, they would answer no. He or she is doing everything they can to protect Americans, to protect the system of government, and, ultimately, the Constitution. That is the oath we take.
The strength of this Nation and of the great American experiment in representative democracy goes far beyond our military strength. It goes to our civil traditions, our Constitution, our sense of civic responsibility, and our ability to constantly evolve and improve ourselves even from our earliest days stained with slavery. We need leaders who will listen and commit to change and then implement that change. We need leaders who will not exacerbate the problem but will seek to solve it and bring people together as our greatest Presidents have done throughout history. In short, we need leaders who are builders, not destroyers, and until those leaders emerge, I am afraid the tumult will continue. It is my fervent hope that this nation finds a way to peace soon.