There is a part of the conflict where the sparks turn to fire after a few days and the outrage cannot be contained. People retaliate, maybe property is destroyed and appeasement doesn’t work. The media heads and city reps are at a loss (for control) and the national guard gets called in. Propaganda about the national guard, a subset of the federal government and localized domestic military force, presents it as a favorable alternative when things get out of control on the ground in our cities. Nothing could be further than the truth.
In the pursuit of riots, or bursts of collective action both destructive and creative, we can recognize that the next step by the state when the police alone have been outmaneuvered or “lost control” is to bring in other layers in the hierarchy of state violence.
It should be noted that police purposefully provoke crowds of people compounding the effect of their already obscene, targeted racist police executions. It should also be noted that oppressed people repeatedly targeted by social and state violence have the autonomy to defend themselves and create consequences to change this society as needed. This means we have to be willing to undo and defy the structures built by colonization and institutionalized anti-black racism, the state itself.
But we have been produced under this social order, many believing that order, rather than oppression, is kept through state violence. So many do support the national guard or ‘federal oversight’ because folks believe order, through state violence, needs to be restored. And yet the national guard has proven to be an added force of oppression and attack in situations when people were suffering.
In New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina the national guard killed black folks trying to survive the hurricane and floods. The orders came from the Governor, and the official reason given was “looting”. As an arm of authoritarian violence they intervened in an “emergency” situation and increased the death toll while people were trying to survive. Because it was a natural disaster there was little to no questioning of their decisions or use of force. Like most government agencies, use of force is dismissed because of some mythical “protection” that is being provided selectively (based on hierarchy, not to people criminalized or targeted by the guard).
In 1961 Bull Connor, a racist police commissioner and Democrat in Birmingham, allowed mobs of KKK to assault Freedom Riders who were de-segregating Greyhound bus travel. At that time, it was seen as favorable for the national guard to intervene since police repeatedly allowed white racists to assault black people because police shared racist sentiment or were supporters of/KKK themselves. This was a political move on behalf of the federal government at the time, not because of the harm coming to Freedom Riders on the ground, but to restore authority and faith in the state process, who at the time saw a benefit to distancing themselves from the actions of the police. The national guard intervening during unrest and uprisings nowadays is similar, they intervene not against police terror but against a breakdown in authority.
During the Ferguson Uprising in 2014 when the national guard was called in, even some movement folks were looking at it as if it was a good alternative to the police running the show. However even Highway Patrol’s field operations commander, Maj. Bret Johnson, admitted that had the Guard tried to stop the arson and looting on Nov. 24, “the only way to stop that, with the amount of people there, would have been with deadly force.”
When an “emergency” is declared by these state leaders it is not over the consistent execution of folks, particularly black folks, by the state (which is the white supremacist/ legal norm) but the assessed threat to white power and established capitalism. They do not see police executions as an emergency, but collective resistance as a threat.
With the national guard, as any force or formation of government violence, oppression is order. The national guard being called in is an escalation in containment strategy by the state. It reminds the public that the government will continue to kill people to regain control, and signals to local groups they have to regain control and repress uprisings themselves or the state will increase force and do so more brutally.
There is no benevolent arm of this violent governing apparatus that will intervene in conflict without smashing resistance and autonomy to the ground.
What does it mean to account for the national guard? In my opinion, it means first knowing the difference when the state shifts repression tactics. When cooptation and containment aren’t enough, what role do these federal agencies play? In the eyes of others, in terms of flow of resources and chain of command, and how can we approach these situations strategically.
The truth is, riots are here to stay. As they increase in frequency and tactics change, the propaganda and strategy of the state will too. Bouts of collective rage and autonomy, attacks against the flow of capital (highways, windows, burning corporations), empower and release too many people best left purposefully individualized and in despair. These are the throes of conflict, beyond time for resistance in all its forms and this “Order” which is really a racialized poverty based gender policed hierarchy deserves opposition.
There are many creative means of organizing and caring for ourselves in spite of this system, though resources, time, and energy is depressed. However, all of the most effective autonomous efforts- from food networks to direct action collectives are repeatedly surveilled, targeted and attacked. This is why building our capacity to strike (together) and often is important, it has the potential to bring us together without requiring any uniform theory or action. In the meantime, we practice.
Preparation is continuously needed, but in the moment when people flood the streets, what is strategic changes. Food networks are great, but looting is more immediate in crisis. Blockades are effective, but looting attacks the power of capitalism to withhold resources and enforce that divide. It makes sense that in a capitalist system that values property and profit over life that folks would attack property. Especially folks in poverty, which is a purposeful part of racialized capitalism. In a policed racial hierarchy people will retaliate against a system that relies on their incarceration or death, this has to be affirmed. As a comrade said, “We demand something other than this necropolitical death world. A world where Black, Brown, poor, sick, disabled, queer, femmes can live and love” (Trishia Andrea).
We will not attack uprisers for knowing what is immediate and strategic even if long term professional activists feel it harms the image of whatever movement they are trying to carve out of peoples rage. However we prepare for what is coming, uprising energy is different and can keep its own flavor based on its conditions and should not be co-opted to energize local organizations.