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News Brief: Trump Threatens Military Action To Stop Protests

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A heavy police presence is guarding the streets here in Washington this morning. This came after police fired tear gas at peaceful protesters outside the White House.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The police used force to clear the way for the president to stage a photo-op. He posed with a Bible outside of a church. The bishop who oversees that church, St. John's, angrily said he'd used it as a prop. Now, all of this happened right after the president threatened to use the military against protesters.

INSKEEP: So much to discuss here. And we begin with NPR's Tim Mak, who's on the line. Good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was the experience like for the protesters who had gathered last evening outside the White House?

MAK: Well, eyewitnesses described a peaceful protest throughout the afternoon, but that around 6:30 p.m., law enforcement began clearing the square - that's Lafayette Square in front of the White House - using tear gas outside a historic church called St. John's. Reverend Gini Gerbasi used to work at St. John's. And she described hearing loud bangs, feeling and irritating gas in the air and seeing people running from the scene.

GINI GERBASI: It got turned into a battleground for a photo opportunity. And that was a sacrilege. It was a grotesque use of force for the purpose of clearing off that space so the president could come and speak there.

MAK: Julia Dominique (ph), a seminarian and former ER nurse, was on the scene tending to the wounded when she was forced to flee.

JULIA DOMINIQUE: They're trying to have their voices heard. And it gets met with absolutely ridiculous violent force.

MAK: This all took place as the president was giving an address at the White House pledging that he would be a, quote, "ally of all peaceful protesters." Dominique and Gerbasi say that the protests were completely peaceful up until the moment tear gas was deployed by law enforcement.

INSKEEP: Now, we should note, the president also said he wanted to be the law-and-order president, that he wanted to stop violent protests. And we have to note, there has been some violence in Washington. Someone set a small fire at St. John's Church, which seems to be why it drew the president's attention. Is it clear, though, that most of the protests are peaceful, especially the ones outside the White House, for the most part?

MAK: The vast majority of protesters were peaceful outside the White House. I spoke to Laura Smith (ph) of Falls Church, Va., and asked her why she came into D.C. to join demonstrations despite the coronavirus crisis.

LAURA SMITH: I have lupus, so it's very hard for me to be out right now. But I couldn't take it anymore. If we don't come out and say that this is wrong, then we're wrong.

MAK: Demonstrators shouted out slogans like, no justice, no peace and Black Lives Matter. But as the curfew took hold at 7 p.m., officers from various law enforcement agencies swarmed remaining protesters in a sudden and unexpected move and trapped a few dozen protesters inside their lines. By 9 p.m., the streets were silent other than helicopters overhead and sirens throughout the city.

INSKEEP: Can we just follow up now on this church? If people saw it on TV last night - this was carried live on TV - it was a big, yellow church with white trim. What made this church so special?

MAK: Well, every president since James Madison has visited this church. It's this church of significant historical importance. The president made a short walk over there and stood holding a Bible and paused for a photo yesterday.

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks for your reporting.

MAK: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Now, the president's photo opportunity outside the church came after he made a threat.

KING: That's right. He threatened to use military force against Americans if governors, if state governors, don't.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled. 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.

KING: Now, that threat raises two big questions. First, aren't states already using the military? And secondly, what authority does the president have to take over?

INSKEEP: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is covering this story. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we're obliged to note, the president very often says he may do things or will do things that just never come to pass. That's just a fact. We're obliged to note that. But he did make this threat. So what specifically is he saying he'd do?

BOWMAN: Well, he - again, he said he would send active duty troops in. But, frankly, this appears to be more bluster, Steve, on the part of the president and trying to score political points. He's been critical of the governors, especially democratic ones, saying they're not doing enough to deal with protests that have gotten violent. But the governors are calling out their National Guard.

Twenty-three states are using their Guard for a total of more than 17,000 Guard troops. And more may be called up to deal with any lawlessness. And the Guard troops are assisting local law enforcement in everything from transportation and logistics to more traditional law enforcement activities, like partnering with police on patrols. But again, this is all at the state level, Steve, with no federal involvement at this point.

INSKEEP: So the governors can use their own National Guard troops. They can also request federal troops, the real U.S. Army. Occasionally, through history, they have. But can the president unilaterally say I'm sending in the military?

BOWMAN: Yes. A president does have that authority under the Insurrection Act from the early 1800s, which says a president can send in active duty troops into a state if the laws are not being enforced, including the civil rights of the residents. Eisenhower did it in the 1950s in Arkansas to enforce school desegregation against the wishes of state officials. But the last time the Insurrection Act was used, Steve, was in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King beating. But that was when Governor Pete Wilson requested federal troops from President George H.W. Bush.

So it almost always makes sense to have support of local officials. And in Washington, D.C., the leaders have requested more National Guard from out of state. Those Guard troops started coming in late last night, we were told. And there was some active duty military police on standby outside the city. But Pentagon officials say they'll most likely not be needed because of those additional Guard troops as well as Federal Police.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is important, Tom, because we did see some military activity - Humvees on the streets, helicopters overhead - here in Washington D.C. I think you're telling me those appear to be National Guard troops at the request of Washington, D.C., authorities...

BOWMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...And not some kind of overwhelming force ordered in by the president. Is that what you're saying?

BOWMAN: That's absolutely right - National Guard, D.C. National Guard, as well as, again, a lot of federal law enforcement personnel as well. Now, D.C. has called up its entire 1,200 National Guard contingent, which is, again, why officials say they need more Guard troops. And again, those additional Guard troops, hundreds of them started coming in late last night from a number of states, including New York and New Jersey.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks for the clarity, really appreciate it.

BOWMAN: OK. You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman.

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INSKEEP: OK. Let's return now to Minneapolis and to the incident that led to the protests.

KING: It happened outside of a store owned by an Arab American family. An employee there called 911. And police responded. An officer pinned George Floyd down for more than eight minutes, and Mr. Floyd died. Authorities now say that was homicide.

INSKEEP: NPR's Adrian Florido spoke with the owner of that store. Adrian, good morning.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the owner's story?

FLORIDO: Well, his store is called Cup Foods. It's in a black neighborhood in south Minneapolis. It's a typical corner store. And the owner's name is Mahmoud Abumayyaleh. George Floyd had been a regular customer for about a year at his store until last Monday, when a clerk there called the police on Floyd for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. And as we know, that led to that terrible encounter we've seen, with an officer using his knee to pin Floyd's neck to the ground and Floyd's ultimate death.

Now, Abumayyaleh has gotten a lot of criticism for that police call because it originated in his store. But what he wanted me to know was that what his clerk did was not typical of his store's policy, that it should not have happened.

MAHMOUD ABUMAYYALEH: We don't call the police when counterfeit money is handed to us. We teach the clerks to let one of the owners know. And we deal with it directly and tell the patron that he can, you know, give us the money or the authorities can be called.

FLORIDO: He told me that in the more than 30 years that they've had this store, they've only called police for a counterfeit bill one or two times. And for what it's worth, Steve, I spoke to a lot of people in the neighborhood who told me that the owner is respected and well-liked, that he does not call the police, that, unlike some store owners, who treat their black customers with suspicion, he treats them with respect. Even so a debate has been raging about, you know, the store's role in Floyd's death because that is where the police call originated.

INSKEEP: What is that debate like, Adrian?

FLORIDO: Well, you know, the debate has been happening mostly online and especially in Arab American circles, because many convenience stores and corner stores in black neighborhoods in this country are owned by Arab Americans. So some activists within that community have said, you know, this is a chance to examine racism within our own community and how it might affect the way that our store owners - that we as store owners treat black customers.

I spoke with a man named Rami Nashashibi. He runs a group in Chicago that trains store owners and urges them not to call police because of the consequences that that could have. Listen to Mr. Nashashibi.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: When you call the police and you're interfacing with black men, yeah, the chances of violence and even death being as strong as they are would lead us to strongly encourage folks to think twice about ever calling the police in those sets of circumstances.

FLORIDO: He's traveling to Minneapolis later this week to meet with store owners and try to drive that message home.

INSKEEP: OK. So that is the story of the store owner and some of the backdrop of that police call that have led to these protests, which have continued across the country. What was it like in Minneapolis last night?

FLORIDO: Pretty calm, pretty peaceful - a big relief for officials who, you know, were worried that violent protests would continue for a long time. The National Guard is starting to be demobilized. And the hope is that things, in the next couple of days, will get back to normal here.

INSKEEP: Well, that's fascinating, since we've been hearing about the president's threat to send in more troops, that the National Guard they did call out already in Minneapolis, you're saying, is being demobilized in some instances. Adrian, thanks so much.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Adrian Florido. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.