Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday denied a request from the Trump administration to deploy Virginia’s National Guard to “dominate” protesters in Washington, as he criticized Trump for his rhetoric toward ongoing protests of racism across the nation.
“I am not going to send our men and women in uniform of our very proud National Guard to Washington for a photo op,” Northam said Tuesday, referring to the dispersing of a peaceful protest outside the White House on Monday, with tear gas and flash bangs, for the president’s televised visit to a nearby church.
The Pentagon on Monday requested that Virginia send between 3,000 and 5,000 members of its National Guard to “clamp down” unrest in the nation’s capital, which, like many cities across the country, has seen peaceful and violent demonstrations in protest of police brutality, particularly toward people of color.
In a call with Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday afternoon, Northam declined Esper’s request out of concern that Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser had not been consulted.
The Northam administration also expressed concern about President Donald Trump’s rhetoric during a call with governors at noon Monday, during which he urged governors to “dominate” protests with an “occupying force,” a military reference.
“The message regrettably was not one of healing, was not one of unity. It was one of divisiveness. I regret that coming from the leader of the most powerful country in the world,” Northam said during a news conference Tuesday, flanked by black leaders from across the state.
As the sound of protests rose outside, Northam expressed sympathy for George Floyd, and others similarly killed by police. “The protests we are seeing are for them, and because of a system that continues to allow this to happen.”
The Northam administration received the Pentagon’s request before the call, and quickly reached out to Bowser to confirm that the city was working in coordination with federal officials. Bowser said it was not.
“When this request came in, we quickly learned it had not been made at Mayor Bowser’s request or coordinated with her, and we have heightened concern based on the President’s remarks that the Administration is looking to use the Guard to escalate — not de-escalate — the situation,” said Northam chief of staff Clark Mercer in a statement.
The Trump administration made similar requests of other states, including Delaware and Maryland. Bowser’s administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hours after the initial request, Northam participated in the call between the Trump administration and the nation’s governors at noon on Monday, during which Trump admonished leaders for not reacting to protests more aggressively.
“You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks, you have to arrest and try people,” Trump said, according to a transcript of the call published by CNN. “It’s a movement, if you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse. … The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak.”
Talking specifically about D.C., Trump said he was planning to “pull in thousands of people” to have Washington under “much more control.”
“We’re going to clamp down very, very strong,” Trump said.
Also during the call, Esper told governors to “dominate the battle space,” by mobilizing their National Guards.
The Northam administration has tapped some 380 members of its National Guard to assist with unrest in Virginia, which has seen peaceful and violent protests in Richmond and elsewhere. Humvees and a few dozen Guard troops were stationed inside Capitol Square near the Executive Mansion Tuesday evening.
An additional 500 members of the Guard are on duty to assist with the state’s COVID-19 response.
Mercer said those numbers paled in comparison to the request from the Pentagon, which called for a sizable share of the state’s 7,000-member Guard.
At one point during the call, Trump said that the presence of the National Guard during rioting in decades past “seems to be a very calming effect,” particularly referring to the 1992 Los Angeles riots tied to the beating by police of Rodney King, a black man.
While Trump at first described violent protests and looting as the impetus for an aggressive crackdown by police, he later compared current protests to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest, which was largely peaceful.
“It was a disaster until one day, somebody said that’s enough, and they just went in and wiped them out and that’s the last time we ever heard the name Occupy Wall Street,” Trump said.
Northam sought to strike a different tone on Tuesday, saying the protests “didn’t spring out of thin air.”
“Racism and discrimination aren’t locked in our past. They weren’t solved with the Civil Rights Act. They didn’t disappear. They evolved,” Northam said.
Speaking to the state’s black residents, he said, “I cannot know the depth of your pain. What I can do is stand with you, and I can support you.”
Northam, who last year faced widespread calls for his resignation over a racist yearbook photo that he denies participating in, said his administration will continue to work on racial inequity in the state.
Northam said he plans to host virtual town hall meetings on criminal justice reform and a statewide “day of prayer, healing and action.” Northam is also directing a group tasked with studying inequity in the Virginia code to focus on criminal justice reform. He also plans to meet with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, and Northam’s chief diversity officer, Janice Underwood, said much work remains to be done at the legislative level to bring equity to Virginia.
“We are clearly a nation in crisis and chaos, fueled by yet another casualty of systemic racism,” McQuinn said.
“This is change that will be painful for some, but necessary to advance equity and inclusion,” Underwood said.