WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon has authorized the deployment of 700 unarmed National Guard troops in the nation’s capital as it prepares for trucker convoys planning protests against pandemic restrictions beginning next week.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Tuesday approved the request from the District of Columbia government and the U.S. Capitol Police, the Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday night.
The troops would be deployed to help control traffic at demonstrations expected in the city in the coming days, the Pentagon said. According to the statement, 400 Guard members from the District of Columbia Guard will join 300 Guard members from other states.
Guards will not carry firearms or participate in law enforcement or domestic surveillance activities, the Pentagon said.
Modeled on the recent trucker protests in Canada, separate truck convoys have been planned through online forums with names like People’s Convoy and American Truckers Freedom Fund – all with different starting points, departure dates and routes. Some are scheduled to arrive in time for President Joe Biden‘s March 1 State of the Union address, but others may arrive later.
The convoys follow the recent Canadian trucker protest, which shut down the busiest US-Canada border crossing and besieged the streets of the capital Ottawa for weeks in protest of the government’s pandemic restrictions. The multiple blockades were broken up by police last week, with more than 100 arrests.
It remains to be seen whether any of the US convoys would attempt to actively close Washington’s roads like their Canadian counterparts were doing in Ottawa. Some convoy organizers have spoken of plans to cruise briefly through the city and then focus on closing the beltway that encircles the capital.
A statement from the people’s convoy specifically states that the trucks “will NOT go to DC.” This convoy plans to embark from Southern California on Wednesday and arrive in DC around March 5th.
The US convoys are seeking an immediate lifting of what they say are stringent government pandemic restrictions such as mask mandates and vaccination requirements. The American Truckers Freedom Fund website says the group is protesting “the federal government’s unscientific, unconstitutional hyperbole.”
Vaccines have proven extremely effective in preventing COVID-19 infection, particularly serious illness and death, and quality masks offer strong protection against spreading or catching the disease. Public sentiment, particularly among conservatives, has shifted against government contracts as the pandemic enters its third year.
People’s convoy organizer Mike Landis said in a video testimonial on the group’s website the current COVID vaccine was “unproven” but supported individual decisions on whether or not to take it. Landis said the convoy was open to all vehicles and the main goal was to pressure Biden to lift the national state of emergency.
“We want this administration to bring back the Constitution,” Landis said. “We don’t want to be under a dictatorial communist regime like we are now.”
The websites organizing the American trucker convoys relate directly to the inspiration of the Canadian movement. A statement on the People’s Convoy website pays homage to “our brave and courageous neighbors to the north — our Canadian brothers and sisters who led the attack.”
Metropolitan Police Department chief Robert Contee said Friday his department is closely monitoring the changing information and will spend additional police hours in a state of heightened alert over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, he warned DC residents to watch out for unexpected traffic disruptions.
“There will be traffic disruptions, that kind of thing,” Contee said. “I think we have to be very open with the public about what some of the expectations might be seeing here in the District based on what we saw in Ottawa.”
Contee called the standoff in Ottawa “an unbelievable situation — one that we have not seen here in the District of Columbia.”
Contee and Mayor Muriel Bowser memorably predicted riots at the Capitol Building a few days before the Jan. 6, 2021 riot. They warned residents to stay indoors and called for additional resources, but Capitol Police and the National Guard were still caught off guard when crowds of Trump supporters overran the building, resulting in multiple deaths and numerous injuries.
Remaining memories of this debacle have fueled a heightened sense of fear and speculation about the convoys to come. But Bowser said she’s not yet warning residents to avoid the Capitol or the National Mall.
“We are not yet at a point where we can give specific instructions to residents. We will,” Bowser said.
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