Amidst the coronavirus outbreak, several reports have indicated that New Rochelle, New York, has turned into a “ghost town.” As of last Thursday, schools, houses of worship and other large gathering spots within a one-mile radius of the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue — where 108 cases of the infection were first reported — had completely shut down, according to Gothamist. As such, last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo deployed the National Guard.
Their orders, according to Democracy Now!, are to manage a “one-mile containment zone around a synagogue whose congregation is at the center of the nation’s single largest coronavirus outbreak.” “National Guard members were ordered to disinfect schools, to set up a coronavirus testing facility and to deliver food to people on quarantine, including thousands of students forced to remain at home,” per the news program.
Okay, let’s start at the top. What exactly is the National Guard again?
Their own website explains, “the National Guard is a unique element of the U.S. military that serves both community and country. The Guard responds to domestic emergencies, overseas combat missions, counterdrug efforts, reconstruction missions and more.” Most notably, any state governor, as well as the president, can call on the National Guard to help deal with an emergency.
So it’s like the Army?
Not exactly — joining the Army requires that you be relocated to a military base, and that you dedicate the entirety of your professional life to service. People who join the National Guard, meanwhile, have a lot more freedom. “When you join the Guard, you will be required to attend a paid drill one weekend a month and attend paid Annual Training for two weeks every summer,” per the National Guard’s website. “When needed, you can be called into full-time, Active-Duty service. But the rest of the time, you live in your local community and have more flexibility to pursue your career or education.” In other words, most people in the National Guard hold regular civilian jobs, too.
One more difference is that the minimum enlistment length for the National Guard is three years, while the minimum for the army is four years.
Does every state have a National Guard?
Yes. According to a 2014 article in The Guardian, every state and U.S. territory has a National Guard: “It is first and foremost a state agency, but units can be mobilized by the U.S. president to assist the country’s armed forces. States’ national guard units often receive federal funding and training.” Though it should be noted that while the National Guard forces include a variety of different units, including medical, aviation and engineering as well as military, the governor of each state serves as its commander-in-chief.
In the past, what sort of events have led a governor to dispatch the National Guard?
Well, historically speaking, the National Guard doesn’t have a great reputation, particularly with regard to its combative relationship with minority groups in this country. They were deployed in 1957 and 1958 by the governor of Arkansas to prevent black enrollments at a public high school. “In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama national guard after images of state troopers beating peaceful civil rights protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery sparked outrage,” reports The Guardian. “In 1968, they were deployed during the riots that lit up across the country in wake of the assassination of the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.”
More recently, in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the National Guard was dispatched to the city of New Orleans to ostensibly help aid with the city’s hurricane response. “Ten days after the storm, the New York Times reported that although the city was calm with no signs of looting (though it acknowledged this had taken place previously), ‘New Orleans has turned into an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement officers, as well as National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers,’” Mother Jones reported. But critics suggested that under the command of then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the National Guard troops were more interested in putting down civil unrest than they were in aiding with humanitarian efforts.
In 2014, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry authorized 1,000 soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border along the Rio Grande Valley to “help secure the border, where tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed into the United States this year in a surge that is deemed a humanitarian crisis,” reported CNN in 2014. The move was largely considered to be a political one, as Perry was hoping to use the immigration issue to boost his 2016 presidential run.
Not great, then. Is it going to be a similar situation in New Rochelle?
Thankfully, no (we hope). Although Governor Cuomo admitted that dispatching the National Guard is considered “drastic action,” the current outbreak in New Rochelle is in fact a legitimate emergency and doesn’t so easily lend itself to politicization. According to the New York Times, “The National Guard was called in primarily to assist with ‘tasks like delivering food, and cleaning and sanitizing public facilities and buildings.’” “The meals and food being unloaded by the Guard at the community center, the New Rochelle Community Action Program, will be repurposed as school lunches for the nearly 3,000 students whose classes have been canceled for the next two weeks, and who qualify for free or reduced meals,” per the Times report.
Has the National Guard been called to service in any other state?
Yes — last Thursday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan activated the National Guard after 12 people tested positive for coronavirus. Additionally, the governors of Washington, California, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have all declared states of emergency, but have yet to call on their respective National Guards.
In addition, last Monday, the governor of Florida signed an executive order that included the option to activate the Florida National Guard “as needed,” per Military Times. “The Florida National Guard is not currently tasked with any active operational type missions in the field, but we are augmenting the state’s planning and logistics efforts,” Maj. M. Caitlin Brown, director of public affairs at the Florida National Guard, told Military Times. “It’s obviously a rapidly evolving situation, and so we are leaning forward in preparation for potential future missions.”
So what’s going to happen when they come to my state?
It’s hard to say for sure, but as things currently stand, the National Guard is there to, again, simply help keep the containment zone clean and pass out food. Which will likely be the case when and if it is deployed in your particular state.
According to CNN, people are still not prohibited from moving freely within or outside of the one-mile containment zone. “New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson said it’s important to ‘understand what the containment zone is and what it’s not,’” reports the cable news network. However, though people are able to leave and enter the one-mile containment zone as they wish, large gatherings are prohibited. “But we should acknowledge that this is a situation that is evolving,” Bramson told CNN. “It’s changing not just by the day but by the hour. And it’s always possible that additional measures will be required in the future.”
All of which is to say that the current situation hasn’t yet called for direct military control of normal civilian life, as is the case with a martial law declaration. “Bramson stressed the National Guard isn’t in New Rochelle in a ‘military capacity’ but for ‘logistical and operational support,’” according to the same CNN report.
But while that may (hopefully) be true, history has shown that there’s always the possibility that the National Guard will and could engage with civilians in a more militant and potentially more violent capacity.
Do you mean to say that if I don’t follow their orders, they can shoot me?
I’m not saying that at all. But it is within their rules of engagement to defend themselves. “National Guard forces conducting domestic law enforcement support must use the minimum amount of force necessary to obtain compliance with lawful orders,” according to the “National Guard Domestic Law Enforcement Operations Guide” that’s published on PublicIntelligence.net, a site that helps give people access to public information. “Military personnel are always authorized and expected to use necessary force proportional to the threat, in self-defense and defense of others.”
I should add that the use of force does indeed include the use of deadly force, however it’s only justified in an extreme situation that’s “established by the state staff judge advocate,” per PublicIntelligence.net.
I guess I really will just stay home and binge Netflix until my eyes bleed.
Probably for the best. And maybe don’t go looting toilet paper, either.