Why was U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the highest-ranking military officer in the United States, strolling through the streets of the nation's capital Monday night?
That question was raised by alarmed observers after videos on social media showed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—dressed in full combat fatigues—walking around Washington, D.C. in the wake of the brutal attack on peaceful protesters by National Guard troops and U.S. Park Police.
Soldiers and law enforcement officials, some of them on horseback, beat demonstrators with batons and hurled tear gas canisters into crowds Monday evening to clear the path for President Donald Trump's theatrical walk from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church, where the president held a photo-op with a Bible in hand.
Milley joined Trump's walk to the church, as did Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr.
Wow. Gen. Milley, @thejointstaff, actually walked with the president on his photo op stunt this afternoon after lawful protestors and journalists were tear gassed out of his way. https://t.co/UEyqy59BqY
— Kevin Baron (@DefenseBaron) June 2, 2020
Critics denounced Milley's participation in Trump's stunt and his subsequent solo appearance in the streets of D.C. as an alarming symbol of the U.S. military's intervention in America's cities in response to protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Late Monday night, as Common Dreams reported, military helicopters flew low over crowds of protesters in the U.S. capital in an apparent "show of force" against the demonstrations.
"The military and civilian leaders who acquiesced in the deployment of uniformed personnel in an American city and who strode the streets of Washington as if it were the scene of a battle, and not a place where fellow citizens were peacefully exercising their legal right to assemble, bear a heavy responsibility," the Palm Center, an independent research institute, said in a statement.
"The U.S. military is not a crowd control instrument," the Palm Center added. "Nor is it a tool for settling political differences, or an extension of a campaign... We urge uniformed and civilian leaders to show wisdom and refrain from deploying the active-duty force in American cities. Anything else risks a place of shame in the history books."
Asked by reporters about his presence in the streets of the nation's capital, Milley said he was merely assessing the National Guard's performance.
"This isn't a healthy democracy," tweeted Politico reporter Eric Geller.
The commander of the joint chiefs is surveying the streets of DC in uniform like he’s planning a military assault. pic.twitter.com/mLcqtm3XcS
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Trump said during a conference call with U.S. governors Monday that he has placed Milley "in charge" of the federal government's response to protests over Floyd's killing, which have spread across the U.S. and around the world.
During a speech at the Rose Garden Monday evening, Trump said he is "dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers" to confront protesters in the streets of Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities, a plan that Democratic lawmakers condemned as a "declaration of war" against the U.S. public.
Milley has not publicly commented on Trump's plan to deploy the military against protesters.
In a one-sentence letter to Milley on Monday, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) posed a simple question to the general: "Do you intend to obey illegal orders from the president?"
"Trump says Chairman Milley is in charge," Gallego tweeted. "We need to know whether he intends to uphold his oath."
It is not clear whether Milley has responded to the letter.
Common Defense, an advocacy organization of 150,000 veterans, tweeted Tuesday that Trump's threat to use the U.S. military against demonstrators "is nothing less than fascism."
"We call on troops and Guard to exercise their rights," the group said, "and for veterans to speak out with a loud, overwhelming, united voice."