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I went with the first link, which was the Christian Science Monitor, but it’s all over the news:

Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated National Guard forces in Missouri Monday, saying the state must be ready to protect residents if violent protests follow a grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in August.

He said the role of both police and the Missouri National Guard will be to maintain safety and protect the free-speech rights of citizens.

I heard a lot of commentary about this on my drive home from work.  One of the Seattle radio personalities opined that it was a good thing because the Army was trained for things like this, unlike the Ferguson police.  I laughed and laughed.

The reality is: sort of.  Ferguson, if the Guard shows up to your party, the rules have fundamentally changed, and you need to understand how.

Some caveats before I get into this

I’ve been in the Army National Guard in WA state for over a decade.  I have never been mobilized for riot control.  I have undergone periodic training for “Military assistance to civilian disturbances”–MACDIS (“MACK-diss”) in the parlance, for some reason, though I believe they call it something else now.  It has been a few years.  I am familiar with the training that we do and from conversations with Guardsmen (present and former) from other states, believe it to be roughly equivalent around the country.

So I may be dead on in my assessment of likely responses and courses of action, or I could be WAY off.  Grain of salt, people.

How we train for civilian disturbances

When our brigade was the on-call unit, we did this training annually (although not all at once).  It was a long weekend in scenic Yakistan, a.k.a. Yakima Training Center.  We spent long, dry hours going over the academic part, which covered the laws under which we operated, use of force rules, and the dynamics of crowds and riot control.  We watched some videos of previous riots, including Seattle WTO (about which we are collectively somewhat nostalgic), and analyzed the behavior of the crowd and the response of law enforcement based on our recently acquired knowledge.

Then we got to do stuff. We were issued basic gear–padded vest, helmet and faceshield, and a stick.  I’m sure there was an appropriate name for it, but make no mistake: this is a three-foot-long wooden beating stick.  We practiced forming up, advancing in formation, rushes, re-forming, withdrawing, etc.  We practiced the various strokes and jabs with the beating stick.  We learned how to pry apart human chains with a minimum of damage to the links.

Then we practiced force-on-force.  Half the battalion became the “rioters.” They could only throw tennis balls, but otherwise could use all of the knowledge they’d just gained.  They resisted, passively or actively, and we practiced dismantling their resistance.  Lots of good bruises ensued.  After a few hours of this, we rotated.  (On the one hand, if you riot second, you get to apply all of the tricks you saw that really worked against you in your role as the upstanding riot control dude.  On the other hand, everybody was tired by this point and tempers were usually flaring a bit.  The riot response tended to be a bit rougher the second half.)

And that’s about it for the year.  We turn in the gear, go to sleep on the bus, and go back to our civilian jobs the next day.

“The Army trains for things like this.”

Actually no.  Hell no.  The Guard trains for things like this, but the Reserves and the Active Army emphatically do not.  The National Guard is the only part of the Army with a Title 32 (state) mission; the Reserves and Active Army are federal only.

But that training I just highlighted is about the entirety of it: one weekend per year, if that.  We spend an entire weekend learning how to dismantle a disturbance with minimum civilian damage–but we’ve spent months, years, or even decades learning how to kill people and break their stuff.  Think about that a moment, if you will.

And you don’t really expect to use it, right?  So how seriously do we take the training?  I was more interested in the home brew that some enterprising senior NCO brought for responsible consumption in the barracks that night.

So let’s paint a picture…

You’re part of a lovely little civil disturbance and you’ve got your chants down and you’re having a great time sticking it to the man with the support of your friends and neighbors.  It’s getting a little wild, and the crowd is moving through the Four Stages of Collective Human Stupidity with alacrity. To review:

  1. Chanting.
  2. Dancing.
  3. Getting nekkid.
  4. Burning stuff.

(I suspect sometimes the middle steps get skipped, but if you see anyone disrobing, expect fire very soon.)

So Johnny Law calls the mayor, the mayor calls the guv’nor, and the guv’nor calls in the Army National Guard.

Here’s what this will look like to you, O Aggrieved Citizen.  They will deploy comfortably behind “enemy” lines whenever possible, but they will form up with a quickness into wide, unyielding lines.  Young (mostly), healthy, mostly male, and grim.  Camouflage.  Helmets.  Face masks–maybe gas masks.  The aforementioned beating sticks.  You’re worried about police militarization?  This is the pinnacle.

And then they march up in unison.  Everyone will be in step because this is something they’re good at.  They’ll stop all together.  And then they’ll just stand there, stock still, being menacing as hell.  And you’re thinking it’s time to re-evaluate your life decisions.

The potential for stupidity here is very high.  People under stress revert to what they know, what’s comfortable.  For most people in a fight-or-flight situation, that is flight.  For many of the kids in the Nasty Girls formation, that would be their instinct, too.  But while they may not have had all that much riot control training, they have a lot of training in working as a team, fighting as a team, and never leaving your team. This is what they will revert to under stress.  And while many of them are just stupid college kids themselves, many are real combat veterans.

Here’s the important takeaway

So dearest potential rioter, I am telling you right now: the very dumbest thing that you can do is to hurt one.  You are gambling that their discipline and training in something that is not a core mission will override their instinctive need to protect and avenge their teammate.  (Hell, I hated some of my teammates, but I have shot at the enemy to protect them before and would do it again.)  You are betting that combat veterans in a chaotic, violent situation that goes south will not revert to the sort of responses they have years of training and experience in.  You are depending on the professionalism and discipline of scared weekend warriors to not respond in kind.

And depending on the unit and the commander and the NCO leadership and the situation, most of the time you will win the bet. But it’s not a sure thing.

You know who else is trained to interact with the hostile public and not lose their tempers or engage in excessive force?  Law enforcement.  That’s their full-time job.  And that never goes wrong, does it?

Unsolicited advice for having a great civil disturbance

Stay in groups with people you can absolutely trust to have your back.  I recommend a fire team of four.  Carry nothing you aren’t willing to be caught with and have confiscated.  Chant all of the nasty, vile things you can think of at the jack-booted thugs; they’ve heard it before.  Don’t throw anything.  Avoid and isolate active aggressors like the plague; they are not on your side.

If it gets to that point, sit down, link arms, and hang tight.  Once you get pried loose from the chain, go limp.  Make them work for every moment of it.  Once they break your grip, it’s broken; don’t try to re-establish and perhaps be mistaken for someone who has decided to take a swing because that ends badly for you.

Chanting is fine.  Dancing is fine.  You should be finding the edge of the crowd when the nekkidness starts, and my recommendation is to call it a night once the fires begin.

But that’s no fun at all

I’m not telling you not to civilly disobey your little heart out.  I’m just trying to inform you of the simple truth that you aren’t going to win in a physical confrontation with the National Guard.  The worst thing that could happen is that you start doing so; there are a lot more of them where those ones came from, and they take care of their own.

In an ideal universe, you could have someone go up and talk to their leaders, establish up front that they are going to zip tie all of you and you are going to be difficult about it, shake hands on the earnest intent not to hurt anyone, and have a fun story to tell your kids.  If opportunity allows, I recommend talking to the guy with the most stripes, or maybe an oak leaf of some kind.  (Avoid the single vertical bar.)

I’m not telling you this because I care about your protest.  Maybe I do.  But my sympathies in such a situation are entirely on the side of the poor bastards in the Guard lines, because I signed up to fight my nation’s enemies, not her citizens, and if it isn’t me on that line, it’s someone very much like me who doesn’t want to have to hurt anyone.  It’s hard enough to sleep sometimes.