Protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and speaking out against racism have been sweeping across all 50 states and DC since late May. These protests were sparked by several recent deaths of Black Americans.
Now military leaders, both active and retired, have released statements and memos related to the protests, the political reactions in DC and military policies.
Recent Deaths of Black Americans Touch Off Nation-wide Protests Against Racism
George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25 seemed to be the final spark that initiated the current protests. Floyd, 46, was killed while in police custody when a white officer kneeled on his neck. Floyd, as seen in an 8 minute and 46 second video, repeatedly told the four officers involved that he couldn’t breathe before dying. All four officers have been fired and are being held on charges related to Floyd’s death.
This followed the March killing of Breonna Taylor, 27, a Nashville EMT, when police executed a no-knock warrant at her home. Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was hit by a truck and then shot while out on a jog in Glynn County, GA, in February.
Since late May, protests supporting anti-racism and Black Lives Matter have been organized across the US. From big cities to small towns, Americans are demonstrating and calling for systemic changes.
Protests have also been heavily filmed by demonstrators who are documenting their experiences and sharing them on social media. During these protests, police officers in several other cities have been suspended, fired or are being otherwise investigated for excessive force.
Retired Military Leaders Speak Out About Protests, Racism
Since the protests have begun, retired military leaders have published letters around the issue of racism and the White House’s response to protests.
Former Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, USMC ret., is possibly the highest profile retired flag officer to speak out in the last month. His scathing letter, published in The Atlantic, condemned racism and called for political leaders to avoid using troops to suppress freedom of speech.
Mattis’ letter followed a photo op for President Donald Trump at a damaged church near the White House. In preparation for the president to walk to the church, police used tear gas and other forcible means to clear otherwise peaceful protestors from Trump’s path.
“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mattis wrote on June 3.
Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, USN ret., also spoke out in The Atlantic about the use of force against protestors in DC.
“It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church,” Mullen wrote on June 2.
On June 7, Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, USA ret., added his voice in an interview on CNN. In his interview, Powell issued a firm rebuke to Trump while also showing support for protestors and his fellow military leaders.
“I think what we’re seeing now, is (the most) massive protest movement I have ever seen in my life, I think it suggests the country is getting wise to this and we’re not going to put up with it anymore,” Powell told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Top Marine Calls for Removal of Confederate Flags, End to Racism in Corps
In April, General James Berger, Commandant of the USMC, issued a strong directive regarding displays of confederate symbols on Marine Corps installations.
“We are a warfighting organization, an elite institution of warriors who depend on each other to win the tough battles. Anything that divides us, anything that threatens team cohesion must be addressed head-on,” Berger wrote in April.
At the time of his initial letter, Berger directed USMC leadership to facilitate the removal of all displays of the Confederate battle flag and related symbols.
“We must remove those symbols that have the effect of division and not mere disagreement,” he wrote.
As protests continue across the US into June, Berger has issued another letter, clarifying his earlier position and calling for the eradication of racism in all forms in the Corps.
“Current events are a stark reminder that it is not enough for us to remove symbols that cause division — rather, we also must strive to eliminate division itself,” Berger wrote in June. Only as a unified force, free from discrimination, racial inequality, and prejudice can we fully demonstrate our core values, and serve as the elite warfighting organization America requires and expects us to be.”
Top Military Leaders Echos Calls for Equality in Military
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, USA, asked his fellow military leaders in a memo to “please remind all our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
Milley has previously appeared with Trump at the controversial photo op at St. John’s Church. However, he has since walked back his involvement and acknowledged that being with Trump at the church was inappropriate.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Milley said in a pre-recorded video commencement address.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also spoke out about racism and the use of active duty troops to quell protests.
“The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” said Esper at a June 3 news conference. “We are not in one of those situations now.”
Leaders from across the branches have also joined in, sharing memos and social media messages standing against racism, as reported in the Marine Corps Times.
Army leadership has also reopened the possibility of renaming bases that honor Confederate generals, like Fort Benning. Also under scrutiny are Fort Hood and Fort Bragg, also both named for prominent Confederate generals.