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I’ve been curious about the National Guard for months. It started in March, after a video that appeared to show a train loaded with military vehicles headed toward the Chicago area went viral. The video fueled a rumor that the Illinois National Guard was being sent to the city to put it on “lockdown.” This was shortly after Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared a state of emergency because of rising COVID-19 cases. Truth is: There was a train, but it was not coming to Chicago to put the city on lockdown. It was part of a routine military equipment delivery.
The Illinois National Guard later made news for its efforts with COVID-19 relief and at protests against police violence. The more I read about it, the more I realized I did not understand what the National Guard does. Maybe you don’t either.
So I called Brad Leighton, a lieutenant colonel and public affairs director of the Illinois guard, to get some clarity. We spoke about rumors vs. reality, fear and what “calling in the National Guard” means both in practice and in perception. In our interview, Leighton said each state has its own National Guard force made up of mostly part-time troops, though the guard can also be mobilized by the federal government during national emergencies. The interview below has been edited for clarity.
We hear a lot about “calling in the National Guard.” Can you describe what that means and how it works?
The Illinois National Guard falls under the command and control of the governor of Illinois. So, when the governor calls in the National Guard, it means that the state pays for the soldiers and the use of the equipment. Sometimes there are other states that will need assistance. That’s done through agreements between the states.
Now, for example, during our COVID-19 response and the civil law enforcement support mission we did up in Chicago, that’s a case where the mayor of Chicago asked the governor for our assistance, and then the governor agreed to send us. Now, when we get on the ground, we’re still under the command and control of the governor and the adjutant general, the top military officer of the Illinois National Guard, but we’re generally placed under a civilian authority at the emergency.
For example, when we went to Chicago [to assist the Police Department with protests after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police], we fell under an incident commander with the Chicago Police Department. When we went to other places in the state [to assist with protests], we actually fell under the Illinois State Police as the incident commanders. If we went to a big fire, it could be the fire marshal. For elections, maybe the Board of Elections. But ultimately, we’re responding to the orders of the adjutant general and the governor of Illinois.
Does the National Guard absorb some of the powers of whatever entity it’s called in to assist? For example, can the National Guard make arrests if an incident commander is with the Chicago Police Department?
No. We’re not civilian law enforcement. And so we can’t really be used as an auxiliary police force. And we legally cannot make arrests. We can hold somebody for a bit until a fully licensed civilian police officer can come in and arrest that person. But if we’re detaining someone, that should be for a very short period of time. We’re not trained to investigate crimes. We’re really not trained in community policing.
So when the governor calls in the National Guard, perhaps on behalf of a mayor to respond to a particular situation, you’re there to fulfill the vision of that municipality dealing with whatever emergency effort it is.
Yeah. We communicate what we can do and what we can’t do. I would say that with civil disturbance type operations, we’re reluctant because there are many things that can go wrong. And again, we’re operating on limited legal authority. We can be eyes and ears for law enforcement and communicate back to them, but we’re not civilian law enforcement. We’re military.
When you say that you’re reluctant when the National Guard is called in for a civil unrest situation, what do you mean?
When I say we’re reluctant, it’s not that we don’t want to help maintain order. That’s what we’re there for. But the National Guard should be the last call. The National Guard is designed to come in when all other resources are exhausted. We’re the first military responders, but we’re the last one when the civilian capacity has been exhausted completely.
Which I know can be scary for civilians — the idea that their police or health department needs military backup. Is that fear warranted?
Well, I think when you call in the National Guard, it generally means that things are very, very serious. Honestly, if you’re pulling people out of their civilian lives and they’re putting on their uniform and they’re responding to something, whether that’s a flood or for law enforcement support or COVID-19, it’s an emergency.
But it’s all determined by the legal status we’re in. And the fact is that we are subordinate to civil authorities, not coming in and operating independently of those civil authorities. It’s a structure. And you don’t see that underlying structure when you see soldiers out on the street.
There seems to be a perception that the presence of the National Guard means that we’re one step closer to martial law. Is that actually the case?
Martial law would be a case where the military is in control. Martial law could be a scenario [in which we operate], but martial law is used very, very rarely. [Note: An Aug. 20 report from the Brennan Center for Justice documents 68 incidents throughout U.S. history in which martial law was declared.]
But that perception seems to influence policy. I’m thinking of what recently happened in Chicago: the City Council did not approve a proposal that would have allowed the Illinois National Guard to be stationed in Chicago for four months. The Chicago Sun-Times reported: “It was the stigma of a ‘military occupation’ of Chicago neighborhoods” that led to aldermen voting down the proposal.
We were concerned about that perception as well. When you have armed soldiers on the streets, I think, as a public affairs officer, that’s a perception problem in and of itself.
How do you address that?
We try to educate and explain to people why we’re there and what our role is, and try to communicate that with the understanding that having a soldier who is armed and has body armor on can be intimidating.
A lot of our soldiers come out of [local] communities. A lot of our soldiers certainly have ties to those communities [where we may be called]. But we’re a very small portion of the population. And the National Guard is even smaller because we’re just a fraction of the military. So people don’t have a lot of exposure to military people. There’s a disconnect with the civilian world. But with the National Guard, we can do a lot to bridge that disconnect because we are part of the community.
Bridging that gap plays out online, too, right? I’m thinking about that Chicago train rumor that spread through Facebook in the spring. You wrote some pretty direct Facebook posts through the Illinois National Guard page to address those.
I think this year has been unprecedented in a lot of ways, and when things are very different than what they have been, people are fearful. And I think in our reaction to, for example, the train that happened to go through the Chicago area, I think that you have to understand that people were seeing that from a completely different lens than me as a military person. Again, people don’t necessarily know how the military operates.
I definitely think of [fighting online rumors and disinformation] as a military mission, especially for military public affairs officers. One of the tenets of that is to address disinformation or bad information with facts and what’s actually going on. It’s taught for wartime situations.
So that’s what we’re trying to do by addressing [online rumors]. I think we’ve been effective at tamping down rumors and a lot is the tone. You have to strike a balance where you’re not telling people that what they’re saying is irrational, silly, crazy. You have to respect that they are genuinely afraid.