TIME Ferguson protests

Gov. Nixon Sent The National Guard to Ferguson. What Will It Do?

A primer on America’s oldest military force

On Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, seeking to control a nine-day protest in Ferguson after the shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, announced that he would deploy the National Guard to the St. Louis suburb.

Here’s a very brief primer on the National Guard, America’s oldest branch of the armed forces, and how it will be used in Ferguson.

What does the National Guard do?

The National Guard works under three frameworks: mobilization overseas that is federally controlled and funded (think Iraq and Afghanistan); missions funded by the federal government but led by the states (Hurricane Sandy and the 2009 Obama inauguration); and state funded and controlled responses to emergencies (2011 Joplin and 2013 Moore tornadoes), according to Rick Breitenfeldt, a National Guard spokesman. Nixon is working under the third framework, directing the Missouri State Highway Patrol to oversee the National Guard’s work protecting citizens from violence.

When was the last time they were deployed?

Last week 40 National Guard personnel monitored a Hawaii neighborhood after reports of looting followed a tropical storm, according to a local ABC affiliate. Near the end of July, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced he would deploy the National Guard to beef up border security after record-high numbers of unaccompanied minors crossed into the state from Mexico.

The last time the Guard was federalized for a civil disturbance was 1992, when President Bill Clinton sent in thousands of National Guard personnel to quell Los Angeles’ Rodney King riots. There are major differences between that deployment and this one, though, including the size of the protests (the King riots were much more costly in blood and treasure) and who gave the order to deploy federal troops.

How will the National Guard be used in Ferguson?

In his announcement Monday, Gov. Nixon said the mission would be “limited” to protecting the police’s Unified Command Center, which he called the target of a “coordinated attack” during the preceding violence. Unless the federal government appropriates money, Missouri will have to pay for the additional troops, which will be acting essentially as policemen even if they are wearing military gear. Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration, says the “perception” of an overly brutal, militarized police may be strengthened by the deployment of the National Guard.

“The Ferguson police obviously didn’t seem to be up to the job,” says Korb. “If [Missouri State Highway Patrol] Captain [Ronald] Johnson says well I can’t handle this anymore then you’ve got to go to the next step to stop the violence. But then you get into the whole other question of what kind of signal are you sending… Most people were complaining that the police look like the military, now the military is there. These guys wear military uniforms.”

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