The sixth night of protests outside the White House was marked by the arrival of soldiers whose uniforms were adorned with Special Forces shoulder insignia under Airborne tabs, as well as a range of other unit patches.
Troops’ uniforms were clearly visible as they and their police counterparts moved up from their previous line at the edge of Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, to a position about 300 feet north. Protesters there were no longer separated by a chain-link fence as they had been the previous night, but the demonstration remained peaceful.
Rumors swirled early in the evening about the arrival of active duty troops to Washington, D.C., a move that would be widely viewed as an escalation by the government. Those rumors are false, according to D.C. National Guard spokesmen Capt. Edwin Nieves Jr. and Master Sgt. Craig Clapper, who both said there are no troops under Title X active duty authority in the city.
Roughly 1,600 active duty troops were brought from Fort Drum, New York, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to military bases in the region, but there is no indication they came into D.C.
Soldiers seen with Special Forces shoulder patches were Guardsmen. Army Master Sgt. Michael Houk, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, confirmed that members of the 19th Special Forces Group were in D.C. last night.
“The Utah Army National Guard sent a number of Special Forces Guardsmen to support civil authority in Washington, D.C.,” Houk said in a statement. “The reason they were selected and sent is because they were already prepared for deployment. They were chosen for expedience, not their skillset.”
Because they were with the National Guard, those troops operate under the Title 32 control of local authorities.
Airmen and soldiers were largely stoic through the demonstrations near the White House, even as some of the assembled people jeered at them to “quit” the military and “lay down" their riot gear.
“It’s pretty calm,” said one service member when asked just past midnight how the day had gone. “So far, so good,” said another soldier.
On Tuesday night, some people hurled water bottles over the fence into Lafayette Square and onto National Guard troops, though protesters overwhelming chided the throwers to stop. There were some tense moments Wednesday night, but the demonstrations remained largely peaceful.
Thousands of protesters have been gathering in cities across the nation following the death of George Floyd, a black man who prosecutors say was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer who had his knee on Floyd’s throat.
On Tuesday afternoon, Defense Secretary Mark Esper abruptly reversed an earlier Pentagon decision to return about 200 active duty paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s immediate response force, who were flown in the D.C. region, back to their home base.
All told, there were about 1,600 active duty troops from Fort Bragg and Fort Drum sent to the National Capitol Region. Esper decided to keep the troops in place after he attended a meeting at the White House and spoke with other defense officials.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters that he believed the change was made to ensure the capital has enough military personnel to respond to any problems should they arise. That explanation apparently fuelled speculation later in the evening.
When soldiers with patches not seen in previous nights stepped off buses two blocks from the White House at about 8 p.m., social media rumors began to swirl that active duty forces had been bused into the city.
But those troops’ patches turned out to belong to the South Carolina National Guard.
Likewise, the soldiers with Airborne tabs prompted some observers to infer that the 82nd Airborne Division had made a presence in the capital, though that, too, proved false.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.