Blogger’s Note: In this post, I examine parallels between the 2014 Ferguson and 1992 Los Angeles Riots borrowing a theme from a 1985 comic science fiction movie, “Back to the Future.” I then re-examine the 1992 L.A. riots from the perspectives of:
- The social similarities between the two riots;
- Behind the scenes politics for using the National Guard for civil disorder;
- The effect of federal intrusion into State civil disturbance response;
- Media impact on historical view of Guard response to civil unrest; and
- National Guard leadership and discipline in the midst of political controversy and confusion.
Like the fictional movie character Marty McFly who ventures back in time to repair romantic damage between his parents that changes their family future, I speculate whether repairing the political and system failures during the 92 riots could have changed the outcome of how the Missouri used its Guard in Ferguson.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s controversial “non-order” of the National Guard onto the
Ferguson streets at the height of the city’s unrest, resurrects memories of federal intervention that occurred during California’s 1992 Rodney King riots.
The 2014 Ferguson and 1992 L.A. riots are arguably mirror civil disturbances on at opposite ends of a time spectrum. Arguably violent revolts about inequalities in quality of life between each city’s Black and White communities. According to Fox News, Black unemployment rate in Ferguson is three times the White unemployment rate. Black males between the ages of 16 and 24 have nearly 50 percent unemployment rate than Whites, a Black child is almost four times likely to live in a poor neighborhood as a White child, and 52 percent of Black kids are in single parent homes. Similar conditions percolated beneath the surface of South Central Los Angeles before the ’92 riots. Court decisions involving the use of force by White police officers against Black citizens arguably sparked civil disobedience in both cases.
In Ferguson, riots exploded within 24 hours of a grand jury decision “not to indict” officer Darren Wilson. In L.A. violence erupted hours after Sergeant Stacey Koon, and officers Laurence Michael Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King. Both incidents had a National Guard controversy.
At the heart of this controversy is the Pose Comitatus Act –limiting and delaying Presidential powers for law enforcement–and the 1807 Insurrection Act–granting the President of the United States (POTUS) authority to deploy troops within the United States to put down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion. Nixon arguably flirted with both these sacred state safeguards when he allegedly entertained federal advice to limit National Guard use to avoid the appearance of militarization; then failed to delegate to local law enforcement the authority to employ the Guard at the height of Ferguson’s rioting.
Back to the Future: Fires & Furies
California found itself facing a similar dilemma during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots—also known as the Rodney King Riots. In his book, “Fires & Furies: The L.A. Riots-What Really Happened,” Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James Delk documents the politics behind federalizing the National Guard during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
Delk recounts systematic failures that triggered federal military intervention of the ’92 riots. The first occurred when the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) told the Cal Guard it would not be needed for potential civil disturbance. The only Guard assistance requested was a lateral transfer of flak jackets and riot gear to civilian authorities in case needed by the LAPD.
A second error happened when civilian authorities disputably failed to exhaust California’s mutual aid agreements–an agreement between neighboring cities to share their emergency response resources before asking for state and federal support. This collapse, arguably sparked overreaction for federal troops as civilian leaders witnessed rioting overwhelming the LAPD.
The Feds: “We’re Here to Help (Kind of)”
A third systemic mishap disputably happened when Gov. Pete Wilson listened to L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley‘s and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s advice to request President George W. Bush for federal troops–based on an erroneous perception the Guard was responding too slow. Magnifying this misperception were National Guard logistical snafus created after the Guard latterly transferred riot equipment to the LAPD, and debatably poor ammunition storage policies that removed ammo from neighborhood National Guard armories and centrally stored it at Camp Roberts, CA. Policies whose logic was based on public safety which, in part, can be traced to 1970s when militants raided U.S. National Guard armories for ammunition and weapons to rob banks and arm radical groups such as the Black Panthers for the purpose of overthrowing the government.
“Lieutenant, Under no Circumstances Are You to Embarrass the Governor”
I collided with the ammo question as a military public affairs officer when the Associated Press asked me for the National Guard’s reaction to Gov. Wilson’s statement that the “Guard forgot its bullets.” I took the reporters contact information and called Gov. Wilson’s press Office to confirm whether the governor actually said that. The public information officer (PIO) confirmed my worst fears–the Governor had made similar remarks to the press.
A passionate exchange followed. I was concerned about the operational security implications. The PIO was concerned about the political ramifications if the Governor publically backtracked on his statement. I explained that lives were at stake and that if agitators believed Guardsmen had no ammunition, they would either kill or be killed by a Guardsmen.
The PIO and I swapped some sarcastic retorts–one of which was, “Lieutenant, under no circumstances are you to embarrass the Governor.” We finally agreed to collaborate on a press release to clarify the ammunition issue while simultaneously showcasing Gov. Wilson’s leadership as the Guard’s Commander-in-Chief.
Guard Compliance with Implied Press Guidance
Within an hour of that conversation, I had an interview with KCRA-TV’s Roy Stearns, explaining that Guardsmen were on the streets, armed, and prepared to protect citizen’s and their own lives in cases of imminent danger. I also explained more troops were flowing into South Central L.A.
Stearns reported that Task Force Grizzly–the Guard’s counternarcotics program--was augmenting Task Force Los Angeles at Los Alamitos, CA with both troops and ammunition; that additional ammunition would be en route from Camp Roberts and San Luis Obispo once logistical issues were resolved; and that soldiers were on the streets–strategically dispersed across a 32-mile area from the Hollywood Hills to Long Beach, under Delk’s command.
For Stearns, a full-bird Colonel in the Army Reserves, his civic duty to promptly broadcast the facts so as to minimize potential clashes between rioters and Guardsmen took precedence over his reporter’s instinct to pursue political drama behind the ammunition issue. The scandalous succulence of the ammo issue, however, proved too tasty for the majority of the press to resist. The media focused attention on the Guard’s ammunition flaws effectively: upstaging Stern’s report; pressuring the Governor’s press office to retreat from the joint press release; and subordinating the Guard’s voice to Governor’s press office under the implied guidance to “not embarrass the Governor.”
Courage Under Political Fire
Civilian leaders appeared to consider Christopher a military expert and accepted as Gospel his assessment that the National Guard was responding too slow and federal troops were needed immediately. Facts became casualties. The fact that hundreds of CHP officers were hunkered down at Los Alamitos waiting for LAPD missions was not reported. The collapse of the mutual aid system was largely ignored, and the policy that the Guard is the last in, first out (LIFO) during civilian emergencies was overlooked.
Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Robert C. Thrasher, however, reportedly neither lost sight of these facts nor his duty within the purview of the PCA. He appeared cognizant that military overreaction on the part of California leadership could unwittingly undermine the PCA. When members of the Governor’s cabinet allegedly recommended sending National Guard forces onto the streets with empty magazines, Thrasher is reported to have refused to entertain the notion, understanding the peril to which he would be exposing his troops.
The General also understood he had an obligation to the citizens of South Central L.A. by ensuring troops were not deployed with excessive firepower. While his staff flowed in troops as fast as LAPD gave them missions, military armorers were deployed to install lock plates on M-16-issue rifles to prevent the weapon from slipping from single into semi-automatic (multiple bursts) mode and risk killing incident bystanders–events that tragically occurred during the ’65 Watts Riots. Later, a member of Thrasher’s personal staff who was present during many of the general’s meetings with the Governor’s office, told me about the general’s poise. The staffer described the General’s composure as “courageous.” In hindsight, it appears Thrasher had “courage under political fire.”
Knights of Honor and Their Measure of Greatness
The Guard’s ammunition controversy disputably distracted the media from civilian leadership’s failure in planning for a riot of L.A.’s magnitude in ’92; but it did not detract from the heroics of Thrasher’s operational staff in closing the gaps poor planning created. Despite having to absorb undeserved blame for the state’s sluggish response–and behind the scene politics questionably flip flopping the Guard’s role from LIFO to FILO (First in, last out)–anyone would be hard pressed to deny their performance exceeded any military deployment standard.
An Air Guard staff that included the likes of Lt. Col. Charles Cross and Colonel Dan Gibson who continuously coordinated and planned military air transport of civilian law enforcement, Guardsmen, and supplies. Army officers led by officers such as Col. Edmund Zysk, Maj. William “Bill” Hipsley, and Lt. Col Dennis “Denny” Hines who creatively filled logistic shortages through the transfer of ammunition, men, and hardware from the nearly 500-person Counternarcotic Task Force. Concurrently they uncorked the logistics jam at Camp Roberts and San Luis Obispo, that streamlined the flow of ammunition and supplies to sustain both military operations.
This staff did not have the advantage of a “cold start.” They worked from a disadvantage of responding from a “deep freeze.” Having to procure gas masks, flak jackets, and other riot gear to replace that they loaned to LAPD. They had to bring nearly 10,000 troops to Los Angeles–troops not garrisoned at a central base–but scattered throughout 187 Californian communities at debatably the same pace with civilian law enforcement units.They mobilized, deployed, and were on mission in 17 hours, empowering these citizen soldiers to accomplish their mission before active duty forces ever set foot on the ground. Yet, civilian leadership pulled the rug from under their accomplishments by bringing in active duty forces and federalizing the Guard.
The political cacophony surrounding their efforts arguably diminishes their accomplishment in California’s history book. It’s my opinion, however, that they were “Knights of Honor,” custodians of the Constitutional Holy Grail—the PCA–whose true measure of greatness during the first three days of the riots was not of planning gone awry, but how good they were when plans did go awry.
“Governor, I Take Orders from the President of the United States
On May 2, 1992 civilian leadership, in essence, peeled the Cal Guard’s operational fingers from this PCA Holy Grail when more than 4,000 federal troops were deployed to Los Angeles–bringing total military strength to 14,000 (10,000 Guardsmen plus 4,000 active). Additional forces unneeded according to Delk who was quoted as saying the Guard had “accomplished its mission before the 4,000 federal troops arrived.”
The Guard were now federal troops functioning under the auspices of the 1806 Insurrection Act. Their mission changed from restoring law and order to preserving law and order. Maj. Gen. Marvin Covault assumed command of JTF Los Angeles, subordinating Guard commanders Delk and Brig. Gen. Daniel Hernandez to his authority. Law enforcement units to which Guard units were attached, could no longer delegate missions directly to them. They now had to request–and have approval–for each mission through a central headquarters–in essence bureaucratizing the military missions similar to what appears to have occurred when Missouri’s Governor retained authority to order his state’s Guard Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) onto mission.
The Governor was no longer their Commander-in-Chief, the POTUS now commanded them. In an apparent effort to retake control of military operations, Gov. Wilson reportedly tried to order Covault to deploy active duty troops onto the streets, according to Delk’s book. Covault refused explaining the Guard was on mission and that he wanted active duty forces to undergo the minimum hours civil disturbance training required before deploying them to the streets. When the Governor reportedly pressed Covault, the general purportedly responded:–“(Paraphrasing) I don’t take orders from the Governor, I take them from the President of the United States.”
Thrasher Delivers a Fit Force able to Maintains PCA Discipline
Thrasher debatably deserves credit for astonishing discipline and restraint Cal Guardsmen exercised during the mission. When comparing the 1992 Cal Guard’s performance to that of the 1965 Guard during the Watts Riots, the difference is staggering. In the ’65 riot, Guardsmen fired more than 20,000 ammunition rounds from various weapon types including the .50-caliber machine guns. Authorities could not account for how many, if any, of the 34 people killed, or 1,000 wounded by Guard bullets may have hit in the ’65 melee. The ’92 Guard fired 20 rounds of ammunition from small arms–accounting for two of the 53 people killed and none of the 2,000 injuries. In one of those deaths, the soldiers held their fire until they could literally see the whites of the assailant’s eyes who repeatedly tried to run these citizen soldiers over with his car–perhaps believing they had no bullets.
This discipline is arguably attributable in part to the fitness culture Thrasher inspired. When the Guard came under public criticism as an unfit force not in compliance with the Army’s physical fitness standards shortly after Thrasher was appointed adjutant general in late ’80s, he answered critics by publically taking the army physical fitness test (APFT) under the watchful eye of a master fitness trainer–in front of state media.
I can testify how the statewide media coverage changed the Guard’s fitness culture during Thrasher’s watch. The Officers and NCOs in my battalion–132nd Engineers–and the three Infantry Battalions it supported–no longer viewed the APFT as a chess game of obtaining physical profiles, fudging scores, or altering performance standards to skirt around the test, but a measure of their leadership and unit pride to emulate the general’s example. Those were the kind of troops Thrasher delivered to South Central L.A. –the kind that arguably saved more lives than would have been taken if soldiers lacked the self-control that fitness instills.
Fast Forward to Ferguson
If the 1992 California National Guard could fast forward to the future, compare notes with the Missouri National Guard, and give its feedback, I would imagine it would be something like this: Thrasher, Delk, and their staffs would form the 10,000 Guardsmen reporting to duty in 1992 into formation. The commanders would bring their units to attention and order arms, about face, and snap a crisp salute to the Missouri National Guard. The ’92 era Cal Guard would shout out a word distinguishable to those in the military culture. A word rooted in military ethos–invented from three derivative words: Hear you, Understand you, and Authenticate–HUA or Hooah! A word that means all things good, but in this case, means, “Well done Missouri National Guard! Well Done!
A Cal Guard era force that–like the Missouri Guard– hears the same duty call to perform law enforcement functions the PCA authorizes only citizen soldiers; Understands the impact on morale that federal interference inflicts; and Authenticates that despite this interference–no matter how minute–that the Missouri Guard exceeded military standards in executing their mission despite being denied the opportunity to help prevent the $5 million of damage violent rioters inflicted.
As a Missouri Legislative committee convenes to investigate why the Missouri National Guard never received orders at the rioting’s height, it might consider whether systematic failures occurred, or if the systems can be better managed in the following areas:
- Commander-in-Chief. Gov. Nixon deserves credit for staging the Missouri National Guard, but may have unwittingly undermined his own authority as commander-in-chief if he followed federal advice to limit the Guard to avoid the appearance of militarization. It’s the PCA that empowers Governors to prevent “militarization practices,” such as Marshal law and other tactics necessary under the Insurrection Act. The Governor should debatably not seek advice from higher federal authorities, but input from on-ground law enforcement authorities and incident commanders and the delegate them authority to use the Guard at the scene as necessary.
- Mutual Aid Agreement & Incident Command System: Christopher M. Schnaubelt observed in his 1999 article, Lessons in Command and Control from the Los Angeles Riots, the “fierce culture of independence,” on the part of California law enforcement for using both mutual assistance agreements and the National Guard. Perhaps a little healthy skepticism can serve as a check against overrelying on the Guard, but it’s in the best interests of the state for neighboring law enforcement agencies to dust off its mutual aid agreements and collectively rehearse–to include the Guard if needed as a last resort. Whether Missouri law enforcement was reluctant to use the Guard is unknown, but programs in which law enforcement and Guard can collectively train and rehearse do exist–programs such as the National Guard/ Bureau (NGB)/United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM) Joint Staff State Training Course (JSTC).
- National Security Strategy (NSS). When the White House changed the National Security Strategy (NSS) focus from multiple regional conflict (MRC) fought simultaneously to a single conflict, it arguably changed both Guard focus on its Homeland Security missions–to include civil disordr–as well as appropriate mix of military resources available to Governors for civilian emergencies. It’s arguably in the state’s best interest for their Governors to urge the White House to return to the two MRC strategy, and lobby Congress for the funding to support a two-MRC strategy. Returning to two MRCs will not only strengthens National Security against the growing ISIS threat, Russian Build-up, and China’s growing influence, but more important, it intensifies Guard readiness for homeland security on civil emergency support at home.
Occasionally, within the sanctuary of a Sunday Mass at my church, I feel the fires and furies flare inside me compelling me to confess my sin–or regret–for failing to produce that press release never written. A press release that would have revealed generals with courage under political fire, Knights of Honor who remained calm under political chaos, and citizen-soldiers whose discipline perhaps saved countless lives. I have long forgiven Gov. Pete Wilson for, what I believe, listening to civilian advisors instead of his generals.
In fact, any misgivings I had about the former Governor have since been replaced with admiration and respect for his Commander-in-Chief legacy. A legacy, I believe, is unequaled by any previous governor and unsurpassed by any governor since his watch. Californians arguably dodged a 9-11 thanks to his early decisions within the Counterdrug program that resulted with a border infrastructure that now channels drug, human, and weapons trafficking into adjoining states. Under his leadership, he flawsly activated the Guard almost annually for earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and security during his watch. Perhaps a legacy built on lessons learned from the L.A. riots?
When the priest asks the congregation to pray for our political leaders, I pray for the leaders of Missouri and Ferguson will learn not only from our mistakes, but also place blame on the real culprits of civil unrest: complacency and apathy. Complacency that creeps into emergency planning when there is a quarter-century hiatus between civil disturbances, robbing emergency planners of their sense of urgency. Apathy that seems to replace policy makers’ passion over time for correcting the social injustices that arguably provoked violent social outbursts in the first place. If I could go back to the future, I would encourage local, state, and federal authorities to remain vigilant in their joint planning and training as time distances them from the last civil disturbance; and for Governors to choose wisely between those sacred Congressional and Constitutional chalices of Posse Comitatus and the Insurrection Act.
Of course, everyone knows we can’t go back to the future, but perhaps we can change the future’s course and break a pattern of repeating the past.