WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has approved the deployment of 700 unarmed National Guard troops to the nation’s capital as it prepares for trucker convoys that are planning protests against pandemic restrictions beginning next week.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the request Tuesday from the District of Columbia government and the U.S. Capitol Police, the Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday night.
The troops would be used to assist with traffic control during demonstrations expected in the city in the coming days, the Pentagon said. Four hundred Guard members from the District of Columbia Guard will be joined by 300 Guard members from other states, according to the statement.
Guard members will not carry firearms or take part in law enforcement or domestic-surveillance activities, the Pentagon said.
Modeled after recent trucker protests in Canada, separate truck convoys have been planned through online forums with names like the People’s Convoy and the American Truckers Freedom Fund — all with different starting points, departure dates and routes. Some are scheduled to arrive in time for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, though others may arrive afterward.
The convoys follow the recent Canadian truckers’ protest which shut down the busiest U.S. Canadian border crossing and besieged the streets of the capital, Ottawa, for weeks to protest government pandemic restrictions. The multiple blockades were broken up by police last week, with more than 100 arrests.
It remains to be seen if any of the U.S. convoys would seek to actively shut down Washington’s streets, the way their Canadian counterparts did in Ottawa. Some convoy organizers have spoken of plans to briefly roll through the city, then focus on shutting down the Beltway, which encircles the capital.
A statement from the People’s Convoy specifically says the trucks “will NOT be going into DC proper.” That convoy is planning to embark Wednesday from southern California and arrive in D.C. around March 5.
The U.S. convoys seek an immediate lifting of what they say are heavy-handed government pandemic restrictions like mask mandates and vaccine requirements. The American Truckers Freedom Fund website says the group is protesting “the unscientific, unconstitutional overreach of the federal government.”
Vaccines have proven highly effective at preventing COVID-19 infections, especially serious illness and death, and high-quality masks offer strong protection against spreading or contracting the disease. Public sentiment, especially among conservatives, has been shifting against government mandates as the pandemic heads into its third year.
People’s Convoy organizer Mike Landis, in a video testimonial on the group’s website, said the current COVID vaccine “is not proven yet” but supported individual choice on whether to take it or not. Landis said the convoy was open to all vehicles and said the primary goal was to pressure Biden to lift the national state of emergency.
“We want this government to bring back the Constitution,” Landis said. “We do not want to be under a dictatorship communism-style regime, like where we are right now.”
A state of emergency in the U.S. was declared by President Donald Trump in March 2020. Last week, Biden announced his intention to extend it beyond the current March 1 expiration date.
The websites organizing the American trucker convoys directly reference the inspiration of the Canadian movement. A statement on the People’s Convoy website pays homage to “our brave and courageous neighbors to the north — our Canadian brothers and sisters who led the charge.”
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee said Friday that his department was closely monitoring the shifting information and would be devoting additional police manhours in a rolling state of heightened alert over the next few weeks. In the meantime, he warned D.C. residents to stay alert for unexpected traffic snarls.
“There will be disruptions to traffic, that kind of thing,” Contee said. “I think we need to be very candid with the public about what some of the expectations, based upon what we’ve seen in Ottawa, that we might see here in the District.”
Contee called the Ottawa standoff “an incredible situation — one that we have not seen here in the District of Columbia.”
Contee and Mayor Muriel Bowser memorably predicted unrest several days before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol Building. They warned residents to stay indoors and called for additional resources, but the Capitol Police and National Guard were still caught unprepared when crowds of Trump supporters overran the building, resulting in several deaths and numerous injuries.
Lingering memories of that debacle have fueled a heightened sense of anxiety and speculation over the coming convoys. But Bowser said she wasn’t yet warning residents to avoid the Capitol area or the National Mall.
“We’re not at a point to give specific instructions to residents just yet. We will,” Bowser said.
Ashraf Khalil and Lolita C. Baldor report for The Associated Press.