The Pentagon is expected to approve the deployment of 700 to 800 unarmed national guard troops to the nation’s capital, a US official said on Tuesday, in the face of trucker convoys that are planning protests against pandemic restrictions beginning next week.
The District of Columbia government and the US Capitol police are requesting the national guard assistance. The troops would be used largely to help control traffic and are expected to come from the district’s national guard and three states, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss aid not yet formally approved.
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 Joe Biden’s State of the Union address next Tuesday, 1 March, though others may arrive afterward.
John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the DC government and Capitol police had requested national guard personnel “to provide support at traffic control points in and around the district” and stand ready in case of “possible disruptions at key traffic arteries”. He too said no formal decision on the requests had been made.
The convoys follow the recent Canadian truckers’ protest that shut down the busiest US 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 US 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 on Wednesday from southern California and arrive in DC around 5 March.
The US convoys seek an immediate lifting of what they say are heavy-handed government pandemic restrictions such as 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.
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.”
Robert Contee, chief of the Metropolitan police in DC, said on Friday that his department was closely monitoring the shifting information and would be devoting additional police hours in a rolling state of heightened alert over the next few weeks.
Contee and Mayor Muriel Bowser memorably predicted unrest several days before the 6 January 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.