Oklahomans are accustomed to seeing the Oklahoma National Guard respond when devastating tornadoes and flooding strike, but their arrival at the scene of civil rights protests in Tulsa and Oklahoma City this week has raised questions about their role.
Lt. Col. Geoffrey Legler, spokesman for the Oklahoma Military Department, explained that the Guard has been activated on the orders of Gov. Kevin Stitt to use its military training only in a support capacity for local law enforcement.
“We belong to the governor. We are not federalized, so we don’t belong to the president,” Legler said. “These are Oklahoma Army National Guardsmen, First Battalion, 279th Infantry Regiment, based in Sand Springs. Almost all of them live and work in the Tulsa metro, so it’s hometown folks helping out the community.”
In Oklahoma, members of a National Guard Reaction Force have assisted sheriff’s departments, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the Tulsa Police Department. But military and police spokesmen said those local law enforcement agencies are in the driver’s seat, not the Oklahoma National Guard.
“Right now, the Guard’s mission is to assist local law enforcement — checkpoints and traffic control and to be there in a show of force, which basically just means to be there,” Legler said. “In Tulsa last night, as they were getting off the Bluebird bus, a lot of people just stopped what they were doing and left.”
One of the officers in charge of the local quick reaction force said they use their military training to secure locations and perimeters and to provide cover for local law enforcement to be able to move, as need be — not take on the role or duties of police.
Capt. Nathan Perdue, operations officer for the 179th Infantry, said Guard soldiers are mindful of the public optics of their arrival in times of civil disturbance or unrest.
“It’s not for us to be on the front line, so to speak. It’s not the look anyone wants. We are just there to support those officers in local law enforcement and de-escalate the situation. They obviously have way more training in these situations than we do,” Perdue said. “We have no ability to arrest anyone or detain anyone.”
Stitt’s activation of the Oklahoma National Guard came after President Donald Trump on Monday demanded that governors crack down on demonstrations that devolve from peaceful to vandalism, looting and violent clashes with police.
Capt. Richard Meulenberg, spokesman for the Tulsa Police Department, said all local officers receive training for such situations but that TPD also formed a special response team with specialized training and equipment “to make sure we do things properly and as delicately as possible.”
One of the supervisors of the team said it was formed in the aftermath of demonstrations and unrest over the May 2017 acquittal of then-Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby, who had fatally shot Terence Crutcher eight months earlier.
“We realized we needed some kind of quick, reactionary force to respond, whether it be defending people’s right to protest or like what we saw this week when they take it from a peaceful demonstration to where it is no longer a peaceful assembly,” said Lt. Todd Taylor.
TPD’s special response team has extensive training in de-escalation techniques, as well as “area deprivation,” which just means trying to keep people out of certain areas, and vehicle rescue techniques, which were used when weekend protests halted traffic on Interstates 44 and 244 and when individual demonstrators needed safe removal to receive medical attention.
The suite of equipment they have has been on full display in cities across America in recent days — batons and “less-lethal” devices such as pepper ball launchers and other chemical irritants, as well as face and body shields and helmets.
But Taylor said you won’t often see Tulsa police resort to the latter unless prompted.
“We have shields and helmets, and we really don’t like to deploy with those,” he said. “We’ve talked to a lot of law enforcement through our training, and they say the best way to get a crowd to throw stuff at you is to show up in hats and shields.”
On Sunday, Taylor said local organizers of an afternoon protest rally had advised police of their plans up front and later followed up to share their frustrations and disappointment after people with different plans took over.
“We are 100% on board with peaceful assembly. We cleared streets for them for almost 10 miles on Sunday,” Taylor said.
“Unfortunately, there are good people who want to get their message out, but it ruins the entire message due to a few individuals that want to do property destruction and assault people. We have been seeing out-of-state tags on cars we’ve never seen before — Florida, Alabama tags. What are these people doing here?
“I think Tulsa for the most part, we do very well on having peaceful demonstrations.”
Gallery: People gather to hold protest at Tulsa Hills