On 14 July, 1789 the Bastille prison in France was stormed by a Parisian mob. The incident was reported to the imperious and naïve King, Louis XVI, ensconced in the splendid ambience of the Palace at Versailles, by a courtier: “What, a revolt?” exclaimed Louis, in apparent incredulity. “No, Sire” the courtier responded with a deep and respectful bow, “a Revolution!” It was a brutal but correct prediction. That incident of the fall of Bastille, that is generally seen as marking the commencement of the French Revolution, ultimately changed France, Europe and the world forever. When on 25 May 2020, the first ripples of protest following the mindless murder of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, was reported to President Donald Trump at the White House, a parallel scene of that occurrence in France can be envisioned. Floyd, with his neck pinned down by Chauvin’s knee, had his life ebb away from him quietly, for he could not breathe. That silent death almost immediately caused an explosion whose deafening sound since has been, since then, reverberating around the globe, and which has unsettled the mightiest government the world has ever known, that of the United States of America.
The US was already buffeted by crises: the coronavirus pandemic whose mishandling by the authorities with Trump initially in denial led to record numbers of infections and deaths, the consequent recession and soaring unemployment that sent the economy plummeting southward , and the chaotic indecisiveness in decision-making as to whether to open -up the economy as Trump wanted with the elections come November in mind , or for the ‘lock-down’ to stay in place to secure health and safety as some of the scientists , experts, and State Governors preferred. The last straw on the donkey’s back was the tragedy in Minneapolis. Black America exploded, joined by many whites, and the slogans “Black lives matter” reached a crescendo. These crossed the borders into other countries. Cities, from Seattle to Sydney, were filled with protesters. Local issues being added to the major theme of systemic oppression of minorities of colour, or of those who were just different. It was like the spirit of the ideas and ideals of the French Revolution, those of liberty, equality and fraternity had traversed frontiers, in 1789, 1830 and in 1848. Trump twitted, his method of choice for governing, his clear opposition to the protests , proclaiming himself ‘law and order President’, and contemplating deployment of active-service troops to “dominate” the streets, even threatening the invocation of the 1807 Insurrection Act (which would permit it).
As was to be expected , crowds , comprising blacks and whites, congregated outside the White House, chanting slogans, perfectly in consonance with the First amendment of the US Constitution that allows for such freedoms, against structural racism and police brutality that had become pervasive in the “ land of the free”. The venue was the park around Lafayette Square, named after the French General, a champion of both the American and French Revolutions (even if he, a nobleman, did not support the complete overhaul of the ‘ancien regime ’in Bourbon France)and the celebrated author of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’. On that day in June 2020, in Washington DC, armed police and national Guards suddenly acted with brute force to clear the crowds. It was obviously to facilitate a short walk of Trump and family , to St John’s Episcopal Church across the Park, for a ‘photo-op ‘ holding up the Bible, obviously to make an electoral point to his extremist support base , in a nation that is said to cherish the value of the separation of religion and State.
With the family, were some others in tow, including Defence Secretary Mark Esper, an ex-serviceman, and, significantly, a serving four star General, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, in open-necked battle fatigue, an attire more befitting a base in Baghdad than the neighbourhood of the White House. There was an immediate, massive, and negative public reaction to what was perceived as politicization of the apolitical armed forces. Though uniformed in the past, Esper was after all a Cabinet member, and he individually, though not the Pentagon which he heads, could be considered political ; but even he, doubtless after sober reflection, later distanced himself from the ‘photo-op’, stating that he was unaware that this was on the cards , and announced his personal opposition to the invocation , at this time , of the 1807 Act. His statement was followed by a string of extraordinary condemnations by retired senior Generals. The list included Trump’s former Defence Secretary, James Mattis, who denounced Trump for “dividing the nation” and for ordering the military to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens. With words that can assume more dire significance later, he said “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who make a mockery of our Constitution”. It looked like the ‘rejection’ of and ‘holding accountable’ the civilian Commander-in-Chief, a call not usually heard in America. Other past uniformed generals joined the chorus.
Then the coup de gras came in the form of an ultimate blow from the most senior serving officer of the US armed forces, himself an object of criticism for the ‘Bible-blunder’ episode, General Mark Milley himself. Choosing the platform to speak from was important. It was the National Defense University, where he addressed potential leaders of the military. He noted that the military had come a long way from the segregated times of the Second World War when “the Tuskegee Airmen ( a group of pilots) had fought for freedom they did not enjoy at home” .Milley regretted his presence with the President on that fateful day. “I should not have been there”, he admitted with remarkable frankness. He said, reflecting a spirit that separated him from leaders of the Administration, that the “majority of the protests have been peaceful”. He stated that military officers were bound by the constitution to “to protect the rights… of ALL our people”. He went on to say that “we who wear the cloth of our nation come from our people” and that an “apolitical military is rooted in the essence of our republic”. His urging upon the military to “embrace the Constitution”, implied a call to resist those who threatened it, no matter who they were.
His key remarks are worth parsing at length for containing implied constitutional principles that will be raised and debated in the future by experts. Nonetheless it is all but certain that these will henceforth have a major role in shaping civil military -relations in America. Would the military be an additional factor in the “checks and balance” which is the bedrock of the US Constitution? If so, to what extent? While these are points that surely will be argued in the stormy times in US politics, at present and in the future , one matter is surely established: That democracy is like a Gothic cathedral, built gradually , stone by stone , over centuries, and is never quite finished!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg