By Ashraf Khalil and Lolita Baldor | Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is expected to approve the deployment of 700 to 800 unarmed National Guard troops to the nation’s capital, a U.S. official said Tuesday, in the face of trucker convoys that are planning protests against pandemic restrictions beginning next week.
The District of Columbia government and the U.S. 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 President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address next Tuesday, March 1, though others may arrive afterward.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the D.C. 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 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 former 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.