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The National Guard should take right-wing extremism more seriously

Instead of addressing the Jan. 6 insurrection or the right-wing extremist groups that are a threat to national security, our “stand down” brief only marginalized protesters while discouraging soldiers from speaking up or speaking out.

Members of the National Guard keep watch outside of the Hennepin County Government Center as jury selection continues in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
REUTERS/Leah Millis
Members of the National Guard keep watch outside of the Hennepin County Government Center.
As a soldier, citizen, and resident of Minneapolis, I do not believe the Minnesota National Guard (MNARNG) takes seriously the threat of right-wing extremism in our ranks, and I worry what this will mean for Operation Safety Net. Having participated in the military’s extremism “stand down,” I’ve seen how military leadership tries to marginalize protesters and prohibit soldiers from having any association with the wider Minneapolis community. Even more, that anyone sympathizing with local organizations that claim to represent our communities are partaking in either a misunderstanding or a lie. This attitude is dangerous and offensive, and the MNARNG must do better.

Since the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, right-wing extremism has become an issue I’ve tried to bring to the attention of the MNARNG. On Jan. 10, I submitted a 12-page memo to my chain of command and Joint Force Headquarters detailing my battalion’s attempt to stifle soldiers’ responses to the insurrection and what I saw as the need to root out extremism in our ranks. Although my memo received some public attention from the media, including the Star Tribune, the MNARNG provided no substantive response. Instead, my company commander made comments to both his cadre and me questioning my motives and criticizing my approach rather than my arguments. Further up the chain, it was even suggested that I be counseled for my actions. Such pushback continued even after 12 soldiers activated for the presidential inauguration were removed for their ties to extremist groups.

Despite my experience, though, I was encouraged by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s Feb. 5 order for a one day “stand down” to address extremism in the military. Having now participated in this “stand down,” I feel moved to recount its substance here because the public deserves to know what those in uniform are being told to recognize as “extremism.”

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A ‘stand down’ to address extremism

My battalion’s extremism “stand down” amounted to a 45-minute unclassified brief on April 10. It was presented by Lt. Col. Joseph Sanganoo, who serves as the full-time 1/34 Armored Brigade Officer-in-Command (though at drill he is the 2-136 Battalion Commander). While some may want to characterize the following as the perspective of a single person, people need to understand its weight given both Sanganoo’s rank and the fact that, in organizations like the police and military, what may be cast as a singular incident is more often a variation on a theme. To understand what I mean by this, let me note that not a single officer spoke up during this brief.

In his brief to the battalion, Sanganoo provided no specific definition of “extremism.” Instead, he defined it as anything that undermined: the U.S. Constitution, the rule of law, the seven army values, unit cohesion, and order and discipline. When he asked us “What is extremism?” there were answers thrown out that ranged from “conspiracy theories” to “fringe organizations like the Klan and Black Panthers.” These were the only two groups mentioned by name. Not once did he bring up those responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection — nor did he bring up the insurrection at all. Instead, he conflated “protest” with “extremism” and framed his remarks in terms of what we may encounter during Operation Safety Net.

Explaining that it was unclear what “the local populace” will do, the LTC told us not to associate with friends and family participating in protests since we may cross their paths while on orders (in an implied context where we may have to use force against them). He then referenced last year’s looting of the Lake Street Cub Foods, saying he felt sorry for “all those elderly people who can’t get their food or medicine” but that “the people who did it are the same ones now complaining about the problem.” He then called George Floyd Square on 38th & Chicago a site of “lawlessness,” “unlawful influence,” and “destruction of property.” He predicted that “when law enforcement goes to clear it, there’s the potential people may lose their lives because they’re not going to let it go easily. That’s extremism to me.”

Sanganoo further discouraged soldiers from exercising their First Amendment rights, such as demonstrating at rallies, distributing materials, and posting about one’s political beliefs online. He even told us that if ever we witnessed extremism within our ranks, we should address it internally rather than risk disturbing the military’s “order and discipline.” As he reminded us, we should be careful “how our free speech aligns with the ‘Army values.’” Among these he emphasized the value of “loyalty.”

A missed opportunity

This “stand down” was a missed opportunity, and both Sanganoo and the MNARNG should be ashamed. Instead of addressing the insurrection or the right-wing extremist groups that are a threat to national security, this brief only marginalized protesters while discouraging soldiers from speaking up or speaking out. It’s offensive that anyone in a position of military power would be more upset by a memorial site than those who invaded the U.S. Capitol and tried to overturn a democratic election. It’s worth asking: Why is it so hard for some men to distinguish between literal fascists and those members of our community who are traumatized by the police and, day after day, must face a constant questioning of not just their human worth but their grief?

Joshua Preston
Joshua Preston
One answer is because it taps into something woven deep into military culture and self-perception. Some of this I discussed in my original memo, but despite the MNARNG being citizen-soldiers, we are expected to see ourselves as closer in kind to the police than the people (as do most right-wing extremist groups). Because of this, I can’t imagine Sanganoo’s brief being presented any other way since to really reject violent extremism and uphold our constitutional oaths would mean confronting the police when they overstep their boundaries. And anyone who tries will have a short military career. I know one person who tried during the Minneapolis protests in May/June of 2020, and he’s now in a Kansas military hospital recovering from a “moral injury.” When I tried, a military nurse just said I had “light-PTSD.”

At this point, I don’t even know if it’s possible to address right-wing extremism in the military since the whole purpose of this anti-extremism brief was to make it easier for soldiers to follow orders, and to look on without objection to what the police are doing, regardless of what our own heart and humanity might say. As we’ve already seen in Brooklyn Center, the MNARNG is expected to maintain a deterring presence while police and state troopers escalate violence and incite riots by firing rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters — tear gas that, under international law, we as soldiers cannot even use in warfare. While police claim that protesters’ gas masks and umbrellas are “dangerous weapons.” While police attack and arrest journalists. While it is stated that American citizens might die preserving a sacred space that is used for food drops and community art. Because this is the rule of law, this is the protection of life and property, and as we’ve been briefed: If ever we can’t tell who the extremists are, just look for the people grieving.

Joshua Preston is a movement attorney representing activists and protesters involved in the environmental and social justice movement. He is also an infantryman in the Minnesota National Guard and an antifascist.

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