Washington • After a long night standing post amid the sometimes violent protests in the nation’s capital, Utah National Guard soldiers stationed across the street from the White House saw a small maintenance crew pull out brushes to paint over a graffiti-laden building in Lafayette Park.
“We said, ‘Hey, do you have any more brushes?’” Maj. Brent Mangum of the Utah National Guard recalled a fellow soldier saying.
The crew obliged, and Utah soldiers, some of whom had served in wars and some of whom were new to the uniform, applied coats of brown paint over profanity and appeals for an end of the killing of black people. They raked up plastic bottles and other debris from the night before.
“We're not tasked with cleanup,” Mangum said. “But, I mean, of course we saw an opportunity and cleaned up the park from all the stuff that was being thrown at us, as well as the graffiti and stuff that happened.”
It was Wednesday morning, the dawn after demonstrations across Washington had shown the frustration and anger over racial injustice, sparked anew by the death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man in the custody of a white cop, and compounded by federal agents using gas canisters and rubber pellets to expel a peaceful crowd in the park on the doorstep to the White House.
About 200 Utah Guard soldiers had been called up Monday as protests across the country turned from pleas for action into some deciding to take action themselves. That was especially pronounced in Washington, where President Donald Trump had called for military intervention and even suggested ordering active-duty troops into cities to quell violence.
Federal agents, many clad in black uniforms without markings, were “flooding the zone” that is the home of the U.S. government. Tall metal fencing was erected in parks famed for First Amendment demonstrations.
The Utah troops, deployed at the order of Gov. Gary Herbert and flown overnight to the nation’s capital, would be part of a multipronged mission, joining Guard units from other states charged with preserving life, protecting property and helping to restore order.
They found themselves quickly in the middle of not only the civil unrest facing the country but also the political discord with voices calling for — and many voices denouncing — the militarization of American cities.
Mangum, whose day job involves security operations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, didn't want to respond to the political questions circling about the capital city.
But he pressed the point that the soldiers were there in a support role. They weren't carrying firearms. They weren't policing Americans.
“What I say is that National Guard soldiers are citizens. We all have civilian jobs back home,” Mangum said. “And so we see everybody else as fellow citizens. We don’t feel hostility or anger towards the people that are protesting.
“The oath that we swear to when we join the military is to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and that includes the right of peaceful assembly, the right to [petition the government for redress of grievances], freedom of speech to demonstrate,” the major continued. “One hundred percent we support those things.”
Utah was one of the first states — joining New Jersey — to activate National Guard troops to be sent to Washington, a decision that has sparked outrage from some corners. It also meant that for some younger, part-time soldiers, their first trip to the nation’s capital is one in uniform and carrying a riot shield.
Utah’s soldiers arrived in the early hours Tuesday, well after federal agents cleared Lafayette Park of mostly peaceful protesters by force, allowing Trump to then stroll — with a heavily armed police presence — across the way to St. John’s Episcopal Church to hold up a Bible for the photographers.
The action, widely decried by D.C. officials and members of Congress but defended by the White House as a security measure, had elevated an already tense situation.
Mangum, whom the Utah National Guard made available for an interview, said he couldn’t say where his fellow Utah soldiers were positioned in the city, or at what times. He didn’t know how long the soldiers would be deployed.
National Guard troops — with the exception of the D.C. National Guard, who sport the D.C. flag on their uniforms — don’t have markings identifying where they’re from.
Mangum, who has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, said there's a big difference, though, in providing support at this time and being in a war.
“This is not a combat zone,” he said, after shedding his uniform and donning flip-flops and a T-shirt to talk outside his downtown hotel. “Obviously, this is our nation — our nation’s capital. So that’s a big difference. It’s definitely not a combat mindset. There are tensions, but we obviously do not see our fellow civilians as an enemy presence.”
But the presence of troops, nonetheless, has sparked blowback, ranging from the District of Columbia mayor to the Alliance for a Better Utah.
“There are other federal military assets that we did not request that we understand are under the direction of Attorney General [William] Barr,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said Thursday. “We are all very concerned about how the federal assets pushed out from the federal complex and we worked with them to push back.”
On Friday, Utah National Guard members found themselves temporarily homeless in the district — which Sen. Mike Lee called an eviction by Bowser — after the city said it would only foot the hotel bill to house troops who were supporting the coronavirus outbreak response and not for soldiers district leaders had not requested. The troops were later moved to a different hotel.
The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah called on Herbert to withdraw Utah troops from Washington.
“It’s alarming that Utah soldiers are being used by the federal government to support its forceful shutdown of peaceful protests in our nation’s capital,” said the group’s executive director, Chase Thomas.
Mangum stressed the Utah soldiers weren’t stopping peaceful protests and pointed to a statement from the Army’s top leaders about their oath to the Constitution and citizens’ inalienable rights.
“We will continue to support and defend those rights, and we will continue to protect Americans, whether from enemies of the United States overseas, from COVID-19 at home, or from violence in our communities that threatens to drown out the voices begging us to listen,” said the letter from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Gen. James McConville and Michael Grinston, the sergeant major of the Army. “To Army leaders of all ranks, listen to your people, but don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them.”
Mangum said his fellow soldiers are told “from the top down” and reinforced several times a day that “these are our fellow citizens. Empathize. Exercise extreme patience. Be empathizing and understanding of the frustrations.”
“And, you know, we tell our soldiers if somebody is trying to provoke, don’t react," he added. “Be super, super patient.”
No Utah soldiers have been injured so far, Mangum said.
“Senator Lee offered a prayer and was just really asking for peace and understanding,” Mangum recalled. “I need to go back and read exactly what he said. But, you know, it’s the kind of stuff we need: peace, understanding, love, greater empathy and understanding between the different groups.”
As Mangum spoke, some of the Utah soldiers sauntered by during a few hours of free time to catch views of their nation’s capital that weren’t from behind a riot shield or under police lights. A few others waited patiently for their food to be delivered since most in-person dining in the city is still banned.
“This is unfortunate this is their first visit,” Mangum said.
Soon after, a car sped through a yellow light, blaring music.
The song: NWA’s “F--- tha police.”