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The history of the Insurrection Act

Published Sep 17, 2005 10:55 AM

Just two days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, President George W. Bush began demanding that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco yield to him the command over any National Guard troops sent to the area, according to reports in the leading establishment newspapers.

Bush wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed him to take control over all armed forces deployed, including Louisiana’s National Guard troops. But under the terms of the act, he had to get the assent of the legislature or the governor of the state. The legislature was not in session and Blanco refused.

The governor kept calling on the federal government to send in all the assistance it could muster. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans repeatedly sent out an SOS as the situation became increasingly desperate for tens of thousands of people in the Superdome, the Convention Center, and on the elevated highways and bridges of the city.

But no significant aid came for days—no buses or boats to move people out of the city, no food or water or temporary shelter. Civilian volunteer medical and emergency workers were being turned back from the city, even as the most vulnerable people were beginning to die. A pressure cooker situation was developing.

And as the anger rose, it became the excuse for not providing relief. It was too “dangerous” to go in. The area had to be “secured” by troops first. The Black people of New Orleans—who made up the vast majority of those unable to evacuate—were being treated as “the enemy,” not as desperate survivors.

George Bush has not yet invoked the Insurrection Act, but his administration is still discussing how to make it easier for the federal government to override local authorities in the future. (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 11)

Racism and states’ rights

It is a bitter irony that the same racist political forces who made “state’s rights” their mantra when federal law called for desegregation of the schools and public facilities, and again when various laws were passed by Congress protecting workers and the environment, are now trying to find a way to bypass the authority of the states in order to enhance the ability of the president to use armed force against the people.

Reviewing the past use of the Insur rection Act is like a walk through the racist and anti-worker history of this country. It was designed to plug a perceived hole in the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, and has been strengthened since then by the addition of various provisions when the ruling powers felt that mass anger over conditions could reach the boiling point.

The Posse Comitatus Act was itself the product of a racist compromise between the Northern capitalists, whose fortunes came from the exploitation of wage labor, and the Southern former slave owners whose “right” to enslave Black people had been taken away by the Civil War—but whose control over the land and wealth of the South remained intact even after that enormously bloody conflict.

After the war, Union troops remained in the South to prevent the defeated slave-owning class from reestablishing its reign of racist terror. In this period of Recon struction, Black people for the first time had the rights of citizens. They elected representatives to several state legislatures and to the U.S. Congress. Black and white Abolitionists went South to help set up schools for Black children where none had existed before.

Social progress was made, but the federal government’s promise of “40 acres and a mule” for every family was never realized; most of the rich plantation land remained in the hands of the former slave owners. Without agrar ian reform, the landless Black sharecroppers were doomed to remain in abject pov erty, even if they had obtained political rights.

But even these rights were undercut when, in the Compromise of 1877, Wash ing ton agreed to pull its troops out of the South. This left the door wide open for the Southern ruling class to reimpose an iron dictatorship over the Black masses, which they did through both legal and extra-legal terror, like the Ku Klux Klan and the lynch mob.

The legal basis for the withdrawal of the Northern troops was to be the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which said, in part: “From and after passage of this act it shall not be lawful to employ any part of the Army of the United States, as a posse comitatus, or otherwise, for the purpose of executing the laws, except in such cases and under such circumstances as such employment of said force may be expressly authorized by the Constitution or by act of Congress.”

The exception clause above led to the Insurrection Act, which has been modified and broadened over the years. It has been the legal excuse for some of the most flagrant attacks on workers and oppressed people in the U.S. by the federal government since the end of Reconstruction, including the assault on the Bonus Marchers in 1932, President Harry S. Truman’s use of federal troops against striking railroad workers in 1946, the 1973 intervention of federal troops against the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee, and the suppression of the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992.

The Bonus Marchers were World War I veterans seeking payment of a bonus that had been promised them. It was the depths of the Depression. They set up an unarmed encampment in Washington, D.C., that quickly grew to 20,000 veterans. The Army, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, forcibly disper sed them with bayonets and burned the camp down. One veteran was shot to death and dozens injured.

More recently, the act was invoked in 1992 by George H.W. Bush, father of today’s president. A verdict had just come down in the case of the beating of Rodney King, an African American motorist, by Los Angeles police. The brutal attack had been caught on videotape. After national outrage, four officers were charged with assault, but the case was moved to Simi Valley, outside the city, where a jury was selected with no African Americans on it. When they let the cops walk free, the Black community of L.A. erupted in fury. The rebellion overwhelmed the LAPD, and Bush sent in thousands of troops to put it down.

Today, U.S. society is more polarized than ever. The number of millionaires and billionaires has grown even as millions more workers get less than a living wage, have no health care or other benefits and are mired in debt. On top of all this, they are being forced to participate in a cruel war that benefits no one but the oil companies and the military-industrial complex.

The preoccupation of the capitalist class, however, is not with alleviating the appalling conditions but with trying to crush any resistance.

A rebellion against these social conditions is long overdue—and the ruling class knows it.