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
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
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
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,
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.
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.”
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.
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
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