What It Is Like To Be A National Guard Member During The Riots In Minneapolis NPR's Ailsa Chang talks to Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen of the Minnesota National Guard about an increased military presence in Minneapolis during the massive protests over George Floyd's death.
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What It Is Like To Be A National Guard Member During The Riots In Minneapolis

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What It Is Like To Be A National Guard Member During The Riots In Minneapolis

What It Is Like To Be A National Guard Member During The Riots In Minneapolis

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump today urged governors to, quote, "dominate protesters," to send them to prison, possibly for years, and he echoed that rhetoric tonight when he addressed the nation from the Rose Garden. It's a message that is not likely to slow down the protests across the country, and it may prove to confuse those who have the task of keeping the peace on the streets. One of those people is Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen. He is the senior leader of the Minnesota National Guard, whose troops have been patrolling the streets of Minneapolis. Before the president's address tonight, I asked him what he made of President Trump's order to dominate protesters.

JON JENSEN: Well, I think you have to have a strong law enforcement presence, but also, you have to help in the messaging as well. You have to ensure that people understand that you care about their community and get people to understand that they're also responsible and can help turn the tide of violence.

CHANG: Let's talk about the violence. Tell me - what is the strategy in Minneapolis right now for use of force? How do you understand that strategy? And I'm asking this because both journalists and protesters are reporting that there have been harsh, disproportionate responses from those who are supposed to keep the peace in Minnesota.

JENSEN: Well, you know, that's very difficult for me to judge, I will tell you. I am not a law enforcement professional. I'm a military officer. And in civil disturbance, the National Guard always serves as a supporting agency to their city chiefs of police, to their county sheriffs. And so they're the ones who are really going to dictate and drive response. We're there to support them. We are there to relieve them of other tasks so they can go perform what they are professionally trained to do.

CHANG: That said, I understand that your guard members have been armed with rifles and real...

JENSEN: Yes.

CHANG: ...Bullets.

JENSEN: Yes.

CHANG: Are you concerned that that could escalate things?

JENSEN: Absolutely. It's a very dynamic situation. It's an incredibly complex environment. We elected to arm our soldiers on the very first day, in part because of a - what I believed was a credible threat against the Minnesota National Guards. We were going to ask them to do something very difficult. We wanted to make sure that they had all the tools in place to be successful. So we've...

CHANG: Can you describe in more detail what this credible threat was?

JENSEN: No, I cannot. I will tell you it came from the FBI, and we accepted their analysis and their intelligence on that.

CHANG: That said, I mean, there is now a military-like presence on the streets of Minneapolis right now, in part because of...

JENSEN: I would disagree with that. I would disagree.

CHANG: OK. Tell me why.

JENSEN: So let me tell you this story of being in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning and then Sunday morning. You didn't see a military presence at all while - what you saw was a town where people came out and began to get back to their business of living in their city 'cause you could go for many blocks and not see a Minnesota guardsman.

CHANG: And was that a deliberate choice on your part to intentionally avoid having too much of a presence?

JENSEN: Yeah, I think there's a balance. You need to have a presence. Law-abiding citizens need to be comforted and confident that their public safety agencies are there and will support them, whether they are exercising their First Amendment right or whether they're a shop owner. Look. It's very difficult to get that presence exactly right. To be completely fair and honest, we were chasing that the first couple days, and I believe we did get ahead on Saturday and Sunday through our presence.

CHANG: How do you see these protests ending at this point? Do you see them ending?

JENSEN: Oh, yes. I mean, they're going to end. But I think here - here's what's very important. At the end of the protests, that's not the end of this. There are systems that have to be changed in our country. And until we address those specifically, you know, we'll just be waiting for the next event.

CHANG: I'm curious - in your entire career in the National Guard, have you ever been called on to ensure peace during some form of domestic civil unrest like we're seeing today?

JENSEN: No. The closest thing is when you're sent in to secure an area that's been damaged by a tornado. That is completely different than what we've experienced.

CHANG: Tell me what feels personally to you so different about right now.

JENSEN: I have soldiers that stood in front of our Capitol here in Minneapolis for 17 hours. And at the end of the day, I asked this one NCO, what did you learn from that? And he said, you know, all you have to do is talk to them. They want to be heard. So I gave them the opportunity to tell me their story. And I thought it was just an incredible story from a soldier who had no experience in civil disturbance but knew what it was like to connect with another human being.

CHANG: Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen commands the Minnesota National Guard.

Thank you very much for giving us your time today.

JENSEN: Yes. Thank you very much.

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