The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it is activating active-duty units near Washington, D.C., amid escalating tensions and protests over George Floyd’s death.
The Defense Department said in a statement that Secretary Mark Esper authorized the movement of approximately 1,600 troops from Fort Bragg, N.C. and Fort Drum, N.Y.
The troops are stationed at military bases near Washington but are not in the district itself, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in the statement.
They are on heightened alert status but are currently "not participating in defense support to civil authority operations," he said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper emphasized in a message to all Pentagon personnel that the department is committed "to protecting the American people's right to freedom of speech and to peaceful assembly."
“I, like you, am steadfast in my belief that Americans who are frustrated, angry, and seeking to be heard must be ensured that opportunity. And like you, I am committed to upholding the rule of law and protecting life and liberty, so that the violent actions of a few do not undermine the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens,” he said.
The deployment is the latest development as the Trump administration seeks to quell protests across the country, with President Trump threatening to send in the military if governors and local leaders do not “get tough.”
The protests were sparked when video went viral of Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, being pinned to the ground by his neck for several minutes during an arrest before ultimately becoming unresponsive and dying. Floyd was heard pleading for help and saying he could not breath while the officer knelt on top of him.
Many of the protests across the country have started peacefully during the day, but some have devolved into violence during the nighttime. Several buildings and businesses have been vandalized and looted, spurring Trump to call for a return to “law and order” and threatening to use the military to stop the violence.
Trump has drawn backlash and scrutiny after law enforcement officers deployed pepper balls and smoke canisters to disperse largely peaceful protesters near the White House on Monday night before he left the White House grounds to visit the nearby St. John's Episcopal Church, which had been vandalized the night before, to pose for a photo.
Esper told NBC News in an interview Tuesday that he was given no advance notice when Trump led him and other administration officials to the church.
“I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,” Esper told the network, referencing a bathroom in the park that had been vandalized. “I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.”