Gov. Asa Hutchinson revealed this afternoon, two days after the fact, that he had activated the Arkansas National Guard to respond to demonstrations and they were part of the group of officers that shut down a demonstration at the Capitol Sunday night with tear gas.
He said the Guard will remain on duty to make sure “looting, violence and acts of destruction” don’t happen.
Hutchinson said the National Guard was on standby at Camp Robinson Saturday night but didn’t have to be called in. But he said events of Saturday led him to decide the Guard needed to stay on call and they were moved closer to the Capitol.
Late Sunday, he said, both State Police and National Guard responded “to protect innocent protesters but alto to dispel those who wanted to do violence.”
Asked about Sen. Tom Cotton’s call to mobilize military troops, he said Hutchinson believed the state can handle the situation “with the resources we have.”
He continued, “I don’t see it as having application in Arkansas, or necessary or something we need.”
Asked how he viewed Trump’s Tweets, he said he didn’t want to characterize them as “incendiary” as some have. The president is concerned about the rule of law, Hutchinson insisted. “He made his comment, I just want my comments to be balanced and fair and supportive of the rule of law and the right to protest.”
He was also asked about Trump’s urging governors to “dominate” the demonstrators. Hutchinson laughed, suggesting that was a reference to federal military doctrine. This is a civilian law enforcement issue, he said. Utilizing a National Guard under state control “gives us the assistance we need to meet the challenge.”
What about tear-gassing people sitting peacefully from close range? “Any time there is an order to disperse a crowd there are public announcements made,” Hutchinson said. “If they are not dispersing then there is a sequence of responses that are not lethal that the State Police can take.”
Bill Bryant, commander of the State Police, said the officers first try for voluntary compliance. But if you don’t address violent acts, they escalate, he said. “We usually give them five to eight warnings,” he said. “We give them every opportunity to disperse.”
He said police acted Sunday night after protesters put a liquid on the street and set it on fire. Officers also saw people breaking into the 501 building across the street from the Capitol and coming out with papers He also said a law office had been broken into Saturday night. Action was required.
He said the blockage of Interstate 630, another instance in which tear gas was used, was a problem, particularly because of the risk of secondary collisions as traffic halts. He also mentioned I-630 is the main avenue to hospitals in Little Rock (though there are alternate routes).
During the news conference, the Democratic Black Caucus issued a statement critical of the use of teargas.
Arkansas and the nation is on the move, speaking up, and putting bodies on the line to demand justice for George Floyd and every black and brown person in this country who is forced to live in fear of violence. In Arkansas, law enforcement has been using tear gas without provocation to disperse peaceful assemblies. This must stop.
“People are angry. People are in pain. Law enforcement is spraying protestors with tear gas as they exercise their First Amendment rights, regardless if people are being peaceful or destructive,” said Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus President Debrah Mitchell. “So, let’s stop with the tear gas! Let’s also stop the damaging of property because buildings don’t matter, Black Lives Matter! Let’s continue to peacefully march with our masks on in the streets. But we MUST also march to the ballot box this November and bring the change we keep shouting – Stop. Killing. Black. People.”
Hutchinson was asked about Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s reference earlier today to out-of-state agitators.
Hutchinson said he did believe there were people from out of state here to cause disruptions, though he provided no specifics of police intelligence he’d been given or what political philosophy they might represent. He noted, though, that garb worn by some might be a clue, perhaps a reference to clothing favored by right-wing white supremacist groups spotted in the crowd. But he said Arkansans were being arrested as well and, though perhaps not demonstrators, had caused criminal acts elsewhere (the Target break-in, for one). He emphasized the largest group of participants consisted of legitimate, peaceful protesters.
Hutchinson was asked if he’d take the lead in organizing an event promoting unity. He said words were helpful and he thought he’d made his personal feelings clear. But he said other efforts might be necessary when reminded of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s demonstration of unity with black people after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
He said he supported Mayor Scott’s reinstatement of a 10 p.m. curfew. “It gives us an opportunity to say it’s time to go home.”
Hutchinson began the news conference with remarks similar to those he’d made earlier in Rogers. He said the death of George Floyd was a “landmark sight” in America and troubling to anyone who appreciates law enforcement.
He said he feels the “outrage and disappointment and fear and distrust” among African-Americans that has inspired protests.
“They want to cry for justice and I recognize that and I support that.”
He said he wanted to protect people who wanted to protest law officers sworn to uphold the law who had crossed every line, abused the system and didn’t honor the rule of law.
But he also said it was his job to be sure there was no destruction of property or violence. And he vowed not to tolerate it.
He asked DuShun Scarborough, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, to speak. He talked of his feelings as a black man and father about the events.