ST. PAUL — Between deploying Twin Cities several times during a summer of civil unrest touched off by the death of George Floyd and aiding in state COVID-19 testing efforts, last year was one of the Minnesota National Guard's busiest on record.

If recent events are any indication, 2021 will be no different.

The Guard is now helping to vaccinate against the disease caused by the novel coronavirus in addition to testing for it, and last month was tasked with securing the state and nation's capitals against the threat of armed protestors following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Already the Guard has been asked to deploy to Minneapolis and St. Paul at least one time more.

"This is the busiest I can ever remember it being, and even before my time I don’t think we’ve had as much asked as we have this past year from our members," Col. Scott Rohweder, the Minnesota National Guard's director of operations said in a recent interview.

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The trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in Floyd's death, will next month draw the Guard back to the Cities amid fears of further civil unrest. Gov. Tim Walz formally and pre-emptively requested the force's assistance last week for public safety operations surrounding the trial, jury selection for which is scheduled to begin March 8.

"As public interest increases and decreases throughout the legal process, members of the Guard will be ready to supplement local law enforcement efforts to keep the peace, ensure public safety, and allow for peaceful demonstrations," Walz said in a news release announcing the Guard's activation last week.

Other officers charged in Floyd's death will be tried together beginning in August.

Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Benedict, with the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard, uses a swab to collect a COVID-19 test in May at the Duluth Armory. Free swab testing will be available Oct. 13-25 in Aitkin. (2020 file / News Tribune)
Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Benedict, with the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard, uses a swab to collect a COVID-19 test in May at the Duluth Armory. Free swab testing will be available Oct. 13-25 in Aitkin. (2020 file / News Tribune)

In less tumultuous times, Minnesota residents might only see uniformed Guard members preparing for or responding to natural disasters such as floods and forest fires. But by May 31 of last year, six days after Floyd's death, approximately 7,000 soldiers and airmen were placed on duty in response to the initial unrest in Minneapolis in what constituted "the first full activation of the Minnesota National Guard for state active duty and the largest domestic deployment in the organization’s 164-year history," according to the Guard's annual report for 2020.

Similar requests would be made of the Guard on four separate occasions in the ensuing months. Service members deployed to the Twin Cities in August when rumors circulated about local police shooting and killing a man who had actually taken his own life. They were dispatched again in September when a grand jury in Kentucky declined to bring charges against the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in another racially charged case.

Walz activated the Guard twice in October, first when one of the officers charged and jailed in Floyd's killing was released on bail, and again when a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin was withdrawn.

According to David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, the Guard's increased visibility in our lives might be emblematic of the polarized nature of our politics or a response to, at least among more radical actors, the abandonment of "norms for how we resolve conflict in our society" in favor of violence.

Police, then, might have other reasons for turning to the Guard for help.

"Some of it, I think, is the police don't have resources. Two, at least among some groups, the police are no longer trusted at this point. And then three, I think it is the show of muscle," Schultz said in an interview. "I think it's a combination or a grouping of all three issues."

Local and county authorities can only ask for help from the Guard, according to Rohweder, when a situation escalates "to the point where it’s above and beyond what they can provide," he said. When the force is cleared to assist local law enforcement agencies, he said, its support typically comes in the form of traffic control and "critical infrastructure security."

Dave Bicking, a board member of the Twin Cities-based group Communities United Against Police Brutality, warned in an interview that the presence of armed military personnel on the streets again next month for the Chauvin trial might itself provoke protesters. He said the group is opposed to the Guard's deployment to the Cities next month.

"There’s been a lot of talk about warrior training," Bicking said, referring to controversial style of police training, "and here we are, we’re bringing in actual warriors."

Contact Matthew Guerry at mguerry@forumcomm.com or 651-321-4314