Protests, curfews and aggressive police crackdowns have followed outrage over the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protesters and journalists have been fired upon with munitions, and US President Donald Trump has called on the military to step in — a move that has been decried by some prominent figures, including former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
But what's happening on US streets right now looks familiar to veterans of the US intelligence community who've monitored foreign government responses to social unrest.
Some are pointing out parallels between Trump's attempts to quell protests, and the actions of authoritarian regimes that have done the same.
Gail Helt is a former CIA analyst who tracked developments in China and Southeast Asia and a professor of security and intelligence studies at King University in Tennessee. She spoke with The World's Marco Werman about the similarities between what's happening in the US and government repression in other parts of the world.
Gail Helt: I have to say — I think I would be remiss if I didn't, this being the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre — and seeing those armored vehicles rolling down the streets of DC does kind of conjure those images, in my mind, of tanks running over peaceful protesters. And I know that might seem like an extreme comparison to some people. But in my opinion, that's how unusual it is to see armored vehicles being used as crowd control on the streets of American cities.
I definitely don't see, or at least I'm hopeful that we won't see, any kind of repression along those lines here. America is a democracy. America is a republic. We are not supposed to use our military to corral peaceful protesters. And yes, there are some pockets of violence, and that's horrible. We can handle this. I think that there's been a ratcheting up of tensions. That concerns me a lot. But we in America have a tradition of peaceful protest. It is a constitutional right. And I think using the military to crack down on that sends a horrible, horrible message about where we're headed as a country.
Well, I am concerned. Trump has been setting the stage, at least for American citizens to question the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election, for months. When he talks about how mail-in ballots are tantamount to election fraud, we're on dangerous ground here. If Trump loses in November, I do think he will leave. I don't think he will leave without a lot of drama, without a lot of protests, without him organizing marches in the streets of Washington, DC.
I do think that that is an extreme comparison. I would look at maybe Malaysia in 2012, 2013, when there were pro-democracy, pro-electoral reform protests and the government, which had no interest in electoral reform, pulled out the rubber bullets and the water cannon and the tear gas. It's a breach of trust. If that happens here in any large-scale way, I think that the breach of trust is going to be something that's irreparable. And we already have a huge distrust issue with American citizens. And this has been happening for decades. I mean, you can't pin that all on Trump. The fabric of our society has been fraying a little bit for a couple of decades now. But Trump has just basically pulled those threads and totally unraveled it.
I'm very worried. I've used the word terrified. I don't believe that if Trump is reelected that we can withstand four more years. The Constitution — nobody's defending it. I mean, I'm defending it, there's many of us, there are dozens of us who are former national security professionals who are out there defending it and trying to remind our elected officials of the oath that they took, just like the ones that I took, to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And they're not actually doing that. To me, in my mind, until they do that, anything can happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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