Marines Warned to Stay Away from Protests That Could Turn Violent

A demonstrator stands beside a fire in a cash checking business building
A demonstrator stands beside a fire of a building that was once a check cashing business on May 30, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As protesters continue taking to the streets to push for police reform and an end to racism in the U.S., Marines are getting reminders about what type of participation is -- and isn't -- allowed while in uniform.

Headquarters Marine Corps this month issued a four-page info paper on protest activities for service members. Marines are ordered to steer clear of protests that could turn violent and are told not to publicly demonstrate support for partisan candidates or parties.

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The goal in issuing the memo was to make sure Marines can exercise their rights without running afoul of any federal statutes, regulations or policies, said Capt. Joe Butterfield, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.

"We want to anticipate questions that Marines have when determining what they can and cannot do as a service member," he said. "... Providing our Marines and sailors with distilled guidance derived from existing policy helps us to keep our people informed."

Protests entered their third week following the late-May killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis. Some early protests turned violent as demonstrators stayed out past city curfews -- in some cases, looting and setting buildings on fire.

Marines are barred from participating in any off-post demonstrations where "violence is likely to result," states the guidance, which is based on existing Defense Department and service directives. They're also not allowed to participate if they're in uniform, on duty, in a foreign country, or if the protest spot was made off-limits by their commander.

Leaders can make spots off-limits to their troops if they're believed to pose a threat to service members' health, morale or welfare, the memo states. But since a global pandemic continues at the same time the protests are happening, it adds, commanders have further authority to impose restrictions.

That's true even if the restrictions limit a service member's freedoms of assembly and expression, according to the policy, so long as the restrictions are meant to protect Marines and the force, and not restrict lawful speech.

What is allowed for Marines who want to participate in protests? Peaceful political discourse over the status of the nation or legislation is OK, the policy states, along with expressing personal disagreement or dissatisfaction with political issues or current events.

What could land Marines in trouble is using a protest to express support for a specific political party or candidate, speaking on behalf of their service or the military, or implying Marine Corps or Defense Department endorsement of a person or policy.

Butterfield said Headquarters Marine Corps has not been made aware of any protest areas being placed off-limits to Marines or of any personnel being punished for inappropriate participation during the recent demonstrations.

The California-based I Marine Expeditionary Unit, which oversees several major units in that state, has not made any protest spots off-limits to Marines, said 2nd Lt. Logan Taylor, a spokesman there. I MEF Marines are encouraged to exercise their right to protest, he added.

Since III MEF has tens of thousands of its Pacific-based personnel in Japan, a spokesman for that command said Marines in that country, or any other nation outside the U.S., are prohibited from participating in off-base political events, per Defense Department policy.

But the Marine Corps recognizes that racism and systemic discrimination is a problem that must be addressed in the force and America as a whole, added 1st Lt. Ryan Bruce, a III MEF spokesman.

"Commandant [Gen. David] Berger has issued the call that we must, 'Strive to eliminate division itself. Only as a unified force, free from discrimination, racial inequality, and prejudice can we fully demonstrate our core values, and serve as the elite warfighting organization America requires and expects to be,'" Bruce said.

No III MEF Marines have faced any disciplinary action for inappropriate protest activity, he added.

The top leaders of the North Carolina-based II MEF last week encouraged their Marines to participate in peaceful events.

“It absolutely remains your First Amendment right,” Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault and Sgt. Maj. Lonnie Travis Jr. wrote in a message to their Marines. “What we ask is that you do so safely, and understand current guidance and directives while representing yourself, your unit, and the Corps professionally.”

Marines are told to get in touch with their command's staff judge advocate with questions about what is or isn't allowed during a protest.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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