William Walker, retired sergeant at arms of the U.S. House of Representatives and former commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, spoke at a Tuesday event hosted by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy about military preparation and responses to civil unrest, particularly during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Moderated by Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and AGS director, the discussion focused on Walker’s history and experience protecting the nation’s capital.
Most of the discussion centered on Walker’s role as commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard. Walker held the position between March 2018 and April 2021, overseeing the force’s response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 Capitol attack in 2021.
Walker explained that there is a fine line between peaceful protests and violent civil unrest, emphasizing the importance of “people exercising their First Amendment rights in a safe manner.”
“We’re out there really to maintain the peace and keep order,” he said. “... If you start throwing bricks and water bottles that are frozen, and if you start taking lasers and hitting guardsmen in the eyes with those, we have the right to get you into police hands where you can answer for that kind of civil unrest.”
Walker described watching the initial news of the murder of George Floyd and seeing the White House on lockdown in response to ensuing demonstrations. He proactively prepared the equipment needed for the National Guard, ensuring the force was ready when the D.C. mayor called for help.
Walker then spoke about his role during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Even before the 2020 presidential election’s certification, Walker had approached then-Capitol police chief Steven Sund and offered his assistance.
Walker recalled Sund saying that the police “[had] it under control” and declining support from the National Guard. Walker believes that this was because the police board “didn’t like the optics,” and “didn’t want to have the military, uniformed soldiers and airmen around the Capitol.”
As the Capital attack unfolded, Walker described how he waited for an order from the Secretary of the Army to deploy the National Guard. Feaver responded by asking about reports that he had considered acting on his own authority and deploying.
“That did happen. I’m not proud of that,” he said. “... There were people in my conference room where I got so frustrated that I did use some language I’m not proud of.”
Walker explained how he had ordered guardsmen to get on the buses to go down to the Capitol, but was stopped by army lawyer Earl Matthews who reminded him that the military is always under civilian control.
Walker eventually got the green light just after 5 p.m. that day to mobilize the National Guard, which quickly rushed down to the Capitol building.
“I remember thinking, the difference that we made, could have been so much more relevant had we gotten there early,” he said.
Reflecting on the Jan. 6 attack, Walker said that the country is now “much better prepared” for the election certification in January 2025 and that, despite the bungled response to the insurrection, there is still trust in the military to protect civilians in the case of a similar event.
“I believe that the United States military … is the most trusted organization because people are not compelled to serve and some of them do it for as long as they can,” he said. “... The United States military is trusted [and] dependable. You can count on us, you can count on the military to get the job done.”
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