Some Troops See Capitol Riot, BLM Protests as Similar Threats, Top Enlisted Leader Says



Some troops have drawn equivalencies between the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and last year’s protests for racial justice during recent stand-downs to address extremism, worrying the military’s top enlisted leader.

In a Thursday briefing with reporters at the Pentagon, Chief Master Sergeant Ramón “CZ” Colón-López, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that some troops have asked, when the Jan. 6 riot is brought up, “How come you’re not looking at the situation that was going on in Seattle prior to that?”

He said that is one example of the mindset many military leaders are encountering, and he is “concerned about the way that some people are looking at the current environment.”

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“This is coming from every echelon that we’re talking to,” he added.

Colón-López said the confusion some younger troops have expressed shows why the training sessions on extremism are needed.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the stand-down Feb. 5 and gave units across the military 60 days to discuss extremism in the ranks with troops.

The military’s policies are clear, he said: Troops are not to advocate for, or participate in, supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes.

The military remains an apolitical organization, Colón-López said, and it doesn’t matter if an extremist group is far right or far left — both are off limits.

“If it’s an organization that is actually imposing harm, threat, destruction, criminal activity and so on, then we don’t condone that behavior,” Colón-López said. “We’re focusing on letting people know exactly what the oath tells us to do when it comes to obeying lawful orders, remaining apolitical and basically being good stewards of society.”

But as the training sessions took place, some themes emerged that worried leaders.

Those conducting the sessions wanted “to make sure that military members understand the difference between Seattle and [the Jan. 6 riot in] Washington, D.C.,” Colón-López said. “But some of our younger members are confused about this, so that’s what we need to go ahead and talk to them about and educate them on, to make sure that they know exactly what they can and cannot do.”

Colón-López also noted the military was called to respond after the Capitol attacks, but was not called up to support law enforcement during the Seattle protests.

And he drew a distinction between those who lawfully exercised their First Amendment rights to protest during last summer’s protests in support of racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, and those who “latched on” to the protests to loot, destroy property and commit other crimes.

But sometimes, he said, younger troops see messages on TV that blur the lines between the two, and “we needed to educate them” on the difference.

“No, that’s not what that meant,” Colón-López said. “There were people advocating [against] social injustice, racial injustice and everything else, and it is the right of citizens.”

When asked about networks or television personalities popular among service members who have drawn those equivalencies, Colón-López said, “Those are very, very tough conversations to have with people, because sometimes they’re emotional about the subject.”

While those TV personalities are exercising the right to free speech troops have fought for, he said, “make sure that you’re well-educated and don’t be an automatic mouthpiece for something unless you understand the issue.”

Colón-López acknowledged that the “information overload” troops today face — not just traditional media and memos from service leaders, but also a panoply of social media amplifying different messages — can leave troops feeling confused and uncertain where to go to get reliable information.

“What I am committed to is to make sure that our people understand right from wrong,” he said. “That our people … are well-educated to be able to carry on, in an honorable fashion. And if they hear somebody saying the wrong things, that they’re quick to go ahead and correct them … without being confrontational.”

Colón-López stressed the refrain commonly heard from top military leaders that the vast majority of troops do not share extremist views.

And the military isn’t interested in monitoring troops’ online activities at home, he said. A service member who Googles QAnon, for example, may just want to become educated on the online conspiracy theory movement, he explained. That wouldn’t mean someone necessarily believes in that ideology.

But, he noted, the military needs to be watchful of how service members carry themselves while on duty, and what troops’ friends say they are doing.

Colón-López said it’s too soon to tell whether extremist organizations are becoming more or less likely to recruit from among the military’s ranks. But, he said, the force is being made aware that such groups are actively recruiting service members, “and we need to make sure that they stand clear from them.”

“It’s not good for the department, and it’s not good for the image of the military,” he said.

— Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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