SMYRNA, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee National Guard troops face a "tremendous challenge" as they head to the nation's capital at the request of President Donald Trump to help quell protests that have arisen in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Gov. Bill Lee told troops on Thursday.
"You've been called upon to protect the rights, the freedoms, and the privileges that Americans have to peacefully protest — to exercise their First Amendment rights in a way that they feel safe, and therefore, they can be heard," Lee said before the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment boarded a C-17 headed to Washington D.C.
"But you've also been called up to protect the lives and the property ... against those who hijack peaceful protests and turn them into violent riots. Balancing that protection is a tremendous challenge," the Republican continued.
Tennessee is one of several states to send National Guard troops to Washington. Roughly 1,000 Tennessee troops are expected to be in Washington no later than Saturday. However, at least three states with Democratic governors — New York, Virginia and Delaware — have so far rejected the request.
The Trump administration asked multiple states to send troops to Washington at the same time as the president recently criticized many governors as "weak" for not using the National Guard more aggressively in their own states.
Yet Lee, who often praises the Trump administration, used his Thursday's speech to point to a softer moment in Tennessee that caught national attention recently between the state's National Guard and protesters. Lee praised a decision by more than 60 guardsmen to lay day down their shields at the request of the peaceful demonstrators outside the state Capitol building on Monday.
The non-violent interaction followed a much more tense weekend, where police officers clashed with protesters across the state and resulted in more than 50 arrests, dozens of vandalized businesses and a handful of small fires being lit in Nashville's historic courthouse.
"We can take crisis, and tragedy, and difficulty and through transformation, be better on the other side of it," Lee said. "That's my hope for America and that's why what you're doing is so important. We need you to get through this period so we can get to the other side of it."
Adjutant General Jeff Holmes said the Tennessee National Guard should be proud to go to D.C., saying they were "upholding the tradition" of those who had volunteered to serve through the state's history.
"I have complete faith in your leadership, your training, your discipline," Holmes said. "It's been proven across the state. You are everything that's good about this state. Citizens can take comfort when you are out."
Both Holmes and Lee noted the extraordinary past three months the National Guard has experienced, being asked to come in after fatal tornadoes ravaged the state in early March and then later assisting with COVID-19 testing.
"The only reason we've been able to test aggressively to nursing homes, prisons, minority populations and besides the general population, the only way we've been able to do that is because of the National Guard," Lee said.
Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died May 25 after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, put his knee on Floyd's neck for several minutes as he lay handcuffed on the pavement, gasping that he couldn't breathe.
Floyd's death has sparked global demonstrations against police brutality, racism and inequality.