The National Guard has a long history of being called out during protests - but not in numbers like this

(CNN)The National Guard.

Maybe you've seen them in your community in recent months in a broad range of responsibilities: from sewing face masks for coronavirus patients to, in recent days, preventing property damage during protests.

Right now, about 74,000 Guardsmen have been activated across the US. That's more than at any other point in recent history, according to the National Guard Bureau.

"This civil unrest mission is an uncomfortable mission," Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said in a statement to CNN. "Our Guard members are from these communities."

Here's a breakdown of what the National Guard is and what its members do -- including in moments of civil unrest.

What is the National Guard, and what does it do?

The National Guard is a group of military members that serve on a part-time basis, usually within the US. It originated as a militia of colonists in the 17th century and evolved into a localized military response.

National Guard members usually respond to domestic emergencies like natural disasters, though in the last several months, they've assisted with coronavirus testing and disinfection. In other years, they've done activities as mundane as sorting mail during a postal strike.

Every state and territory (plus Washington) has a National Guard. And because they're state-operated, National Guard members who are activated in that state are typically residents of that state.

Right now, they're mobilizing to respond to "civil unrest" in at least 31 states and Washington as a result of protests against police brutality. It's the latest major protest the Guard's been involved with in the last 60 years.

Who makes up the National Guard?

Guard members belong to either the Army or Air National Guards. Though they're military personnel, they typically work civilian jobs, and they undergo training drills one weekend a month and at least two full weeks per year.

How many Guard members are there?

There are over 450,000 soldiers and airmen currently in the National Guard, the National Guard Bureau told CNN.

And right now, there are around 74,000 members on duty in all 50 states. Many of them were previously activated to assist with Covid-19 relief, which included sewing, disinfecting and testing.

About 30,000 of them have activated in 31 states plus DC to monitor protests, enforce curfews and support police.

The previous high was in 2005, when 51,000 members activated to assist New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina. And at 74,000, that's almost 4.5 times more than active duty troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

What does it mean to 'activate' the National Guard, and who has that power?

When a state's National Guard is "activated," that means that a governor asked them for support for a domestic crisis. "Support" can look differently depending on the situation.

The Guard is federally funded but state-controlled, though the President has the power to call on them, too. They can also be deployed overseas, if needed.

In response to the nationwide protests, President Donald Trump said he recommends every governor deploy the National Guard in "sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets."

What powers does the National Guard have?

The National Guard can perform law enforcement actions under state governors' command, unlike active military members, who are forbidden from law enforcement actions unless the President invokes the Insurrection Act, which allows the federal government to deploy active troops in the US.

In most cases, National Guard members are under the direction of governors or the President, depending on who requested their service. And in that capacity, they do what the state or federal leaders ask.

In some cases, National Guardsmen are armed. Minnesota National Guard members are carrying ammunition now after the FBI informed them of a "credible lethal threat," Army Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen, the Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, told reporters.

Why are National Guard members called to protests, and what do they do?

Governors (or Presidents) usually call on Guard members during protests to quell "civil unrest," whether that means protecting protesters, assisting law enforcement or ending riots.

Civil support missions provide the following, according to the National Guard Bureau: Support to law enforcement, protection of US citizens' lives and property and protection of critical infrastructure.

Gen. Joseph Lengyel said this civil unrest mission is "one of the most difficult and dangerous homeland missions we do."

In the current nationwide protests, which erupted after George Floyd died in police custody, Guard members will do what governors -- or the President -- asks of them.

"The situation remains fluid and the numbers may change rapidly as governors assess their needs," the Guard said in a news release.

In the protests so far, low-flying National Guard helicopters in DC hovered over crowds who were out past the city's curfew to protest, kicking up strong winds and debris. The Guard said it would investigate.
Also in DC, CNN reported that National Guardsmen fired pepper spray at protesters who threw fireworks toward police. Pentagon officials have said that National Guard members have not used tear gas or rubber bullets.

What other protests have National Guard members been called to?

The National Guard has been called to several major protests, many of them related to racism.
National Guard members were activated in 1962 during violent protests incited by a mob of 3,000 angry white Southerns after the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi.

Then in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, the Alabama National Guard activated to protect those marching after local police beat them. When Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968, they were called to break up riots.

In 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students and injured nine others during a protest against the Vietnam War.

And then in 1992, the California National Guard mobilized when riots erupted after the officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted.

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