With cases of coronavirus spreading in the United States, the idea of martial law is one of the measures considered to enforce social distance as a public safety measure. Under martial law, civil governments would be overridden by the military. It should only be used as a last resort.
In modern world history, martial law was used for suppression of political opposition in 1981 in Poland, Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and Iranian Green Movement of 2009.
Article 1, Section 9 of the United States Constitution states, "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." Habeas corpus means people can seek recourse to go before a judge. However, it had been suspended in history by the U.S. Presidents.
Only the president has the power to go into martial law on a federal level. On a state level, the governor has the right to impose martial law within the border of the state. Many of these incidents were to protect citizens against foreign attacks, while some were humanitarian efforts for public safety.
Here are the three times the United States impose martial law over its citizens.
1906 San Francisco Earthquake
On April 18, 1906, an earthquake struck the coast of Northern California with an estimate moment magnitude of 7.9. The fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, died from injuries sustained from the earthquake. The interim fire chief sent an urgent request to the Presidio, then a United States Army post. General Frederick Funston then decided to deploy federal troops and explosives. The troops patrolled the streets to discourage looting and aided the fire department in dynamiting to demolish buildings in the path of fires. By July 1, 1906, the army withdrew from the city.
1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike
On May 9, 1934, the longshoremen in every US West Coast port walked out in demand for organized labor. Strikers succeeded in delaying or stopping the movement of goods by rail out of the ports. By July 5, police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd of protestors, and the picketers threw the canisters and rocks back at the police. The events eventually got more violent and out of hand, leading to two deaths. The Governor of California Frank Merrian then ordered the California National Guard to move in that evening to patrol the waterfront. On July 17, 1934, the California National Guard blocked both ends of Jackson Street from Drumm to Front with the machine gun mounted trucks to aid with the vigilante raids that were happening on the headquarters of the Marine Workers' Industrial Union and the ILA soup kitchen at 84 Embarcadero. After 87 days, the strike was ended by the Labor Council voting to terminate the general strike while recommending that the unions accept arbitration of all disputed issues.
Perhaps the most famous martial law within recent history is the martial law in Hawaii after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The martial law regime in Hawaii lasted for 3 years until October 24, 1944 since Japanese Americans accounted for one-third of the population in Hawaii, and it deemed logistically impossible to imprison about 160,000 people in a small territory. In a way, martial law in Hawaii was its way of interning the Japanese population in the state, while states such as California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona put their Japanese American population under the ruling of internment camps.
Under the martial law in Hawaii at the time, all Japanese language schools were closed to enable children to work in the plantation fields. Food and liquor sales, parking and traffic, prostitution, hospitals, and emergency facilities were under the direct supervision of the army. Any fishermen of Japanese descent could not go out in the sea due to fear of espionage. Many Japanese Americans lost their jobs or were accused of capital crimes, sabotage, or offenses and were punishable by a fine of $5000. In the period of martial law, the military collected more than $1 million in penalties during the war and imprisoned hundreds of civilians.
These are unprecedented times with COVID19, and extreme measures should be considered. However, is it really necessary for martial law to be enforced?