The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, D.C. filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the U.S. government over the use of low-flying, military-grade helicopters used to disturb and disperse protesters during the 2020 uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of plaintiff Dzhuliya Dashtamirova, a participant in the protests who said that she suffered personal injuries as a result of the National Guard’s use of the helicopters in D.C. The ACLU of D.C. had previously filed a complaint against the action, which remains unsettled, and decided to proceed with a lawsuit this week, in hopes of setting a precedent against the use of such low-flying military-grade helicopters against protesters in the future.
“This was a protest against police brutality, and the response was more brutality,” Dashtamirova said to The Washington Post. “People should be able to feel safe protesting for a better, safer society for all of us.”
“In conflict zones around the world, American soldiers piloting military helicopters attempt to disperse enemies by lowering their helicopters until they hover only a few stories above their opponents,” says the lawsuit. “That close to the ground, the helicopter’s blades generate storm-like winds that gust with earsplitting volume and blast debris into the enemies’ faces, creating pain and disorientation and carrying the not-so-subtle threat of even greater force to come.”
“On June 1, 2020, the D.C. National Guard deployed this tactic on American soil – in the heart of Washington, D.C., against peaceful civil rights demonstrators who were exercising their First Amendment right to express their views as part of the national dialogue on race and policing in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” the ACLU continued.
According to the filing, Dashtamirova was with a group of protesters in D.C. at around 9:50 p.m. when the National Guard flew two helicopters low above the group. When the group fled to a different location, the helicopters followed, flying as low as 45 feet above protesters’ heads, the lawsuit says, creating “terrifying storm-like conditions.”
The wind created by the helicopters blasted broken glass and debris into Dashtamirova’s face and caused psychological trauma, the filing continues, constituting an assault by the government both on her body and her mind.
Journalistic investigations have corroborated the ACLU’s claims about the conditions created by the helicopters. In a deep dive published in 2020 that looked into the helicopters’ flight paths, the conditions created by their blades and the damage that ensued, the Washington Post found that the helicopters created wind “equivalent to a tropical storm,” according to calculations by aerospace engineers who used data the publication gathered from a scale model of the incident created by journalists.
The force that the government unleashed on protesters during the 2020 Movement for Black Lives was extreme, with officials deploying troops and the police pulling out military-grade riot gear to quash the protests.
It’s not unprecedented for the U.S. government to use military-style tactics and severe violence against protesters, especially when it comes to movements for Black liberation; some groups have successfully sued for damages experienced during 2020 protests, but the precedent of anti-protester violence and the fascist movement against Americans’ constitutional right to protest remains.
ACLU Lawyer Michael Perloff has emphasized that the lawsuit is about ensuring that the government can’t simply deploy whatever violent tactics it wants on protesters and get away with it.
“It’s about ensuring there are consequences when the government uses military tactics against peaceful protesters,” Perloff told DCist. “We fear that without consequences, without legal consequences, the government will do this type of thing again the next time people are protesting in ways that it doesn’t like and that, of course, cuts to the core of our ability to live in a democratic society.”
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