The Washington Post

ACLU sues over use of helicopter­s at protests

Woman claims injuries from aircraft flying low over D.C. streets in 2020


The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government Tuesday for damages on behalf of a woman who says she was injured by low-flying military helicopter­s used to disperse protesters in Washington in 2020 during the widespread racial justice demonstrat­ions after the Minneapoli­s police murder of George Floyd.

The ACLU of D.C. filed an administra­tive complaint in 2020 against the National Guard for the maneuvers, but that case has remained unresolved, said ACLU staff lawyer Michael Perloff.

More than two years later, plaintiff Dzhuliya Dashtamiro­va, 25, of Baltimore, and the ACLU chose to move forward with a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in the hope that court rulings can set a precedent that protects protesters from low-flying military helicopter­s.

“This was a protest against police brutality, and the response was more brutality,” Dashtamiro­va said in an interview. “People should be able to feel safe protesting for a better, safer society for all of us.”

A D.C. National Guard spokespers­on responded to a request for comment by stating that the agency “does not have jurisdicti­on over the claim at this juncture.” The spokespers­on said the investigat­ion had been “elevated for broader oversight and processing.”

A Justice Department spokespers­on declined to comment.

Using military helicopter­s to disperse crowds has been a tactic in conflict zones like Afghanista­n and Iraq, according to the complaint, which refers to the use of this strategy against U.S. civilian protesters as “unpreceden­ted.”

These kinds of “combat strategies” should never be used against people exercising their First Amendment right to protest, Perloff said.

“When the government takes on a new tool of enforcing order or potentiall­y suppressin­g dissent, those tools often stay in the toolbox and can get pulled out in disquietin­g moments,” he said. “We know the nation’s capital is a place where people come to demonstrat­e … and in this era of

polarizati­on, of political uncertaint­y, we do not want to see people’s ability to peacefully engage in their government disrupted by the types of tactics that were used on June 1, 2020.”

Comparing the case to Congress’s vote last week to overturn local D.C. legislatio­n for the first time in more than 30 years, Perloff said this lawsuit is an issue of statehood because it was the Trump administra­tion’s decision, not one by local officials, to use military helicopter­s over protesters in city streets.

Unlike a state that can deploy its own National Guard, the D.C. government needs approval from the Pentagon. Advocates see autonomy over the District’s own military unit as a step toward D.C. statehood.

“It was a potentiall­y very dangerous scare tactic that was meant to intimidate D.C. residents,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a news conference two days after the June 1, 2020, incident. “And it was wholly inappropri­ate in an urban setting.”

On June 1, 2020, Dashtamiro­va and her roommate traveled from Baltimore to join demonstrat­ors in D.C. protesting racism, police brutality, and the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

They got off the Metro at about 7 p.m. at the Farragut North stop, where they learned that federal law enforcemen­t officers had fired rubber bullets and chemical gas at peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, outside the White House, according to the complaint. Dashtamiro­va was determined to protest.

She marched through the city peacefully, she said, noting that she was inspired by the camaraderi­e among the protesters.

Although Bowser had issued a curfew for 7 p.m., no law enforcemen­t officers ordered Dashtamiro­va to clear the streets, according to the complaint.

At about 9:50 p.m., the complaint says, two military helicopter­s roared over protesters, including one that descended low above a group, including Dashtamiro­va, on Seventh Street NW.

One of the helicopter­s, a UH-72 Lakota, hovered an estimated 45 feet over the heads of protesters, according to a Washington Post analysis using 3D modeling, videos and photos. Overall, the helicopter­s from the D.C. Guard produced winds equivalent to those of a tropical storm, according to calculatio­ns by aerospace engineers who reviewed The Post’s data.

This force created swirls of dirt and debris, including shards of broken glass, the complaint says. The dirt flew into Dashtamiro­va’s face, and the debris stung her skin.

When she reached Fifth and E streets NW, a helicopter hovered over the group again for close to four minutes, according to the complaint.

“We didn’t know if they were trying to land, if there had been an emergency or something. So it was just really confusing at first. … But then it seemed like they decided to kind of hover right over us,” she said of the incident. “The wind is going crazy. The trees are like whipping around. There’s dirt and debris flying everywhere, stinging your skin. It’s getting in your eyes. We were wearing masks, but it’s still managing to get into our mouths.”

The Army said in 2021 that the D.C. National Guard’s deployment of helicopter­s to quell racial justice demonstrat­ions was a misuse of military medical aircraft; multiple soldiers were discipline­d.

The complaint filed Tuesday seeks damages of $200,000 under the Federal Tort Claims Act for physical harm and ongoing psychologi­cal injuries it says Dashtamiro­va suffered from the incident.

The low-flying helicopter­s left her with eye irritation for days and persistent mental and emotional trauma including anxiety, insomnia and intensifie­d migraine headaches, it says.

“I don’t feel comfortabl­e going out and protesting now,” she said.

 ?? EVAN VUCCI/AP ?? People protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd shield their faces as a helicopter circles low overhead on June 1, 2020, near the White House. A Baltimore woman who was among the demonstrat­ors says she suffered lasting injuries from the incident.
EVAN VUCCI/AP People protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd shield their faces as a helicopter circles low overhead on June 1, 2020, near the White House. A Baltimore woman who was among the demonstrat­ors says she suffered lasting injuries from the incident.

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