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.