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National Guard sued for using low-flying helicopters to clear George Floyd protesters

A 25-year-old woman says she suffered psychological trauma after the D.C. National Guard flew military helicopters just above her and others who were demonstrating against police brutality in the summer of 2020.

(CN) — The ACLU of the District of Columbia sued the federal government on Tuesday over the National Guard’s use of military-grade helicopters on protesters during racial justice demonstrations in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Filed in Washington federal court on behalf of 25-year-old protester Dzhuliya Dashtamirova, the lawsuit alleges assault, battery and emotional distress based on the D.C. National Guard’s use of Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters to disperse protesters. The low-flying helicopters “constituted an assault under D.C. law” which “terrified” Dashtamirova and caused her to suffer “significant psychological trauma,” the complaint states.

Dashtamirova said dirt, debris and broken glass blew into her face when a helicopter hovered as low as 45 feet above protesters’ heads on June 1, 2020.

Calling the incident a “helicopter attack,” the complaint claims that the protesters did not pose a danger to people or property and were not resisting arrest or police commands when they were subjected to “extreme noise, wind and terror.”

The low-flying maneuver – known as “rotor-wash” or “thumping” – is used by the military as an intimidation tactic and has been deployed in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq to disperse enemy combatants.

“This helicopter attack was a dangerous and shocking show of force against Americans exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Michael Perloff, staff attorney for ACLU-D.C. “This lawsuit is an important way to hold our government accountable for the injury and terror they caused and to prevent another attack on people demonstrating in the Nation’s capital.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser denounced the use of the maneuvers at a news conference in the days after the incident, calling it “a potentially very dangerous scare tactic” that was “wholly inappropriate in an urban setting.” Peter Newsham, then the D.C. police chief, called it “unhelpful.”

A spokesperson for the D.C. National Guard responded to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon by saying that the agency “does not have jurisdiction over the claim at this juncture” and that “the investigation was elevated for broader oversight and processing.”

The lawsuit comes after the ACLU-D.C. filed an administrative complaint in October 2020 with the D.C. National Guard documenting Dashtamirova’s claims and injuries. The case remains unresolved.

Dashtamirova traveled to Washington from Baltimore with her roommate to protest on the evening of June 1. Carrying a sign calling for an end to racism in policing, Dashtamirova joined protesters who were marching and chanting slogans. The complaint alleges that although the mayor had issued a 7 p.m. curfew, no law enforcement officials ordered Dashtamirova to leave the streets.

The first encounter between an aircraft and protesters took place around 9:50 p.m. near the Gallery Place Metro Station, when pilots flew Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters low above the group. Citing estimates from The Washington Post, the complaint states that the Black Hawk descended as low as about 110 feet above the protesters and the Lakota flew as low as about 45 feet.

The helicopter’s churning blades generated a loud, roaring sound and powerful winds which allegedly sent dirt flying into Dashtamirova’s eyes and mouth. According to the lawsuit, the Black Hawk’s blades produced winds of approximately 54 mph. The winds reportedly ripped a thick branch from a tree and tore signs off buildings.

“Ms. Dashtamirova feared that the helicopters would land and that soldiers would exit and attack her,” the complaint states. “She wanted to escape, but the wind and the noise disoriented her, making it hard for her to move or even take basic safety precautions such as putting the goggles she brought with her over her eyes.”

According to the complaint, debris continued to fly into Dashtamirova's face and mouth even as protesters held signs over their heads for cover.

“The blaring noise of the helicopters disoriented and terrified her,” the lawsuit states, adding that Dashtamirova no longer feels comfortable protesting after the events of that evening.

Following an investigation, the Army said in 2021 that the D.C. National Guard’s use of helicopters in the June 1 incident was a misuse of military medical aircraft in a nonmedical mission. A report found that although it was “reasonable” to deploy the helicopters, the official who oversaw the mission did not seek the proper approval.

The complaint seeks damages of $200,000 under the Federal Tort Claims Act for the physical harm and psychological injuries Dashtamirova allegedly suffered. She claims to have dealt with eye irritation and mental and emotional trauma, including anxiety, loss of sleep and intensified stress-induced migraine headaches.

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