ACLU, protestor sue D.C. National Guard over helicopter use in 2020 protests Helicopters flew so low over a crowd of protesters in downtown D.C. that the wind brushed debris, dirt, and glass into their faces.
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ACLU, protestor sue D.C. National Guard over helicopter use in 2020 protests

A helicopter hovers over protesters in downtown D.C. on June 1, 2020. Courtesy of Sam Ward/ hide caption

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Courtesy of Sam Ward/

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the D.C. National Guard for its use of military-grade helicopters on local protesters during 2020's demonstrations against police brutality.

The D.C. ACLU filed the suit on behalf of 25-year-old Dzhuliya Dashtamirova, a protester who said she incurred injuries from the Guard's low-flying tactics on June 1, 2020, which blew dirt, glass, and debris into the air.

"It kind of really took over my mind, it was scary," sys Dashtamirova, who came up to D.C. from Baltimore on June 1 protest with a friend. "I had a migraine that lasted a few weeks, I had no relief from my migraine medication. I couldn't sleep, couldn't focus at work."

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Dashtamirova said she and her friend were marching in D.C, largely avoiding any confrontations with police. If a road was blocked off, she said the group redirected.

"We wanted to keep it as peaceful as possible, and everybody just stay together and make sure everybody was safe," Dashtamirova tells DCist/WAMU. "That's how it was for the first few hours."

Shortly before 10 p.m., the group was headed south from around Gallery Place when they noticed helicopters flying low. At first, she thought Dashtamirova says she thought it might be trying to land, but it continued to hover above the group, flinging dirt, debris, and broken glass into the air. After that helicopter let up, the group continued marching, and about 10 minutes later, near 5th and E Street NW, a second helicopter appeared, flying what Dashtamirova said felt like around 40 feet above protesters. She put her poster over her head to protect herself.

"You cannot communicate, you can't make sense of anything," she says. "Before the helicopter attacks, there was no communication from police or law enforcement, everyone was just keeping to themselves so I had no idea this was coming."

The lawsuit follows a complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of Dashtamirova in October 2020 outlining the same allegations. Two years later, the D.C. National Guard has not acted on that complaint, according to ACLU lawyer Michael Perloff.

"We sent this formal complaint in to give them a chance to respond, and they didn't take any action to resolve the complaint," Perloff says. "We reached out to them a few times but nothing really came of that, so we realized that this is the only way to ensure that the government appreciates the seriousness of this incident."

The National Guard did not return DCist/WAMU's request for comment on the complaint and any further correspondence with the ACLU.

On June 1, 2020 – the fourth day of protests in the city following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis – former President Donald Trump had activated the D.C. National Guard, and called in National Guard troops from various states across the country. Unlike in other states, where a governor controls the National Guard, the president has authority over D.C.'s guard. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has repeatedly tried to bring the guard under local control, but a bill has yet to make it through both houses of Congress.

Earlier that evening, U.S. Park Police and Secret Service had cleared protesters from Lafayette Square in front of the White House with tear gas and violence, giving way to Trump's now-infamous photo op in front of a nearby church. (While the former U.S. Attorney General William Barr and the Park Police chief denied clearing the square for Trump's stunt, members of the D.C. National Guard called the clearing "deeply disturbing". Nearly two years later, the Park Police and Secret Service announced new policing policies in light of the violence that night.)

As the evening wore on and the 7 p.m. curfew instituted by Mayor Muriel Bowser went into effect, military grade helicopters flew over a group of demonstrators peacefully marching, seeking to disperse the crowd. A U.S. Army investigation into the guard's aircraft use that night concluded that one helicopter flew as low as 100 feet near 5th and E Street NW. One member of the National Guard quoted in the Army's investigation said they understood their orders on that night to be to "show force." Another told investigators that their directive was to show a "massive presence we executed." According to the U.S. Army, the military medical helicopters used that night were deployed afoul of proper protocol, but that the deployment hadn't violated any federal laws or Army regulations. A Washington Post report into the helicopters suggested that the aircrafts hovered dangerously low for nearly 10 minutes.

The ACLU is seeking $200,000 in compensatory damages for Dashtamirova, but Perloff says the core of the case is about accountability.

"It's about ensuring there are consequences when the government uses military tactics against peaceful protesters," he says. "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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