Hours after President Donald Trump vowed in a White House address Monday to deploy "all available federal resources" against demonstrators protesting the police killing of George Floyd, military helicopters hovered dangerously low over crowds gathered in Washington, D.C. in an apparent effort to clear the streets with an intimidation tactic commonly used by the U.S. overseas.
New York Times homeland security reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs, covering the demonstrations on the ground in D.C., said Lakota helicopters and at least one Black Hawk "were positioned just above rooftops, sending gusts of dust into the air. A part of a tree fell, nearly hitting passersby."
"These are Lakota helicopters performing what's known as a show of force, which is often conducted by low-flying jets in combat zones to scare away insurgents," Kanno-Youngs wrote in a tweet accompanying videos from the scene. "A Black Hawk performed the maneuver minutes later."
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Times reporter and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, also tweeted late Monday that "Army Black Hawks are conducting 'show of force' passes on protestors."
The New York Police Department used the same tactic to harass disperse protesters over the weekend.
About 10 minutes later, here it goes again. pic.twitter.com/3yoxOAu0uw
— Zolan Kanno-Youngs (@KannoYoungs) June 2, 2020
— Zolan Kanno-Youngs (@KannoYoungs) June 2, 2020
Videos of the helicopters from different perspectives spread across social media late Monday as demonstrators who remained in the heavily militarized streets of D.C. after Trump's newly imposed 7 pm curfew were chased down, pepper sprayed, and arrested by police.
"Helicopter just flew extremely low over remaining protesters in D.C.," tweeted Washington Post reporter Hannah Natanson. "Terrifying and impossible to keep eyes open—too much debris whipped around. People scattering in all directions."
Helicopter just flew extremely low over remaining protesters in D.C. Right after some knocked in a few shop windows and window of cop car.
Terrifying & impossible to keep eyes open — too much debris whipped around. People scattering in all directions. pic.twitter.com/Ww8y1mK0zg
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— Hannah Natanson (@hannah_natanson) June 2, 2020
"You may think it's only a small thing that the military used helicopters to intimidate American civilians in the nation's capital. It's not," tweeted Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics. "A line was crossed tonight. There will be other lines. This is Trump conditioning them to cross those lines."
The helicopter flyovers came after Trump declared from the Rose Garden of the White House that he is "dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers" to Washington, D.C. to confront demonstrators and encouraged governors to "dominate" protesters in their states with force. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strolled through the streets of D.C. after Trump's speech, taking questions from reporters and assessing the military presence in the nation's capital.
Following his remarks, the president walked from the White House to St. John's Church for a photo-op, his path violently cleared of peaceful protesters by police using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades—a chaotic and brutal scene that was captured on live television.
"Unleashing state violence against peaceful American demonstrators and journalists to create a photo-op is a violation of the president's oath to defend the Constitution," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement. "Every American looking on in horror tonight at the uniformed officers who are paid with their tax dollars beating and gassing innocent people should consider that Trump wants this scene repeated in cities across the country."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) tweeted that "the fascist speech Donald Trump just delivered verged on a declaration of war against American citizens."
"I fear for our country tonight and will not stop defending America against Trump's assault," Wyden wrote.
I put the videos of police clearing out Lafayette Square and Trump’s photo op side by side. pic.twitter.com/t08Wul5YP7
— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) June 2, 2020
In a series of tweets late Monday, The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill described the president's behavior as that of an "authoritarian dictator" and condemned the police for "acting as lawless violent militias with military gear."
"They have used drones, are using military and intelligence grade surveillance systems, and they are operating like a violent counterinsurgency force," Scahill wrote. "It is just a matter of time before we see the results of Trump's 'second amendment' dog whistling tonight."
"What Trump did tonight," Scahill added, "is going to be remembered as a significant and grave moment in this horror of an era we are living through."