When protesters gathered in Washington for a peaceful demonstration Monday, they were met with a highly militarized response. Police, in a move that sparked national outrage, cleared out protesters from Lafayette Square with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and clubs to enable President Donald Trump’s photo-op at St. John’s Church. But some of the most alarming military imagery came later in the evening, after hours of peaceful marching, when two helicopters appeared in the sky directly above the protesters.
In one case, witnessed by two Slate reporters, an Army helicopter swung into view above peaceful marchers in the Chinatown district. Slowly the helicopter began to descend toward building level, and before those on the ground could register what was happening, powerful gusts kicked up, pelting the protesters with dirt and debris. Broken glass scattered in the air around storefronts, while protesters ran to find cover, shielding their eyes. The sound of the rotor drowned out everything else.
When the helicopter peeled away, some stragglers returned to find the crowd had been dispersed. At least one tree branch had snapped, barely missing a protester. After a minute of quiet, the helicopter returned, sending the same protesters running again.
What were the helicopters doing there? Police often use helicopters to track suspects’ movement, but this was clearly different: Even if there had been criminal activity—and there was not—the hundreds of protesters were not exactly hard to locate. According to the New York Times, the pilots were instead employing a tactic known as a “show of force” and “often conducted by low flying jets in combat zones to scare away insurgents.” And it may have been deeply dangerous—the D.C. National Guard said Tuesday that it would investigate the previous night’s “low-flying maneuvers.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he had ordered the Army to look into who had ordered the maneuver and whether there was “a safety issue involved with an aircraft hovering that low.” The Times reported that the order was “personally directed by the highest echelons of the District of Columbia National Guard.”
Esper went on to say that hovering so low in a city would be permissible only if the helicopter was picking up a wounded service member—something it was not doing. He also said he had heard a report that the helicopters had been “asked by law enforcement to look at a National Guard checkpoint to see if there were protesters around,” but he didn’t know yet if the report was true. A former Marine Corps pilot and expert at the Center for a New American Security told the Washington Post that there would be no justification for flying so low for surveillance purposes. If military helicopters were subject to Federal Aviation Administration rules, this tactic would have been illegal.
It’s hard to imagine that it could have been anything other than an intimidation technique. If it was, this would appear to be an unprecedented display against U.S. civilians.
Helicopters have long been essential in warfare: for reconnaissance, medical and troop transportation, and airstrikes. In Vietnam, helicopters were commonly used to drop tear gas and leaflets into the jungle. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the British military deployed helicopters to hover over Catholic neighborhoods and sweep for members of the IRA, who were otherwise able to avoid traditional roadblocks and patrols. The helicopters were described as “ubiquitous,” and their effect was to constantly remind residents of Northern Ireland’s occupation.
More recently, the rotor wash—those gusts from the blades—has sometimes been used to send a warning to civilians and combatants in populous areas. Writing for the War Zone, military analyst and retired Navy pilot Chris Harmer said he was first trained to use a helicopter as a “show of force” to break up crowds after 9/11. He wrote that while he never used the tactic, he knew of other pilots who were sent to disperse crowds in Iraq and Afghanistan in case insurgents planned on hiding in them. The pilots who carried out this work, Harmer said, “hated it.” He added: “Using a helicopter to sandblast civilians is not what anyone thought they were signing up for.”
One former Army helicopter pilot told Slate that helicopters do not hover for a “show of force” in conflict zones because of the potential exposure. But he also said that the maneuver is not a formal tactic, and the general idea—to intimidate and remind potential enemies of your armed presence in the area by flying unusually low—could be applicable in this context.
There’s a reason cases like these end up being investigated. Flying low to the ground kicks up debris, which poses a risk to pedestrians and property—and the helicopter itself. According to Harmer, it’s “almost certain” in an urban area that some debris would make it into the engine. In an absolute worst-case scenario, the engine or systems could fail, and with so little space left to descend, the helicopter would be unable to find a safe landing spot and struggle to avoid crashing. These problems are magnified in a protest setting, where the crowds would make it difficult for pedestrians to flee. In Chinatown on Monday, where the crowds had been funneled between two blocks of three- and four-story buildings, there was little room to spread.
The danger to the protesters may have been the more urgent problem, but the symbolism of the display seemed to others almost as significant. Of the two helicopters that were reported flying low over protests in D.C., one appeared to be a Black Hawk helicopter, designed for combat. Another was identified as a Lakota medical evacuation helicopter sporting a large red cross. A former Air Force attorney told the Post that misuse of the red cross symbol is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, and Esper on Wednesday promised to look into the use of a medical evacuation helicopter as part of the D.C. operation.
Peaceful protests appear to be a new arena for these tactics, but it’s not the first time helicopters have emphasized how grotesquely militarized policing has become. During the coronavirus pandemic this year, for example, heavily armed police dropped onto a Brazilian beach where lounging locals had defied the state’s lockdown order. The helicopters hovered just yards above them, according to media reports, spitting out a vortex of sand that assaulted the beachgoers as they ran. In the U.S., in 2018, a police helicopter dipped intimidatingly low at a Penn State tailgate in an effort to disperse a “large-scale party that was getting out of hand.” The helicopter had descended to shout directions from a loudspeaker, according to local media, and when it dropped low enough to send tents and grills flying, it pulled back up.