A US military UH-72A “Lakota” hovers low over protesters on June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC, battering them with its rotor wash and sending debris flying.  © 2020 Sam Ward

Police and other law enforcement officers have responded to largely peaceful protests across the United States with, in many cases, excessive force and other abusive tactics. This week they threatened demonstrators with military helicopters.

On June 1 at around 10 p.m. in Washington, DC, a UH-72A “Lakotahelicopter from the District of Columbia National Guard bearing a Red Cross emblem and at least one other helicopter, a variant of the “Blackhawk,” hovered low above protesters out after a city-wide curfew. The wind beating off the rotors snapped tree branches and sent debris flying.

A “show of force” is a common US military tactic used to intimidate and scare opponents. But hovering low over protesters and using rotor wash to disperse them is reckless and dangerous. Under these circumstances it was excessive use of force prohibited by international human rights law. One former US military combat pilot told Human Rights Watch he used a similar tactic to suppress and detain suspected insurgents in Afghanistan. The windspeeds created by a low-hovering helicopter can lift objects and cause serious damage, potentially leading to injury or death. These risks are amplified in congested urban environments, where the consequences would be exceptionally dangerous if something were to go wrong.

Using helicopters displaying the Red Cross emblem raises further concerns. The emblem is a universally recognized symbol of medical aid and is protected under the Geneva Conventions. Its misuse is prohibited under the conventions and it has no place in a “show of force” or to forcibly disperse protesters. Commentary by the International Committee of the Red Cross notes that the emblem’s proper use in peacetime is important “to ensure that its special meaning and purpose is well understood, respected and not undermined.”

The commander of the District of Columbia’s National Guard announced an investigation into the incident. The helicopters’ use was reportedly ordered by President Donald Trump, who has since voiced his support for the pilots involved.

The protests across the US over the past 10 days, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, represent the broader anger and frustration about law enforcement that has repeatedly targeted black people, often with impunity, as well as entrenched racial inequality in the country.

The abusive, militarized response to the Washington protests and elsewhere reinforces the urgent need for deep, systemic changes to address structural racism in the US and to invest in communities instead of policing as the answer to societal problems like poverty, homelessness, problematic substance use, and mental health issues.