As the hours stretched on, a pair of armored Humvees from the 273rd Military Police Company, painted tan for their once inevitable deployments to the Middle East, sat idling in an intersection near a Metro stop. Protesters snapped pictures in front of them. Others quietly walked by shaking their heads.
Around 10 p.m., the military stepped up its attempts to suppress the protesters. A crowd making its way through the Chinatown area of Washington had gone relatively unbothered by law enforcement, having snaked across town, blocking roads and chanting “We can’t Breathe,” “George Floyd” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The group, for the most part, was peaceful.
A Black Hawk helicopter, followed by a smaller medical evacuation helicopter, dropped to rooftop level with their search lights aimed at the crowd. Tree limbs snapped, nearly hitting several people. Signs were torn from the sides of buildings. Some protesters looked up, while others ran into doorways. The downward force of air from the rotors was deafening.
The helicopters were performing a “show of force” — a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents. The maneuvers were personally directed by the highest echelons of the Washington National Guard, according to a military official with direct knowledge of the situation. The Guard did not respond to a request for comment.
Parts of the crowd dispersed before continuing on. The helicopters circled for another pass. Afterward, protesters were no longer cursing only the police, the focus of unrest from the start, but the military, too.
The deployment is also challenging for National Guard units, who are inheritors of a legacy from the Revolutionary War militia, the citizen-soldiers who were ready to put down their plows and pick up weapons to defend their country. Today, when the National Guard can be dispatched for an array of missions — like combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, helping with flood relief or providing assistance to coronavirus victims — that balance is more complicated.
Members of the Guard generally report to the governor of their state, but when units come under the command of the president, federal law prohibits them from being used domestically except under some very limited circumstances.