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These Descriptions of the Warlike Tactics Used Against Protesters Make Me Sick

Trump walks between police in D.C. after gassing protesters

There are moments in history that cross the Rubicon, and yesterday’s gassing of peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C. to clear the way for a staged presidential photo op at a church is one from which there’s no return to “normal.”

I keep imagining how we would view this event if it was happening in, say, Canada. “After using rubber bullets and tear gas on a peaceful crowd protesting racism and injustice, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, clutching a Bible in front of a church he does not attend, said he would mobilize the military against his countrymen. This followed days of brutal police activity against unarmed civilians, including children and members of the press.” Picture the headlines if Canadian military helicopters were swooping low to intimidate citizens in Toronto. We would be horrified as a nation, and rightly so.

The reports coming out of D.C. after the violence towards protesters there, and Trump’s awful declaration/awkward Bible-holding, set me on the sort of edge I haven’t experienced before—and I was in New York City during 9/11. America is unraveling at the seams in real-time, because of the actions of its so-called authorities, who are acting like authoritarians. But reading the more detailed accounts today moved me past “on edge” to “physically ill.” I can’t believe that this happened in our nation without universal, across-the-board condemnation, followed by Trump’s demanded resignation.

A Washington Post article titled “Inside the push to tear-gas protesters for a photo op” explains how this watershed moment in the ocean-sized swamp of Trump’s term came to be. The president, glutted on a diet of cable news and having a fit over the coverage of how he’d been in a bunker over the weekend, was eager to make a grandiose show that nation’s capital was “under control.” Only a clear path for his strongman walk wasn’t present, because peaceful protesters were gathered in Lafayette Square. News has now broken that the protesters were removed at the personal order of Attorney General William Barr, Trump’s #1 enabler.

And so — shortly before the president addressed the nation from the Rose Garden at 6:43 p.m. Monday and roughly a half-hour before the District’s 7 p.m. curfew went into effect — authorities fired flash-bang shells, gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, clearing a path for Trump to visit the church immediately after his remarks.

Flash-bang shells, gas, and rubber bullets deployed at Americans and other observers (like this Australian news team that was assaulted live on the air). Because the president wanted his picture taken.

“It was just to win the news cycle,” one Trump adviser said.

But read on and the situation becomes even more disturbing and outrage-inducing to even picture, let alone endure.

Though members of the National Guard — wielding shields that said “Military Police” — were lined up behind barricades, along with Secret Service and other law enforcement officers, the protesters remained peaceful. Several played music, and one painted on an easel.

But shortly thereafter, Attorney General William P. Barr visited the scene, and, about 6:30 p.m., the National Guard moved just yards from the protesters, prompting some screams. Some protesters threw water bottles, but many simply stood with their arms raised.

Then, the chaos began.

Members of the National Guard knelt briefly to put on gas masks, before suddenly charging eastward down H street, pushing protesters down toward 17th Street. Authorities shoved protesters down with their shields, fired rubber bullets directly at them, released tear gas and set off flash-bang shells in the middle of the crowd.

Protesters began running, many still with their hands up, shouting, “Don’t shoot.” Others were vomiting, coughing and crying.

It’s hard to know what to say in the face of these words, of these actions. But this state-sanctioned violence against peaceful Americans who were exercising their Constitutional rights—again, intentional, premeditated violence to satisfy the whim of a fascist who hates looking like what he is, which is weak and incompetent—wasn’t the end of D.C. resembling a warzone. They also brought out the Black Hawk helicopters.

Not all of the current members of the military, nor former commanders, are thrilled about the president’s actions, according to a New York Times article today, “Former Commanders Fault Trump’s Use of Troops Against Protesters.”

The deployment of active-duty troops to confront protesters and looters prompted one military official to liken the order to Mr. Trump requesting his own “palace guard.”

Even so, this sentiment means little until top commanders show the inclination to resist, and soldiers refuse to carry out orders. It’s one thing to raise eyebrows at the idea of a “palace guard,” but less effective when said in anonymity and without actual pushback.

The use of military helicopters to intimidate American citizens drew dismay from some of those who, unlike Trump, have actually served in this country’s armed forces, and from those of us watching in shock. Helicopters were deployed to frighten and harass protesters, as though the streets of DC had become enemy territory we were moving to newly occupy.

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.

The highest echelons of the Washington National Guard were directing Black Hawk helicopters in “show of force” maneuvers designed to scatter insurgents. In America. The people turning this country into a warzone are not the protesters.

And yet there’s a curious silence from the MAGA and Second Amendment crowd who for weeks have been screaming bloody murder about the “tyranny” of being asked to wear a face mask, and who for decades have been arming themselves with the stated intent to protect against governmental overreach.

We always knew their arguments were B.S., but it’s still astonishing to see the people who claim to want to defend American “freedom” cheering for the assault of fellow Americans by the government. Do they think that Trump has any loyalties whatsoever—that given the authoritarian grab for power he’s making, he’ll spare them in the long run? What if they fall afoul of his next whim?

People who never study history are doomed to repeat the behaviors of those who gave way to fascists clamoring for “law and order” in the past. There’s a simple choice to make right now: support a would-be despot who has shown his hand many times over, or do not.

(image: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

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Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.