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By Kerri Barber
As Americans gather in Washington, D.C. to join citizens around the country in protesting as if their Constitutionally protected right of Free Speech and Assembly apply to all citizens, the response from the White House has caused legal and military officials to open investigations. Congress, however, has made no such moves while they have the sole authority to do so when the use of helicopters alone against protestors is wrong, using red cross medical helicopters is illegal everywhere around the world.
Americans have previously held rallies, marches, and even attempted to call attention to this breakdown in the rule of law by taking a knee during sporting events, but it was the recent murder of yet another unarmed citizen in Mineapolis, George Floyd, that sparked extreme protests after years of disgust and prior years protests yielded little in police reform. All of which were met with disdain by authorities who were themselves tasked with protecting citizens rights to Due Process and Equal Protection under the law.
This forces us to ask, if we can’t trust them to police the public, how can we trust them to police themselves?
The latest in a long string of deaths while in police custody prompted Americans from across the country to exercise their right to peacefully protest. Among them were people who gathered at the White House in Washington, D.C. The situation escalated quickly on Monday, June 1 as protestors were beaten, shot, and had chemical weapons used against them when President Trump ordered the pathway through Lafayette Park cleared so that he could take a photo with a bible in front of the historic St. James Church.
Trump himself did not speak to the bishop nor pastors of the church, and the trip has since been condemned by the ArchBishop.
We now know that among those gassed and shot with rubber bullets were the priests of the church and medical support personnel. Police officers from nearby Arlington, Virginia were identified as the forces used in this maneuver, prompting Virginia officials to immediately withdraw their support and recall their troops.
That same evening, Arlington County Boarded members issued a condemnation saying their police were engaged, “for a purpose not worthy of our mutual aid obligations.”
Mutual Aid Agreements
Mutual aid agreements extended between municipal governments across state lines to offer support for security and fire protection. County Board Chair Libby Garvey said on Twitter she is “appalled” that the mutual aid agreement was abused “for a photo op.”
D.C. Mayor, Muriel Bowser, says she never asked Arlington, VA
for mutual aid. The requesting agency appears to have been at a federal level. Bowser revealed on Tuesday to the Washington Post and The Hill that federal agents had asked her office to allow them to, “assume control,” of the Districts of Columbia’s police force, a request she declined saying, “I would regard that as an affront to even our limited home rule and the safety of the District of Columbia.”
Instead, federal officials opted to use helicopters to terrify and intimidate peaceful protesters. Live video and photos were streamed across social media as the helicopters hovered below building height. Onlookers noted that these helicopters also bore red cross insignia on them which is a violation of the Geneva Convention and National Guard protocols.
What is the Geneva Convention?
Constitutional Scholars and historians with The Council on Foreign Relations describes it as:
“The Geneva Conventions provide an agreed-upon framework of legal protections to safeguard soldiers, civilians, and prisoners during wartime. The original Geneva Convention, drafted in 1864, dealt with the treatment of wounded troops. Shortly after the Second World War, it was expanded to include military personnel shipwrecked at sea, as well as prisoners of war and civilians under enemy control. The Conventions have been ratified by nearly every country in the world—194 states in total—including the United States. Countries that violate the Geneva Conventions, including Common Article Three, can be held accountable for charges of war crimes.“
The Geneva Convention refers to a series of agreements, not a single document, that bar countries from using medical insignia or branding on any military asset used to intimidate, coerce, or harm soldiers. The idea is that these symbols and the work done by medical personnel, must be protected and not tarnished by aggressors. However, these agreements do not apply to civilians in non-wartime settings, nor do they deal with domestic civil rights issues.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam held a news conference on Tuesday and said of the events, “I am not going to send our men and women in uniform of a very proud National Guard to Washington for a photo op.”
The White House since released propaganda footage that was taken from the event which did not show law-abiding citizens being subjected to chemical weapons and rubber bullets or beatings by police officers. Review of live footage from the time the attack was happening shows President Trump is speaking in the White House rose garden referring to himself as, “your president of law and order,” and “an ally of all peaceful protestors,” while explosions can be heard in the background as Americans are being gassed and fired upon in Lafayette Park.
The Rev Gini Gerbasi, an Episcopal priest from St. John’s Church, was herself fired upon by police as she tended to wounded citizens, told The Guardian, “They turned holy ground into a battleground.”
Evangelicals picked up on the imagery and lauded the move as a sign. The Guardian interviewed Benjamin Horbowy, a pro-Trump biker gang leader who watched the events live, “I thought, look at my president! He’s establishing the Lord’s kingdom in the world.”
The interviewer then asked Horbowy if he felt conflicted with the Gospel of John, where Jesus said, “my kingdom is not of this world”?
Horbowy’s reply is telling. “Well,” he said, “that’s a philosophical question.”
The Legal Implications
Legal authorities are wrestling with philosophical questions of their own after the show of force in the District of Columbia, which is not a state and has no vote in Congress.
This may be the legal loophole needed to bring about formal charges against officials within the Trump Administration. The caveat here is the Geneva Convention cannot be applied to domestic actions, only during times of war on foreign soil.
This is partly why the use of chemical weapons is prohibited as a war crime elsewhere, but not against the citizens of a signing country. Use of chemical weapons can be barred only at the time of renewal signing at the Geneva Convention. Lionel Beehner, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations wrote:
“Signatories to treaties can attach reservations or include provisos at the time they sign or ratify international treaties. For example, the United States included a few reservations to the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols on issues like the death penalty. However, it is uncommon for signatory states to revise their obligations many years after joining a treaty (of course, some states can choose to just opt out of treaties).”
This is the crux of the issue. The District of Columbia does not belong to any state in the union. It is a federal city and, under the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 gives Congress exclusive legislative authority. Although the district was granted Home Rule status in 1973, it is run by Congressional subcommittees that can nullify, repeal, and enact new laws in the district.
The District’s own National Guard has opened an investigation into the use of these helicopter assets for what they called, “a show of force maneuver,” on June 1.
Major General William J. Walker issued a condemnation of the stunt, for using strategic assets in such a way, and the unnecessary risk to military and civilians:
“Our highest priority is the safety of our Citizen Soldiers and Airmen who support civil authorities as they perform their duties,“ Major General Walker said. “This is our home, and we are dedicated to the safety and security of our fellow citizens of the District and their right to safely and peacefully protest.”
Dcist.com reports that the medical helicopter was not the only one spotted on Monday night. Nathan Diller wrote, “Other choppers were spotted on the streets on Monday night, too. Around 10 p.m., residents reported seeing a helicopter descend on protesters near Capital One Arena, flying low enough to rip branches from trees and leave debris in its wake.”
Possible Criminal Charges
The National Guard is looking into the improper use of assets and troops to quell Free Speech and American’s lawful right to Peacefully Assemble; Right of Redress, but there is no word on whether members of Congress will do the same.
According to the Constitution and the laws that govern the District of Columbia, they can push forward with sanctions and criminal legal action through federal jurisdiction. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is the sole Representative of the entire district’s population as there are no Senators nor additional representatives.
However, all of Congress has authority to act on the district’s behalf, including filing criminal complaints, just as any local city council or local legislative body can do for their citizens. This means that House Speaker Pelosi and other members of congress have the authority to file criminal charges. In fact, they are one of the few in authority with legal standing to do so.