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Ideas

The military presence at D.C. protests was disturbingly familiar

Being in the streets of Washington reminded me of the occupation I endured as a Palestinian.

A soldier standing by an armored vehicle in Washington on June 1.
A soldier standing by an armored vehicle in Washington on June 1.Abdallah Fayyad

I grew up around tanks and barricades and soldiers roaming around town with their fingers on the trigger. As a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, I had to interact with the Israeli military every time I went to some of my friends’ houses. During some stretches, that was even the case every morning on my way to school.

The heavy military presence was effectively the backdrop of my childhood. At best, it was humiliating — a visual reminder, every day, that in spite of all that I had, I was not free. I was always, no matter what I was doing or where I was going, suspect. At its worst, it was violent. When crossing checkpoints, I would often encounter verbal and sometimes physical abuse. One late night, for example, coming back home from Ramallah, I was shoved to the ground by a soldier who proceeded to point his gun at me and threaten to shoot if I took one more step forward.

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Moving to the United States nine years ago, with the fortunate happenstance of having been born here, I felt that I could leave all that behind. And for the most part, I did.

That is, until recently, when it all started coming back. Because what I saw on the streets of Washington, D.C., in the first weekend of the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd was nothing short of a military occupation: Humvees were blocking intersections; the National Guard, in full gear, roamed the streets; and Black protesters were eyed with suspicion by men and women in uniform. (Here are some photos.) This was a country, I thought, that was too comfortable using the force of its military against its own citizens, and a country that unnecessarily equips its law-enforcement agencies with a military mindset.

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The military presence and the over-militarized police on display that week in D.C. were an indelible sight. On May 30, around 9 p.m., I was taking a walk in my neighborhood northwest of the White House. When I hit 16th Street, I noticed a helicopter hovering over the White House with its searchlight radiating around the premises. It was alarming, so I walked toward it to see what was happening. On an intersection three blocks out, police officers dressed in riot gear lined each crosswalk to filter the crowds marching toward the president’s residence. Right in front of Lafayette Square, which would later become the site of the president’s ill-fated photo-op, protesters broke out in a sustained chant: “I can’t breathe!” — the words George Floyd struggled to get out as he was killed. Minutes later, the police officers sprayed the crowd with tear gas, and protesters were left gasping for air.

But that was just the beginning, and as that Saturday turned to Sunday, the demonstrations devolved into chaos. The police became more aggressive: Military officers, dressed in camo gear, charged at the demonstrators — much like a military would at an enemy combatant — shooting pepper-spray pellets in every direction. At one point, the D.C. police sprayed the crowd with so much mace it looked to me like they were using a water hose. One local police officer, after detonating a stun grenade, threw his fist in the air and cheered.

Seeing this kind of military and law-enforcement behavior, I was reminded of my life in Jerusalem. That was jarring, because I always understood the dynamic between me and Israeli soldiers to be that of enemies in a conflict. What I saw in D.C. was that same dynamic, except this time, the soldiers were actually meant to serve the people they were treating as an enemy.

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In fact, part of the reason I was able to effectively cover the protests live on Twitter is because the security forces were using tactics I was already familiar with from my time living under occupation in the West Bank. Without thinking about it, I knew what to do when they tear gassed the crowd. I knew not to panic when they detonated a stun grenade.

When I was running through Chinatown to catch up with the crowd of protesters who were headed toward the US Capitol, a helicopter hovered at rooftop height. It was so low to the ground, its rotors unleashed punishing winds, causing street signs, tree branches, and trash to blow around the block and injure people running to take shelter. I had never actually experienced this before, but I instantly knew it wasn’t an accident — it felt like an act of aggression. Ten minutes later, The New York Times reported that it was indeed a show of force.

It’s not a coincidence that this felt all too familiar to me. The Israeli military has trained US police departments across the country, including D.C.’s. And though that training tends to focus on counterterrorism, it also covers “ways to use Israel’s counterinsurgency tactics to control crowds during protests and riots,” according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. Put simply, American police officers have been trained on how to deal with the very people they serve by a military that administers an occupation.

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In a statement released after the peak of the violence in D.C., Attorney General William Barr wrote, “Not least, I am grateful to the many federal law enforcement agencies and personnel who helped protect the District [of Columbia].” I was back at Lafayette Square when I read that statement, watching people peacefully protest their government. And as I looked at a crowd of demonstrators on the one side and military police in riot gear on the other, I thought, Helped protect it from whom?

Abdallah Fayyad is a journalist in Washington, D.C. His father, Salam Fayyad, served as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority from 2007-13.