Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has flown a Predator drone above ongoing protests against police brutality in Minneapolis, according to flight logs.
An aircraft using the call sign CBP-104 took off from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota—where CBP has drones stationed—at around 10:10 a.m. ET, reaching Minneapolis and entering a hexagon-shaped holding pattern at 20,000 feet over the city at 11:47 a.m. ET. At around 1:15 p.m. ET, it began heading back to Grand Forks.
Minneapolis is not inside the 100 air mile border zone where CBP has jurisdiction, an area that encompasses just shy of two-thirds of the nation’s population. The city is currently being rocked by massive protests against brutality and racism by the Minneapolis Police Department that have gone on to inspire other demonstrations around the country. Donald Trump referred to demonstrators in the city as looters and “thugs” while issuing a disgusting threat of lethal force by “the Military” on Friday.
The US has a long history of surveilling protesters, but the technology used to do so has grown more powerful.
A couple of hours before reports about the Predator drone over Minneapolis, President Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Though his use of this charged phrase with racist origins suggests a threat against the protesters, Trump later tried to walk back his statement, and it seems unlikely that his rhetoric had anything to do with the drone flight. Still, to know that a drone was circling the protesters as the president was making these charged remarks is unsettling. According to CBP, however, the Predator drone that flew over Minneapolis was there to help the police.
“Earlier today a US Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations unmanned aircraft system was preparing to provide live video to aid in situational awareness at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis,” a spokesperson for CBP told Recode in an email. “The unmanned aircraft system provides live video feed to ground law enforcement, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, while minimizing the threat to personnel and assets.”
The spokesperson said that “arriving in Minneapolis airspace, the requesting agency determined that the aircraft was no longer needed for operational awareness and departed back to Grand Forks.” The CPB spokesperson also added that the agency “routinely conducts operations with other federal, state, and local law enforcement entities to assist law enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts.” The specific law enforcement agency that requested the drone was not named.
Here’s what else we know about the flight. The drone CPB 104, which is an unarmed version of a Predator drone, departed from Grand Forks, North Dakota, around 9 am CT, according to data collected from the flight-tracking tool ADS-B Exchange. Flying at around 20,000 feet, it made a loose hexagon-shaped route around Minneapolis and then began to fly away from the city. The drone flight might have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been spotted by Jason Paladino, an investigative reporter with the Project on Government Oversight, who shared the news in a tweet. Motherboard followed up with a fuller report.