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Protester beamed laser at cops’ airplane during civil unrest in Virginia, feds say

Hayley Fowler
·3 min read

A 33-year-old woman in Virginia pleaded guilty Monday to pointing a laser at a police airplane during protests over Confederate monuments this summer, federal prosecutors said.

She now faces up to five years in prison.

Amanda Robinson was at the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, on June 4 when prosecutors said she pointed the laser at a 2006 Cessna circling above. The plane was piloted by the Metropolitan Aviation Unit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said in a news release.

Robinson struck the plane twice and “disrupted the pilot’s vision,” prosecutors said. Police were able to trace the laser pointer to Robinson in the crowd using an onboard camera, according to the news release.

Officers on the ground reportedly found a green laser pointer in her possession when they detained her.

Robinson will be sentenced March 23, the news release states. But prosecutors said her sentence will likely be “less than the maximum penalties.”

Danger of pointing laser at planes

Studies by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Maryland have shown green laser pointers — particularly the cheap ones that look like a ballpoint pen — “can emit dangerous levels of infrared radiation,” MIT Technology Review reported in 2010.

The “powerful beam of light” emitted by those lasers can travel more than a mile, according to the FBI. When aimed at the cockpit of an airplane, they can also temporarily blind pilots.

“Those who have experienced such attacks have described them as the equivalent of a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night,” the FBI’s website states.

Racial unrest in Richmond

Police were “conducting aerial surveillance patrols” over the Robert E. Lee monument on June 4 when the alleged incident occurred, prosecutors said Monday. The monument is one of several in Richmond that became a focal point of racial reconciliation and police brutality in the weeks after George Floyd’s death.

Floyd, 46, died May 25 after now-fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed a knee into his neck for about eight minutes, as three other officers didn’t intervene.

His death sparked an avalanche of protests across the nation, many of them aimed at the removal of Confederate monuments and statues across the South. Monument Avenue in Richmond — where Robinson is accused of pointing the laser — was previously lined with Confederate-era statues.

Most have since been removed. Protesters toppled the Jefferson Davis statue in June, and the city opted to remove three others depicting Confederate figures the following month, The New York Times reported. Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam, a Democrat, ordered the removal of the Lee statue and several others around the same time.

Protesters crowded the monument to Lee after Northam’s announcement on June 4, The Richmond-Times Dispatch reported. Demonstrations continued for at least a month after Floyd’s death, according to WVTF.

Robinson was reportedly in attendance.

Opponents later challenged Northam’s decision but a judge affirmed the order in October, paving the way for the removal of the 21-foot statue depicting the former commander of the Confederate army, the Times reported.