WASHINGTON — Another night of unfettered fury, random violence and hardline police tactics unfurled itself Sunday in the United States under clouds of tear gas, pepper spray and smoke from street fires, including directly beyond the front lawn of the White House — all of it sparked by the latest death of a black man while in police custody.
At the edge of Lafayette Square, the park that fronts the most famous presidential residence in the world, protesters clashed yet again with a massive front line of police, Secret Service agents and Park Police officers in a back-and-forth hail of bricks, rocks, rubber bullets and gas canisters, a massive bonfire raging in the middle of the street.
The scene was a far cry from earlier in the day, when small groups of demonstrators milled about near the edge of the park, sharing sidewalk with tourists and dog-walkers out to survey the aftermath of clashes earlier in the week — some of which reportedly alarmed the Secret Service enough to whisk President Donald Trump to a more secure location.
Clear signs of another long night ahead were apparent in cities across the country.
In Philadelphia, brazen vandals began smashing windows, looting stores and setting fire to police cruisers in broad daylight and full view of television cameras, long before the sun went down. Riot squads advanced menacingly on crowds in Santa Monica, Calif. Fires sprang up on the protester-crowded streets of New York City.
And in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died on the street Monday with his throat pressed under the knee of one of his arresting officers, a tanker truck barrelled through a crowd of demonstrators gathered on a closed highway, apparently in an act of provocation that somehow didn’t cause any injuries.
Earlier in the day in Washington, crews worked to both scour away the evidence of the previous night’s mayhem and to protect buildings from further damage. They whitewashed spray-painted profanities and bolted plywood sheets to the shattered facades of D.C.’s stately downtown cityscape, while small groups of demonstrators exercise their right to free expression.
“Stop killing us,” one group chanted as they gathered outside the west entrance to the White House grounds, motorists honking in solidarity as they drove through the intersection, while Secret Service guards clad in body armour watched from a distance.
It was a pastoral midday scene compared to the nighttime chaos in cities across the country, where car fires, looting and push-pull battles with truncheon-flinging riot police now seem a nightly cable-news spectacle — all of it triggered by the death of Floyd, whose torturous eight final minutes under ex-officer Derek Chauvin’s knee were captured on cellphone video.
Chauvin has been charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder, but activists are demanding the arrest of the other three officers involved as well.
“It’s not these protesters that started these fires across America,” Floyd family lawyer Benjamin Crump said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“It is police brutality and a racist criminal justice system. And the only thing that can put out these fires are police accountability and equal justice.”
The unrest, which taps into a deep, long-standing fissure of racial tension in the U.S., has been stoked as well by latent anger over two other recent killings: Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed in February during an altercation with a white father and son, and Breonna Taylor, who was gunned down in her home in March by police during a botched drug raid.
And for some it marks a dramatic end, at least for now, to the more than two months spent avoiding other people in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 — an ever-present threat that public health officials now fear could flare up again in the wake of the close-quarters chaos.
In Texas, where more than 200 people were arrested Saturday night, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state-wide disaster, while South Carolina had the National Guard on standby, poised to join the District of Columbia and 15 states that have already activated the reserve military force. Detroit and Indianapolis ordered an 8 p.m. curfew while D.C.’s was set for 11 p.m., a step that did little to quell violence Friday in Minneapolis.
It was a moment in history that had many wondering whether Trump, whose tweets in recent days have done little to ease tensions, might choose to address the nation and take on the president’s traditional role of unifier-in-chief.
However, Trump had no public events Sunday, tweeting from the White House instead — expressing support for the National Guard, accusing media outlets of trying to “foment hatred and anarchy” and promising to designate Antifa a terrorist organization.
Antifa, a term often used to describe the militant, anti-establishment tactics of certain left-wing anti-fascist groups, hardly fits the description of “organization,” however, raising doubts about whether Trump would be able to make good on his threat — to say nothing of the fact that U.S. law does not grant such power over domestic groups.
Trump did say late Friday that he’d spoken to Floyd’s family to express his sorrow for their loss, and in a prepared speech Saturday in Florida, he called on protesters to seek “healing, not hatred” and justice instead of chaos.
But more than once, his words on Twitter have tended to undermine that message.
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted earlier in the week, only to later deny knowing that the phrase originated in 1967 with a notorious Florida police chief known for his brutal, zero-tolerance approach to crime in black neighbourhoods.
After skirmishes broke out between police and protesters outside the White House, he warned Saturday of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” waiting to greet the crowd should they manage to break the perimeter. And he even seemed to urge supporters to stage a counter-protest Saturday night, although he later denied that was his intent.
One step Trump did take late Saturday was to abandon his plan to invite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders to Washington in June for a meeting of the G7, which he had hoped to use to send the message that the United States was on the road to recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea was publicly rebuffed on the weekend by the office of Angela Merkel, which made it clear the German chancellor would not be travelling to Washington without a dramatic change in the course of the pandemic.
Trudeau, for his part, expressed support for the idea of an in-person G7 meeting, provided all the necessary health and safety precautions were taken. Officials say the Prime Minister’s Office never tried to discourage the president.
Instead, Trump said, he wants to hold the summit this fall — and to bring Russia, India, South Korea and Australia into the fold to broaden what he calls a “very outdated” group of leading world economies. He’s musing about scheduling the gathering in September, possibly coinciding with the annual meeting in New York of the United Nations General Assembly, or even after the presidential election in November.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2020.
— With files from The Associated Press