US cities torn by violent protests over Floyd killing

The National Guard was on the streets of more than a dozen US cities and the national capital on Sunday, after protests following the death of George Floyd gave way to another night of violence.

Crowds have clashed with law enforcement in major cities, with fierce battles in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington and New York, in an explosion of anger at the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody after an officer held him down with a knee to the neck as he shouted: “I can’t breathe”.

About 5,000 members of the National Guard have been called up in at least 16 states and the District of Columbia, with another 2,000 prepared to deploy if called. The unrest mirrors the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and Baltimore the following year, but on a scale that has led to some comparisons with demonstrations in the 1960s.

The killing of Floyd — the latest of many black men to die at the hands of white police officers — has returned long-simmering tensions over race to the boil just months ahead of the presidential election. It comes as the country struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of more than 100,000 Americans and disproportionately affected people of colour.

The tensions have again cast a harsh spotlight on Donald Trump. The president has been accused of fanning the flames of racism and inciting violence with incendiary tweets in recent days that echoed the law and order rhetoric that he employed during the 2016 presidential campaign to excite his political base.

When some protests in the wake of the killing turned violent, Mr Trump suggested that the US military could be deployed to shoot protesters, who are predominantly African-American. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”, he tweeted, employing a phrase used during the civil rights movement against black protesters.

As some urged the president to speak to the nation from the Oval Office, others compared his stance to his response to the white-supremacist protests in Charlottesville where he said there were “very fine people on both sides”.

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta who is a possible pick for Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate, said Mr Trump was making matters worse. “This is like Charlottesville all over again. He speaks and he makes it worse,” the African-American mayor told CNN on Sunday.

Mr Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee who has campaigned on a platform of “restoring the soul” of America, said the past few days had “laid bare that we are a nation furious at injustice”. 

While endorsing peaceful demonstrations, Mr Biden condemned the looting and destruction that has been rampant in many cities, with cars burnt, windows smashed and businesses ransacked.

“Protesting such brutality is right and necessary. It’s an utterly American response. But burning down communities and needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. Violence that guts and shutters businesses that serve the community is not,” Mr Biden said.

“The act of protesting should never be allowed to overshadow the reason we protest. It should not drive people away from the just cause that protest is meant to advance.”

Police have arrested nearly 1,700 people in 22 cities since Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

In New York, at least 120 people were arrested and at least 15 police cars damaged on Saturday night. Protesters threw objects at officers and torched police cars, while a video showed two police vehicles driving into a crowd of demonstrators in Brooklyn.

Graffiti on the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC on Sunday © AP

Similar scenes played out in large cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as smaller ones including Fargo in North Dakota, and Salt Lake City, Utah.

In Washington DC, shattered glass covered the pavement just blocks from the White House, as looters smashed windows of businesses and sprayed graffiti on federal government buildings.

In the south, in cities such as Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, protesters vandalised monuments to the Confederacy — symbols of the Civil War and the country’s fraught racial history.

Calls were growing on Sunday for Mr Trump, who has attracted criticism for his handling of the Floyd case and had his approval figures slide in recent weeks, to address the nation from the Oval Office.

A new national Washington Post-ABC News poll published on Sunday showed Mr Biden with a 10-point lead over Mr Trump, with 53 per cent of registered voters favouring the former vice-president over the sitting president.

Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, told ABC News the president had given “extraordinarily eloquent remarks” on Saturday about “bringing the American people together and how we stand with the family of George Floyd”.

Yet Mr Trump’s critics said his interventions in recent days had done more harm than good — he provoked anger on Friday after posting on Twitter the suggestion that the military could fire on protesters. The post was hidden by Twitter, which said it violated the platform’s rules on glorifying violence.

Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington DC, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Mr Trump “has a responsibility to help calm the nation, and he can start by not sending divisive tweets that are meant to hearken to the segregationist past of our country”.

Ms Bottoms said on the same programme: “What I’d like to hear from the president is leadership, and I would like to hear a genuine care and concern for our communities and where we are with race relations in America . . . I am concerned that this president has a history of making matters worse.”

Floyd died last Monday after police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, received a 911 call about the attempted use of a forged banknote. He was arrested by four police officers and held handcuffed, face down on the street with a knee on his neck, until he became unresponsive and was moved on to a stretcher.

The officers were sacked by the Minneapolis police department this week. Derek Chauvin, one of the officers, was taken into custody on Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.