Leaders across the United States sought ways Tuesday to stem mounting unrest over police racism, from extending curfews to engaging protesters, as President Donald Trump faced wide criticism for deploying force to break up a peaceful rally.
Once-in-a-generation protests have brought a multiracial coalition peacefully to the streets for the past week, but each night has descended into mayhem, with both activists and officials blaming rabble-rousers.
New York prolonged its first curfew since World War II for the full week after some of the city’s most storied shopping addresses were ransacked, including the flagship Macy’s store.
Minnesota took one of the first concrete actions to address the grievances behind the uprising, which began in the state’s largest city Minneapolis after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man.
Floyd died after he was pinned for nearly nine minutes under the knee of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who ignored Floyd’s pleas for his life and had remained on the force despite multiple complaints.
“We must take this moment to change it all,” Lieutenant Governor Penny Flanagan said of structural discrimination.
She told reporters the state was launching a civil rights investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department, which would look into possible violations going back 10 years.
In Los Angeles, one of dozens of cities hit by unrest, police officers and Mayor Eric Garcetti dropped to their knees in a symbolic act of solidarity as they met marchers led by African-American Christian groups.
“A black face should not be a sentence to die, nor to be homeless, nor to be sick, nor to be underemployed, nor to be under-educated,” Garcetti told them.
Inviting the leaders into City Hall, he promised a discussion about issues, “not about words.”
“We need a country that listens,” he said.
Trump blasts ‘scum’
In Washington, thousands returned to the streets Tuesday for a peaceful “Black Lives Matter” march and helicopters quickly hovered above them, following a night of low-flying choppers kicking up debris in scenes reminiscent of the US occupation of Iraq.
On Monday, federal police abruptly opened tear gas and fired rubber bullets to break up a non-violent protest in Lafayette Park outside the White House, moments before Trump strolled outside for a photo-op at a historic nearby church damaged by arson the previous night.
Trump, who has rejected the traditional presidential role of healer, voiced glee on Twitter over the response in Washington and accused the leadership of New York – led by the rival Democratic Party – of succumbing to “Lowlife & Scum.”
“Overwhelming force. Domination,” wrote Trump, who a day earlier declared himself “your president of law and order.”
Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive Democratic rival in November 3 elections, denounced the crackdown on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park as an abuse of power and promised, if elected, to tackle the “systemic racism” in the country.
“Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield driven by old resentments and fresh fears,” Biden said in a speech in Philadelphia, also hit by violence.
“He thinks division helps him,” Biden said. “His narcissism has become more important than the nation’s wellbeing.”
Trump on Tuesday visited another prominent religious site, a shrine in honor of Pope John Paul II, prompting the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Washington to say the space was being “egregiously misused and manipulated.”
The late pontiff “certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate (people) for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace,” Archbishop Wilton D Gregory said.
The United States also faced unusual, if polite, criticism from some of its international allies.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the anti-racism protests “understandable and more than legitimate.”
“I hope that these peaceful protests won’t slide further into violence, but even more than that I hope that they will make a difference in the United States,” Maas told reporters.
Germany, Britain and Australia all voiced concern about the safety of the media after a number of journalists were roughed up by police or occasionally by rioters.
Curfew extended in New York
New York, the fabled “City that Never Sleeps” that had just been emerging from weeks under lockdown over the coronavirus, extended a curfew through Sunday that will start each night at 8pm.
“We will take steps immediately to make sure there will be peace and order,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has a fraught relationship with the police, said with visible anger.
The curfew began Monday at 11pm but New York was already suffering widespread looting, with rioters smashing storefronts on posh Fifth Avenue, pulling electronics from a Best Buy store and breaking into Macy’s, the department store known for its iconic Christmas displays.
Protests each day have begun peacefully. Several thousands took to the streets Tuesday in Manhattan, kneeling and shouting “George Floyd, George Floyd.”
Protester Nat Hooper, 27, an African-American bookseller, called demonstrations “our civic duty” and hoped that Trump would be voted out in November.
“We don’t think he’s a good representation of what Americans believe in or American ideals,” he said.
Cav Manning, 54, who is also black, said the protests aimed at “making leaders listen.”
“This isn’t just about George Floyd, may he rest in peace. This is about all the black men before, all the black women, all the black children, any people feeling the knee of oppression,” he said as he protested in the diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Minneapolis was relatively calm but violence spread elsewhere with four officers shot overnight in St Louis, a city with a history of racial tensions. None of the injuries was life-threatening.
St Louis Police Chief John Hayden told reporters protesters had been peaceful before a separate group of 200 showed up who “obviously had no intention of protesting, doing anything constructive” and threw fireworks and gasoline at officers.
“How can this be? Mr Floyd was injured and was killed somewhere else, and they’re tearing up cities all across the country,” Hayden said.