George Floyd death: Protesters set fires near White House, clash with DC police hours before curfew kicks in

An hour before the 11 pm curfew, police in Washington DC fired a major barrage of tear gas stun grenades into the crowd of more than 1,000 people, largely clearing Lafayette Park across the street from the White House and scattering protesters into the street.

FP Staff June 01, 2020 10:52:23 IST
George Floyd death: Protesters set fires near White House, clash with DC police hours before curfew kicks in

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across America again Sunday, with peaceful demonstrations against police killings of black people overshadowed by unrest that quickly ravaged parts of cities from Pennsylvania to California. City and state officials had deployed thousands of National Guard soldiers, enacted strict curfews and shut down mass transit systems, but that did little to stop many cities from again erupting into unrest.

An hour before the 11 pm curfew, police in Washington, DC, fired a major barrage of tear gas stun grenades into the crowd of more than 1,000 people, largely clearing Lafayette Park across the street from the White House and scattering protesters into the street.

As the protests grew, President Donald Trump retweeted conservative commentator Buck Sexton who called for “overwhelming force” against violent demonstrators. Trump was briefly rushed to the White House underground bunker, used in the past during terror attacks, by a nervous Secret Service, The New York Times reported.

CNN reported that the DC Fire Department was extinguishing a blaze in the basement of St. John's church. The church, which is just a few blocks from the White House, is known as the "Church of Presidents" because many presidents have attended services there. Protesters piled up road signs and plastic barriers and lit a raging fire in the middle of H Street.

Some pulled an American flag from a nearby building and threw it into the blaze.

Others added branches pulled from trees. A cinder block structure, on the north side of the park, that had bathrooms and a maintenance office, was engulfed in flames.

George Floyd death Protesters set fires near White House clash with DC police hours before curfew kicks in

Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd start a fire near the White House in Washington AP.

Several kilometres north, a separate protest broke out in Northwest DC, near the Maryland border. The Metropolitan Police Department says there were break-ins at a Target and a shopping centre that houses Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Store, TJ Maxx, a movie theatre and speciality stores. Police say several individuals have been detained.

The entire Washington, DC, National Guard — roughly 1,700 soldiers — was being called in to help control the protests, according to two Defense Department officials who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

At least 4,100 people have been arrested over days of protests, according to a tally compiled by The Associated Press. Arrests ranged from looting and blocking highways to breaking curfew.

Protesters in Philadelphia hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, officials said, while masked crowds broke into upscale stores in a San Francisco suburb, fleeing with bags of merchandise. In Minneapolis, a truck driver drove into a massive crowd of demonstrators nearly a week after the death of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded for air as an officer pressed a knee into his neck.

'They keep killing our people'

In Salt Lake City, a leading anti-police brutality activist condemned the destruction of property but said broken buildings shouldn’t be mourned on the same level as black men like Floyd.

“Maybe this country will get the memo that we are sick of police murdering unarmed black men,” said Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah. “Maybe the next time a white police officer decides to pull the trigger, he will picture cities burning.”

Yet thousands still marched peacefully, with some also calling for an end to the fires, vandalism and theft, saying it weakened calls for justice and reform.

“They keep killing our people,” said Mahira Louis, 15, who marched with her mother and several hundred others through downtown Boston. “I’m so sick and tired of it.”

The officer who pressed his knee onto Floyd's neck has been charged with murder, but protesters are demanding the other three officers at the scene be prosecuted. All four were fired.

“We’re not done,” said Darnella Wade, organiser for Black Lives Matter in neighbouring St. Paul, where thousands gathered peacefully in front of the state Capitol. “They sent us the military, and we only asked them for arrests.”

Minnesota governor Tim Walz brought in thousands of National Guard soldiers to help quell the violence that had damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings in Minneapolis over days of protests. On Sunday, in a display of force, long lines of state patrolmen and National Guard soldiers lined up in front of the Capitol, with perhaps a dozen military-style armoured vehicles behind them.

George Floyd death Protesters set fires near White House clash with DC police hours before curfew kicks in

A demonstrator is silhouetted by a fire during a protest of the death of George Floyd near the White House in Washington. AP

Curfews across the US

Disgust over generations of racism in a country founded by slaveholders combined with a string of recent racially charged killings to stoke the anger. Adding to that was angst from months of lockdowns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately hurt communities of colour, not only in terms of infections but in job losses and economic stress.

The droves of people congregating for demonstrations threatened to trigger new outbreaks, a fact overshadowed by the boiling tensions.

The scale of the coast-to-coast protests rivalled the historic demonstrations of the civil rights and Vietnam War eras.

Curfews were imposed in major cities around the US, including Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. About 5,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen were activated in 15 states and Washington, DC.

Thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through Boston in several protests during the day, but some clashed with officers as night fell, throwing rocks, bricks and glass bottles and torching a police vehicle.

Authorities fired volleys of tear gas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators in downtown Atlanta as a curfew took hold. Some on the fringes of a largely peaceful protest set off fireworks and burned construction materials near a park where police and National Guard troops turned out in force.

In Indianapolis, two people were reported dead in bursts of downtown violence this weekend, adding to deaths reported in Detroit and Minneapolis in recent days.

In tweets Sunday, Trump blamed anarchists and the media for fueling violence.

Attorney-General William Barr pointed a finger at “far left extremist” groups. Police chiefs and politicians accused outsiders of coming in and causing the problems.

At the Minneapolis intersection where Floyd was killed, people gathered with brooms and flowers, saying it was important to protect what they called a “sacred space.” The intersection was blocked with the traffic cones while a ring of flowers was laid out.

Among in Minneapolis was Michael Brown Sr, the father of Michael Brown, whose killing by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, set off unrest in 2014.

“I understand what this family is feeling. I understand what this community is feeling,” he said.

With inputs from agencies

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