Civil unrest flared and curfews were imposed in several major US cities on Saturday as demonstrators took to the streets to vent outrage at the death of a black man shown on video gasping for breath as a white Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck.
From Los Angeles to Miami to Chicago, protests marked by chants of “I can’t breathe” - a rallying cry echoing the dying words of George Floyd - began peacefully before turning unruly as demonstrators blocked traffic, set fires and clashed with riot police, some firing tear gas and plastic bullets in an effort to restore order.
The sight of protesters flooding streets fueled a sense of crisis in the United States after weeks of lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen millions thrown out of work and has disproportionately affected minority communities.
In the nation’s capital, hundreds of demonstrators assembled near the Justice Department headquarters shouting, “black lives matter.” Many later moved to the White House, where they faced off with shield-carrying police, some mounted on horseback.
President Donald Trump said on Saturday that if protesters who gathered the night before in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, had breached the fence, “they would have been
greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”
The full Minnesota National Guard was activated for the first time since World War Two after four nights of arson, looting and vandalism in parts of Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, and its adjacent capital, St. Paul.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said the deployment was necessary because outside agitators were using protests over Floyd’s death to sow chaos, and that he expected Saturday night’s demonstrations to be the fiercest so far.
“We are under assault,” Walz, a first-term governor elected from Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, told a briefing on Saturday. “Order needs to be restored.”
Separately, US Attorney General William Barr also pointed the finger at extremist instigators, though he and Walz - neither offering evidence to support their assertions - suggested opposite ends of the political fringe were to blame.
In a surreal moment for Miami on Saturday, police sirens and lights flooded downtown neighborhoods as fireworks began crackling and booming over Biscayne Bay to honor healthcare workers fighting the ongoing pandemic.
Hundreds of police in riot gear swarmed the area, threatening to arrest anyone, including media, who ventured onto the streets.
Curfews were imposed in several major cities rocked by civil disturbances in recent days, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver, Cincinnati, Portland, Oregon, and Louisville, Kentucky. Protests also flared on Saturday in Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Cleveland.
In an extraordinary move, the Pentagon said it put military units on a four-hour alert to be ready if requested by the Minnesota governor to help keep the peace.
National Guard units also were mobilized by the governors of Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin and Tennessee.