The US was reeling on Monday following another night of protests over police killings of black Americans left one dead in Kentucky, as authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets, while fires blazed near the White House on the seventh day of national unrest.
Dozens of cities were clearing up damage after angry crowds stepped up demonstrations on Sunday night over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, who died after a white police officer shoved his knee into his neck for eight minutes as he cried, “I can’t breathe”.
The enforced curfews saw thousands of National Guard troops deployed in multiple states across the nation. Kentucky’s Democratic governor ordered an investigation after a citizen was fatally shot as protesters in Louisville clashed with the city police and Kentucky national guard.
While some police across the US have demonstrated solidarity with protesters — including taking a knee and condemning the death of Floyd — others have taken actions that have inflamed tensions and pointed to systemic police brutality.
In the wake of public uproar after two police cruisers in New York City drove into protesters on Saturday as one of the vehicles was surrounded and pelted with objects, Dermot Shea, the city’s police commissioner, on Monday defended the approach his force had taken. He told CBS News that some of the protesters were engaging in deliberate “criminal activity.”
Struggling to control the protests, police have also arrested and used rubber bullets against the media, sparking criticism that the country’s police forces had become too militarised and were eroding civil rights.
Many cities, including Washington, saw widespread looting over the weekend, while cities from Philadelphia to Atlanta on the east coast to Los Angeles on the west coast dealt with broad unrest. The protests come five years after riots in Baltimore, with a predominantly African American population, broke out after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. The previous year, Ferguson, Missouri, witnessed massive protests after the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager shot by a white police officer.
The death of Floyd, as the latest example of black man to die at the hands of white police, raised once again the question of systemic racism in America. Asked why black men kept being killed by police, Mr Shea told CBS: “I think it speaks to pervasive problems in this country . . . they go well beyond one police department or law enforcement.”
The worst unrest in decades comes as the US struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced 40m Americans out of work and claimed the lives of more than 100,000. The virus has taken a disproportionate economic and human toll on communities of colour, which has brought long-simmering tensions about race and inequality back to the boil just months ahead of a presidential election that will pit former vice-president Joe Biden against President Donald Trump.
Mr Trump, who was reportedly taken to an underground bunker as protests erupted near the White House on Friday evening, was scheduled to speak to governors and law enforcement officials on Monday, as the worst protests since the civil-rights era create the latest existential crisis for his presidency.
While some advisers urged Mr Trump to address the nation, critics argued that he had no capacity to bring the country together, given his past support for white supremacist protesters and the incendiary rhetoric he has employed on Twitter in recent days.
As Mr Trump has slipped in the polls in recent days, he has lashed out at Mr Biden and the Democrats, and resurrected the “law and order” rhetoric that he employed to gee up his base during the 2016 political campaign.
“Sleepy Joe Biden’s people are so Radical Left that they are working to get the Anarchists out of jail, and probably more,” the president tweeted on Monday morning.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll on Sunday found that Mr Biden had a 10-point lead over Mr Trump,
Mr Trump and William Barr, the attorney-general, have also blamed the protests on Antifa, a diffuse, extreme leftist anti-fascist moment. Mr Trump blamed similar groups following the protests in Charlottesville in 2017, when he refused to condemn white supremacists and declared there were “very fine people on both sides”.