Peaceful George Floyd protests turn to violence and looting

In big and small U.S. cities, mostly peaceful protests became pockets of looting and violence, with police vehicles torched, and stores vandalized.

Ashley Landis/AP
Demonstrators kneel in a moment of silence outside the Long Beach Police Department on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Long Beach, California, during a protest over the death of George Floyd.

America’s cities boarded up windows, swept up glass, and covered graffiti Sunday as the country's most significant night of violent protests in a half-century promised to spill into another day of unrest fueled by killings of black people at the hands of police.

The turbulence sparked by the death of George Floyd – a black man who died after being pinned under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer – shook not only the streets of New York and Los Angeles, but dozens of smaller communities such as Fargo, North Dakota, and Lincoln, Nebraska. The damage extended even to buildings near the White House.

Peaceful protests involving tens of thousands of people on Saturday gave way, in some places, to rioting, looting, and violence, with police vehicles torched, stores emptied, and objects hurled at officers. The police response varied from restrained to aggressive, with officers at times firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Police and peaceful protesters alike pleaded for a stop to violence, saying it only hindered calls for justice and reform.

“It only hurts the cause,” said Danielle Outlaw, head of the police force in Philadelphia, where more than 200 people were arrested as fires and looting engulfed Center City.

At least 4,400 people have been arrested over days of protests, according to a tally compiled by The Associated Press. Arrests ranged from stealing and blocking highways to breaking curfew.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz told reporters Sunday that state Attorney General Keith Ellison will take the lead in any prosecutions in the death of George Floyd. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman earlier Sunday said he had asked Mr. Ellison to help in the prosecution. Mr. Freeman has been criticized by civil rights activists and some city officials, who say there is a history of mistrust between Mr. Freeman’s office and members of the community.

Governor Walz told reporters that Mr. Ellison “needs to lead this case.” He said he made the decision after speaking with Mr. Floyd’s family who “wanted to believe that there was a trust, and they wanted to believe that the facts would be heard.”

In Atlanta, the mayor fired two police officers and placed three others on desk duty pending review over excessive use of force during a protest incident Saturday night. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a news conference Sunday that she and police Chief Erika Shields made the decision after reviewing body-camera footage. Ms. Shields called it “really shocking to watch.” 

Officials say the incident came to light via video that circulated online. It shows a group of Atlanta police officers in riot gear and gas masks surround a car being driven by a man with a woman in the passenger seat. The officers pull the woman out and appear to use a stun gun on the man. They use zip-tie handcuffs on the woman on the ground. The couple did not appear to be fighting police on the video.

Disgust over generations of racism in a country founded by slaveholders combined with a string of recent high-profile killings to stoke the anger. Three months before Mr. Floyd's death, Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot as he jogged through a Georgia neighborhood. A white father and son are charged in the slaying. The month after Mr. Arbery was killed, an EMT named Breonna Taylor was shot eight times by Louisville, Kentucky, narcotics detectives who knocked down her front door. No drugs were found in her home.

Adding to that was angst from months of lockdowns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately hurt communities of color, not only in terms of infections but in job losses and economic stress.

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

“We’re sick of it. The cops are out of control,” protester Olga Hall said in Washington, D.C. “They’re wild. There’s just been too many dead boys.”

The scale of the protests, sweeping from coast to coast and unfolding on a single night, rivaled the historic demonstrations of the civil rights and Vietnam War eras.

Curfews were imposed in major cities around the United States, 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, D.C.

In Minneapolis, the city where the protests began, police, state troopers, and National Guard members moved in soon after an 8 p.m. curfew took effect Saturday to break up demonstrations. The show of force came after three days in which police largely avoided engaging protesters, and after the state poured more than 4,000 National Guard troops into Minneapolis. Authorities said that number would soon rise to nearly 11,000.

In neighboring St. Paul, thousands gathered peacefully Sunday in front of the state Capitol, pledging to keep up the protests.

“We’re Minnesota nice, but we’re not Minnesota dumb, and we’re not done,” St. Paul Black Lives Matter organizer Darnella Wade said. “They sent us the military and we only asked them for arrests.”

Minnesota's governor brought in thousands of National Guard soldiers to help quell violence that had damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings in Minneapolis over days of protests. The immense deployment appeared to have worked Saturday and Sunday nights, when there was comparatively little destruction.

On Sunday, in a display of force, long lines of state patrolmen and National Guard soldiers were lined up in front of Minnesota's Capitol, facing the demonstrators, with perhaps a dozen military-style armored vehicles behind them.

President Donald Trump appeared to cheer on the tougher tactics, commending the National Guard deployment in Minneapolis and declaring “No games!” He said police in New York City “must be allowed to do their job!”

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden condemned the violence as he continued to express common cause with those demonstrating after Floyd’s death.

“The act of protesting should never be allowed to overshadow the reason we protest,” Biden said in a late-night statement.

Dozens of additional protests were underway or expected on Sunday, from Miami to Kansas City to San Francisco. They went forth largely without incident, but sparks of crime continued.

In Philadelphia, looters robbed stores in broad daylight Saturday, and at least one more police vehicle was set ablaze. Streets leading downtown were closed. Chicago likewise restricted downtown access and called in the National Guard.

Many also joined police in pleading for a stop to violence, saying it weakened calls for justice and reform.

“It only hurts the cause,” said Danielle Outlaw, head of the police force in Philadelphia, where more than 200 people were arrested as fires and looting engulfed the heart of the city.

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 those descending on Minneapolis was Michael Brown Sr., the father of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

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

County Commissioner Angela Conley said the demonstrations and confrontations with police would continue until the other three officers who were at the scene when Mr. Floyd was pinned down are arrested and prosecuted. The officer who put his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, was charged last week with murder. All four officers have been fired.

“We’ll continue to have this militarized presence in our community until justice is done,” Ms. Conley said.

In tweets Sunday, Mr. Trump blamed anarchists and the media for fueling the violence. Attorney General William Barr pointed a finger at “far left extremist” groups. Police chiefs and politicians around the country accused outsiders of coming in and causing the problems.

Few parts of America were untouched. Protesters set fires inside Reno’s city hall, and police launched tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators in Fargo, North Dakota. In Salt Lake City, demonstrators flipped a police car and lit it on fire. Police said six people were arrested and an officer was injured after being struck in the head with a baseball bat.

By Sunday, the fury had spread to Europe, where thousands gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square, clapping and waving placards despite government rules barring crowds because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In New York, a video showed two police cruisers lurching into a crowd of demonstrators who were pushing a barricade against one of them and pelting it with objects. Several people were knocked to the ground. It was unclear if anyone was hurt.

“The mistakes that are happening are not mistakes. They’re repeated violent terrorist offenses, and people need to stop killing black people,” Brooklyn protester Meryl Makielski said.

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

Sites around the U.S. were defaced with spray-painted messages, from the facade of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to the historic Hay-Adams hotel near the White House. Some of Mr. Floyd's gasped last words – “I can't breathe” – were repeated around the country, alongside anti-police messages.

On Sunday, maintenance crews near the White House worked to replace windows that had been shattered with large pieces of wood. Buildings for blocks were marked with graffiti, including curses about Mr. Trump. Shattered glass still covered the sidewalks. The damaged buildings included the Department of Veterans Affairs, directly across the street from the White House.

Secret Service agents had rushed Mr. Trump to a White House bunker on Friday night as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the executive mansion, some of them throwing rocks and tugging at police barricades. The president spent nearly an hour in the bunker designed for use in emergencies like terrorist attacks, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorized to publicly discuss private matters and spoke on condition of anonymity. The account was confirmed by an administration official who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some leaders prepared to put more soldiers in the streets. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp authorized the deployment of up to 3,000 National Guard troops to Athens, Savannah, and any other cities where more demonstrations were planned. Mr. Kemp had already approved up to 1,500 Guardsmen to help enforce a 9 p.m. Saturday curfew in Atlanta.

This week’s unrest recalled the riots in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Rodney King, a black motorist who had led them on a high-speed chase. The protests of Floyd’s killing have gripped many more cities, but the losses have yet to approach the staggering totals LA saw during five days of rioting in 1992, when more than 60 people died, 2,000-plus were injured, and thousands arrested, with property damage topping $1 billion.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Sedensky reported from Philadelphia. AP journalists across the U.S. contributed to this report.

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