Cities across the US were convulsed by protests on Thursday night over the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year old black man, as demonstrators stormed the police headquarters of the officers involved in his death in Minneapolis and Donald Trump threatened to use violence to suppress the unrest.
As demonstrations against police brutality against black Americans spread to other parts of the US including New York, Denver, Chicago and Oakland, dozens of businesses were burned and looted in the Midwestern city.
Floyd died in police custody after a white officer handcuffed him but then kneeled on his neck for several minutes as Floyd pleaded that he “could not breathe”.
In a Twitter intervention, hidden by the social media company, he denounced protestors as “thugs” and appeared to threaten lethal force.
“These THUGS are dishonouring the memory of George Floyd,” Mr. Trump wrote of the demonstrators, “and I won’t let that happen” adding, “any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump has previously avoided commenting on incidents of police brutality against black people.
Twitter hid Trump’s post, saying that it violated their policies “regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line”. It was the latest confrontation between the president and the social media giant. On Thursday Trump issued an executive order aimed at narrowing the social media companies’ protections from liability over the content posted on their services.
As anger over police killings of black people by police continued to escalate, at least seven people were also shot in Louisville, Kentucky, as protesters turned out to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, a black woman fatally shot by police in her home in March.
In Denver, dramatic video footage also emerged of a car plowing through a crowd of protesters, who had gathered amid outrage over the death of Floyd in a scene reminiscent of the the killing of Heather Heyer at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Shots were also reported to have been fired towards Denver’s state capitol building.
The centre of the anger, however, remained Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, which have seen several other high profile controversial police killings of black people – including the shooting of Philandro Castille in 2016 – where state governor, Tim Walz called in the national guard as the city faced escalating unrest.
The national guard tweeted minutes after the precinct burned that it had activated more than 500 soldiers across the metro area, although it said its principle task would be to protect the city’s fire department.
Walz also called for widespread changes in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“It is time to rebuild,” Walz said. “Rebuild the city, rebuild our justice system, and rebuild the relationship between law enforcement and those they’re charged to protect. George Floyd’s death should lead to justice and systemic change, not more death and destruction.”
Police had arrested Floyd outside a convenience store after a report of a counterfeit bill being passed. In footage recorded by a bystander, an officer kneels on Floyd’s neck, and he can be heard pleading that he cannot breathe until he slowly stops talking and moving.
The officer who kneeled on Floyd and three others were fired on Tuesday. The next day, the mayor called for him to be criminally charged.
The US attorney’s office and the FBI in Minneapolis said on Thursday they were conducting “a robust criminal investigation” into the death and making the case a priority. The announcement came a day after Donald Trump tweeted that he had asked an investigation to be expedited. The FBI is also investigating, focusing on whether Floyd’s civil rights were violated.
On Thursday, the third day of protests in Minneapolis, hundreds marched near the city centre chanting demands for justice, carrying signs that read “I can’t breathe!!” and “Fuck Donald Trump”.
As darkness fell, the primary target was the 3rd precinct police station, where a group of young men broke through the wire fence hastily erected before the police withdrew earlier in the day. As the fire grew they led chants of George Floyd’s name and “No justice, no peace” until flames engulfed the building. Protesters cheered and celebrated with fireworks.
Police officers watched from two blocks away but did not intervene.
Fire crews attempted to put out other fires but did not go near the police station. As the fire spread, thousands more protesters poured into the area.
Other people made their point standing for hours on hundreds of street corners. But the protests appeared to divide between those who wanted to keep the focus and pressure on the police, and others who made their anger known by turning it against businesses in the area.
Thursday’s demonstrations had turned angry quickly not long after midday, with violence spreading to a Target store several miles away in the Midway neighbourhood of St Paul, where police said 50 to 60 people rushed the store and attempted to take merchandise. St Paul police and state patrol squad cars later blocked the entrance, but looting then spread to other shops.
Marie Johnson, who described herself as part black, part Native American, stood watching the looting.
“I’m really angry about George Floyd because we went through all of this with Michael Brown [who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014] and it seems nothing changes,” she said. “But I’m not at peace with this either. I get that people are angry but it feels like a lot of people here are just grabbing the opportunity for free shopping.”
“This is disturbing,” said Wade Chen, who was boarding up a launderette, looking toward the large number of people continuing to carry off what was left in the large Target store. “This is not how protests should work. Doing this hurts our community.”
As the looting continued, people stepped up to speak at a protests outside the 3rd precinct police station. Kim Edwards was among those who denounced the attacks as a car burned across the road.
“The lesson of change is it comes by using economic power, not with destruction, not with violence. None of that helps. Use your economic power to boycott,” he argued.
But others disagreed. A young woman grabbed the microphone. “We’re going to riot until we get an answer,” she said to loud cheers, before reminding the crowd of the impact of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict nearly three decades ago. “Burn that bitch down,” she shouted.
A St Paul spokesman, Steve Linders, said authorities had been dealing with unrest in roughly 20 different areas throughout the city.
“Please stay home. Please do not come here to protest. Please keep the focus on George Floyd, on advancing our movement, and on preventing this from ever happening again. We can all be in that fight together,” St Paul’s mayor, Melvin Carter, tweeted.