US heads into new week shaken by violence, pandemic

WASHINGTON (AP) — With cities wounded by days of violent unrest, America headed into a new week with neighbourhoods in shambles, urban streets on lockdown and shaken confidence about when leaders would find the answers to control the mayhem amid unrelenting raw emotion over police killings of black people.

All of it smashed into a nation already bludgeoned by a death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surging past 100,000 and unemployment that soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

Last Sunday capped a tumultuous weekend and month that saw city and state officials deploy thousands of National Guard soldiers, enact strict curfews and shut down mass transit systems.

Even with those efforts, many demonstrations erupted into violence as protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police in Philadelphia, set a fire near the White House and were hit with tear gas and pepper spray in Austin and other cities. Seven Boston police officers were hospitalised.

In some cities, thieves smashed their way into stores and ran off with as much as they could carry, leaving shop owners, many of them just ramping up their business again after coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, to clean up their shattered storefronts.

Protesters during the Memorial Day of George Floyd. PHOTO: AP

In others, police tried to calm tensions by kneeling in solidarity with demonstrators, while still maintaining a strong presence for security.

The demonstrations were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded for air as an officer pressed a knee into his neck.

Floyd’s death in Minneapolis came after tensions had already flared after two white men were arrested in May for the February shooting death of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and the Louisville police shooting death of Breonna Taylor in her home in March.

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

“They keep killing our people. I’m so sick and tired of it,” said Mahira Louis, 15, who was at a Boston protest with her mother last Sunday, leading chants of “George Floyd, say his name”.

Tensions rose last Sunday outside the White House, the scene of three days of demonstrations, where police fired tear gas and stun grenades into a crowd of over 1,000 chanting protesters across the street in Lafayette Park. The crowd ran, piling up road signs and plastic barriers to light a raging fire in a nearby street. A building in the park with bathrooms and a maintenance office went up in flames.

The district’s entire National Guard — roughly 1,700 soldiers — was called in to help control the protests, according to two Defence Department officials who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the matter.

As the protests grew, United States (US) President Donald Trump retweeted conservative commentator Buck Sexton who called for “overwhelming force” against violent demonstrators.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, visited the site of protests in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, and talked to demonstrators.

He also wrote a post on Medium expressing empathy for those despairing about Floyd’s killing.

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.

In Salt Lake City, an activist leader 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 founder of Black Lives Matter Utah Lex Scott.

“Maybe the next time a white police officer decides to pull the trigger, he will picture cities burning.”