Protesters and police clash in front of White House as curfews declared in major US cities

Police fired tear gas outside the White House late Sunday as major US cities were put under curfew to suppress rioting as protesters again took to the streets to voice fury at police brutality.

Law enforcement personnel clash with protesters rallying at the White House against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, D.C., USA, May 31, 2020.
Law enforcement personnel clash with protesters rallying at the White House against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, D.C., USA, May 31, 2020. © Jonathan Ernst, REUTERS

With the Trump administration branding instigators of six nights of rioting as domestic terrorists, there were more confrontations between protesters and police, and fresh outbreaks of looting.

Violent clashes erupted repeatedly in a small park next to the White House, with authorities using teargas, pepper spray and flash bang grenades to disperse crowds who lit several large fires and damaged property.

The Associated Press estimated Monday that at least 4,400 people have so far been arrested in the protests.

The protests came as a response to the shocking recorded killing last Monday of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who stopped breathing after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The protests have turned into a nationwide wave of outrage over law enforcement's repeated use of lethal force against unarmed African Americans.

Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and is due to make his first appearance in court on Monday. Three other officers with him have been fired but for now face no charges.

As the violence escalated, and hundreds of protesters gathered outside the White House – with some throwing rocks and tugging at police barricades – secret service agents rushed President Donald Trump to a bunker.

Trump spent nearly an hour in the bunker, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorised to discuss private matters and spoke on condition of anonymity. The account was later confirmed by an administration official who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

The abrupt decision by the agents underscored the rattled mood inside the White House, where the chants from protesters in Lafayette Park could be heard all weekend, and Secret Service agents and law enforcement officers struggled to contain the crowds.

The protests have sparked one of the highest alerts on the White House complex since the September 11 attacks in 2001, and security at the White House has been reinforced by the National Guard and additional personnel from the Secret Service and the US Park Police.

Trump, meanwhile, has continued his efforts to project strength, using a series of inflammatory tweets and delivering partisan attacks.

Night-time curfews in major cities

Local US leaders appealed to citizens to give constructive outlet to their rage over the death of George Floyd, while night-time curfews were imposed in cities including Washington, Los Angeles and Houston.

One closely watched protest was outside the state capitol in Minneapolis's twin city of St. Paul, where several thousand people gathered before marching down a highway.

"We have black sons, black brothers, black friends, we don't want them to die. We are tired of this happening, this generation is not having it, we are tired of oppression," said Muna Abdi, a 31-year-old black woman who joined the protest.

"I want to make sure he stays alive," she added in reference to her son, aged three. 

Hundreds of police and National Guard troops were deployed ahead of the protest.

At one point, some of the protesters who had reached a bridge were forced to scramble for cover when a truck drove at speed after having apparently breached a barricade.

The driver was later taken to hospital after the protesters hauled him from the vehicle, although there were no immediate reports of other casualties.

There were other large-scale protests in cities including New York and Miami.

Among some 350 people arrested for unlawful assembly in New York was Mayor Bill de Blasio's 25-year-old daughter Chiara, according to a police department source, who said she was issued a "desk appearance ticket" and released.

Stores ransacked 

Widespread violence has rocked many US cities in recent days, and looters ransacked stores in a neighbourhood of Philadelphia on Sunday.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, looting was reported at stores in a popular beachside shopping centre and along Rodeo Drive.

Officials in LA – a city still scarred by the 1992 riots over the police beating of Rodney King, an African American man, the year before – imposed a curfew from 4pm Sunday until dawn.

"Please, use your discretion and go early, go home, stay home and help us make sure that those who want to change this conversation from being about racial justice to be about burning things and looting things, don't win the day," the city's Mayor Eric Garcetti said on CNN.

Minnesota's Governor Tim Walz has mobilised all of the state's National Guard troops – its largest mobilisation ever – to help restore order.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to clear streets of curfew violators Saturday night in Minneapolis.

Walz extended a curfew for a third night on Sunday and praised police and guardsmen for holding down violence. "They did so in a professional manner. They did so without a single loss of life and minimal property damage," he said.

"Congratulations to our National Guard for the great job they did immediately upon arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last night," President Donald Trump tweeted, adding that they "should be used in other States before it is too late!".

The Department of Defense said that around 5,000 National Guard troops had been mobilised in 15 states as well as the capital Washington, D.C., with another 2,000 on standby.

The widespread resort to uniformed National Guards units is rare, and it evoked disturbing memories of the rioting in US cities in 1967 and 1968 in a turbulent time of protest over racial and economic disparities. 

Trump blamed the extreme left for the violence, saying he planned to designate a group known as Antifa as a terrorist organisation.

"The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly," added Attorney General Bill Barr.

'A nation in pain' 

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Trump, who has often urged police to use tough tactics, was not helping matters.

"We are beyond a tipping point in this country, and his rhetoric only enflames that," she said on CBS.

Joe Biden, Trump's likely Democratic opponent in November's presidential election, visited the scene of one anti-racism protest.

"We are a nation in pain right now, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us," Biden tweeted, posting a picture of him speaking with an African American family at the site where protesters had gathered in Delaware late Saturday.

Floyd's death has triggered protests beyond the United States, with hundreds rallying outside the US embassy in London in solidarity.

"I'm here because I'm tired, I'm fed up with it. When does this stop?" Doreen Pierre told AFP at the protest.

In Germany, England football international Jadon Sancho marked one of his three goals for Borussia Dortmund against Paderborn by lifting his jersey to reveal a T-shirt bearing the words, "Justice for George Floyd".

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app