WASHINGTON — Wielding extraordinary federal authority, President Donald Trump threatened the nation’s governors on Monday that he would deploy the military to states if they did not stamp out violent protests over police brutality that have roiled the nation over the past week. His announcement came as police under federal command forced back peaceful demonstrators with tear gas so he could walk to a nearby church and pose with a Bible.
Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and the aggressive, orchestrated actions came as the nation braced for another round of violence at a time when the country is already buckling because of the coronavirus outbreak and the Depression-level unemployment it has caused. The president demanded an end to the heated protests in remarks from the White House Rose Garden and vowed to use more force to achieve that aim.
If governors throughout the country do not deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers to “dominate the streets,” Trump said the U.S. military would step in to “quickly solve the problem for them.”
“We have the greatest country in the world,” the president declared. “We’re going to keep it safe.”
Minutes before Trump began speaking, police and National Guard soldiers began aggressively forcing back hundreds of peaceful protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, where they were chanting against police brutality and the Minneapolis death of George Floyd. As Trump spoke, tear gas canisters could be heard exploding.
Floyd died last week after he was pinned to the pavement by a police officer who put his knee on the handcuffed black man’s neck until he stopped breathing. His death set off protests that spread from Minneapolis across America. His brother Terrence pleaded with protesters on Monday to remain peaceful.
The demonstrators in Lafayette Park were cleared so that after his brief statement, Trump could walk across the park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as “The Church of the Presidents,” which suffered fire damage in one of the protests. Holding a Bible, he then stood with several of his Cabinet members as the cameras clicked.
The moment was quickly decried by Trump’s critics, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo saying the president “used the military to push out a peaceful protest so he could have a photo op at a church.”
“It’s all just a reality TV show for this president,” he said on Twitter. “Shameful.”
The country has been beset by angry demonstrations for the past week in some of the most widespread racial unrest in the U.S. since the 1960s. Spurred largely by Floyd’s death, protesters have taken to the streets to decry the killings of black people by police. Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with murder, but protesters are demanding that three of his colleagues be prosecuted, too. All four were fired.
While most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, others have descended into violence, leaving neighbourhoods in shambles, stores ransacked, windows broken and cars burned, despite curfews around the country and the deployment of thousands of National Guard members in at least 15 states.
On Monday, police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters who spilled onto an interstate highway in the heart of Philadelphia just before a 6 p.m. curfew took effect.
Earlier Monday, Trump told the nation’s governors in a video conference that they “look like fools” for not deploying even more National Guard troops. “Most of you are weak,” he said.
He added: “You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, dismissed Trump’s comments as the “rantings of an insecure man trying to look strong after building his entire political career on racism.”
Former Vice-President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, vowed to address institutional racism in his first 100 days in office. He met in person with black leaders in Delaware and also held a virtual meeting with big-city mayors.
Biden said hate emerges “when you have somebody in power who breathes oxygen into the hate.”
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown said she won’t send in National Guard troops to help quell violent protests in Portland because they aren’t needed and “having soldiers on the streets of America is exactly what President Trump wants.”
At a news conference earlier Monday, Brown said she would send in 100 state police from across Oregon to assist the city, and activate 50 Guard soldiers to work behind the scenes.
“You don’t defuse violence by putting soldiers on the streets,” the Democrat said.
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, Floyd’s brother Terrence made an emotional plea for peace at the site where Floyd was arrested.
“Let’s switch it up, y’all. Let’s switch it up. Do this peacefully, please,” Terrence Floyd said as he urged people to stop the violence and use their power at the ballot box.
Also Monday, an autopsy commissioned for Floyd’s family found that he died of asphyxiation from neck and back compression, the family’s attorneys said.
That distinguishes it from the official autopsy, which said he died from the effects of being restrained along with underlying health problems and potential intoxicants in his system. The official autopsy found nothing “to support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.”
The second autopsy was done by a doctor who also examined the body of Eric Garner, a New York man who died in an officer’s chokehold six years ago.
The family has accepted an offer from former boxing champion Floyd Mayweather to pay for Floyd’s funeral and memorial services, according to the CEO of Mayweather Promotions.
Authorities in many cities have blamed the violence on outside agitators, though have provided little evidence to back that up.
But on Monday, federal authorities arrested a 28-year-old Illinois man, Matthew Lee Rupert, saying he had posted self-recorded video on his Facebook page last week that showed him in Minneapolis handing out explosive devices and encouraging people to throw them at law enforcement officers. The video also showed him attempting to light a business on fire, and looting, according to an FBI affidivit. Early Sunday, he posted more videos of himself in and around Chicago, saying “let’s start a riot.”
He was arrested in Chicago for violating the city’s curfew.
More than 5,600 people nationwide have been arrested over the past week for such offences as stealing, blocking highways and breaking curfew, according to a count by The Associated Press.
Police officers and National Guard soldiers enforcing a curfew in Louisville, Kentucky, killed a man early Monday when they returned fire after someone in a large group shot at them, police said. In Indianapolis, two people were reported dead in bursts of downtown violence over the weekend, adding to deaths recorded in Detroit and Minneapolis.
While police in places tried to ease tensions by kneeling or marching in solidarity with the demonstrators, officers around the country were accused of treating protesters with the same kind of heavy-handed tactics that contributed to the unrest in the first place.
Cities struggled to keep police in line.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an officer was suspended for pushing a kneeling woman to the ground during a protest. In Atlanta, two officers were fired after bashing in the window of a car and using a stun gun on the occupants. In Los Angeles, a police SUV accelerated into several protesters, knocking two people to the ground.
In New York, the police commissioner said about six incidents were being investigated by the department’s internal affairs bureau, including a weekend confrontation in Brooklyn in which two police vehicles appeared to plow through a group of protesters. In another incident, an officer pointed a gun at protesters, drawing condemnation from the mayor.
Sullivan and Morrison reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press journalists across the U.S. contributed to this report.
Darlene Superville, Tim Sullivan And Aaron Morrison, The Associated Press