New York unrest leaves political leaders at odds

Another night of upheaval that left storefronts smashed in some of New York’s most storied neighbourhoods also sparked recriminations among its political leaders — with the state’s governor issuing an unusually public rebuke to the city’s mayor and police for failing to maintain order.

In spite of an 11 PM curfew and the addition of 4,000 officers on Monday night, neighbourhoods in Manhattan were ravaged by looters while a police officer was run down by a vehicle in the Bronx, video footage showed trash cans aflame and alarming scenes of scuffles broke out between police and protesters. The New York City Police Department reported 700 arrests by early Tuesday, and expected the number to rise.

In a tweet, Donald Trump, president, who has called for authorities to “dominate” protesters, said: “New York was lost to the looters, thugs, Radical Left, and all others forms of Lowlife & Scum. The Governor refuses to accept my offer of a dominating National Guard. NYC was ripped to pieces.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, called the situation “a disgrace” and laid the blame on Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the New York Police Department, the nation’s largest police force, with 38,000 officers.

“First, the NYPD and the mayor did not do their job last night. I believe that,” the governor said on Tuesday.

Without going into specifics, Mr Cuomo faulted Mr de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, for failing to deploy the full weight of a well-resourced police force that has dealt successfully with civil unrest in the past.

He also argued that it should be possible for law enforcement to distinguish between peaceful protesters — whom he supported — while cracking down on other elements bent on violence and looting.

“I believe the mayor underestimates the scope of the problem,” he said. “I believe the mayor underestimates the duration of the problem.”

Earlier, an emotional Mr de Blasio called the situation “a horrible, perfect storm we’re living through” and announced that the 11 PM to 5AM curfew announced on Monday would be extended another five days, and brought forward to 8PM in an effort to quell the violence.

The move came as the US was braced for an eighth night of demonstrations across the country on Tuesday over the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The extent of the protests have earned comparisons to the civil disturbances that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968.

In what has become a pattern, many of the gatherings began as peaceful protests on Monday and later turned violent — hijacked, authorities said, by outsiders intent on using the outrage over Floyd’s killing to foment chaos.

In New York City, the mood has been particularly tense. The city has been among the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 21,000 fatalities — a disproportionate number born by predominantly black and Hispanic communities. It was due to begin reopening on Monday after nearly three months of shutdown to contain the virus that have frayed nerves and devastated the economy.

Some of the worst scenes on Monday night unfolded around 34th Street in Manhattan, a central shopping district, where Macy’s, Best Buy, the Lego store and other businesses were broken into — even though many had been boarded up.

In the nearby Flatiron District, toppled mannequins and clothes were strewn across the floor at the Nike store. At Sephora, lipsticks, foundations and concealers cluttered the floor, mixed with broken glass, after looters pulled apart plywood boards that had been put in place during the pandemic. 

Throughout the night, residents could hear the drone of helicopters overhead, the wail of sirens, shouting on the streets, and police calling over loudspeakers for people to disperse. Trash cans were set alight.

Mr de Blasio has said it would be counterproductive to deploy the National Guard to the city.

He now finds himself in arguably the most difficult spot of his mayoralty, with the city plunged into a health and fiscal crisis, because of the pandemic, and now battling to preserve public order.

Compounding the challenge, the mayor, a self-described progressive, has long endured strained relations with both Mr Cuomo and the city’s police.

On Tuesday, he urged citizens to rally around the police. “They are in so many ways holding the city together right now,” he said, decrying “vicious attacks” on officers as “wholly unacceptable”.

But he also promised to root out bad officers and, based on video footage from the previous evening, reprimanded an officer for appearing to brandish a gun at protesters.

A retired law enforcement official complained the police had been given an impossible task, and warned they risked losing control of the situation.

“It’s a very challenging situation, and the mayor makes it worse,” the official said. “He sends mixed messages every day.”

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