President Donald Trump on Monday warned US governors to crack down on protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, calling them “weak” as he vowed to clamp down “very strong” in Washington.
“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time,” Mr Trump said, according a recording of his call with the governors. “They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
The US president blamed the spreading violence on the “radical left”, and asked the governors why they were not prosecuting looters. “You have every one of these guys on tape. Why aren’t you prosecuting them?” he said. “The tougher you are, the less likely you’re going to be hit.”
After protests over police killings of black Americans spread on Sunday night, leaving one person dead in Kentucky, authorities across the nation were bracing for more protests on Monday evening.
Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, and Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, said they would impose a citywide curfew from 11pm to 5am and double the police presence on the streets to prevent violence, looting and property damage.
A curfew in Washington was set to begin at 7pm, a day after looting in the capital spread to some of the suburbs that rarely see unrest. Department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, were boarded up in Friendship Heights, a Washington suburb, the morning after the protests.
Dozens of cities were still clearing debris after crowds ignored curfews and demonstrated on Sunday over the killing of Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer shoved his knee into his neck for eight minutes as he cried, “I can’t breathe.”
Floyd’s family on Monday released the results of a private autopsy, which concluded that he died from asphyxia. It contradicted the preliminary county report which found no evidence of “traumatic asphyxia or strangulation”. Derek Chauvin, the officer who put his knee to Floyd’s neck, is awaiting arraignment on charges of third-degree murder.
Thousands of National Guard troops have been deployed across more than half the states in the US. Kentucky’s Democratic governor ordered an investigation after a citizen was fatally shot as protesters in Louisville clashed with the city police and Kentucky national guard.
Near the White House on Monday morning, the air was smoky as clean-up crews worked to clear sidewalks and business owners boarded up buildings. A handful of onlookers took photos of vandalised statues in Lafayette Park, adjacent to the White House.
Mr Trump told the governors that while the capital was under “good control” the crackdown would continue. “We’re going to pull in thousands of people . . . We’re going to clamp down very, very strong.”
Shattered window and door glass over the floor inside Mervis Diamond Importers in Washington DC © AP
As the US is gripped by the most widespread protests since the civil-rights era, it has created another existential crisis for Mr Trump five months before the election.
Since Floyd’s death, he has come under fire for appearing to incite violence against protesters, and was reportedly taken to a bunker under the White House on Friday as protests erupted nearby.
Former president Barack Obama on Monday said the protests were a “genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system” in the US. He said the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful, and criticised the “small minority of folks” who resorted to violence.
“If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves,” Mr Obama said in a post on Medium.
While some police across the US have demonstrated solidarity with protesters, others have taken actions that have inflamed tensions and pointed to systemic police brutality.
Cleaning crews board up windows and sweep away broken glass of a UGG store on Newbury Street in Boston, Massachusetts © CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Two police cruisers in New York City drove into protesters on Saturday as one vehicle was surrounded and pelted with objects. On Monday, Dermot Shea, the police commissioner, told CBS News that some protesters were engaging in deliberate “criminal activity”.
Struggling to control the protests, police have also arrested and used rubber bullets against the media, sparking criticism that the country’s police forces had become too militarised and were eroding civil rights.
The death of Floyd — the latest example of black man to die at the hands of white police — has again raised the question of systemic racism in America. Asked why black men kept being killed by police, Mr Shea told CBS: “It speaks to pervasive problems in this country . . . they go well beyond one police department or law enforcement.”
The protests come five years after riots broke out in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. The previous year, Ferguson, Missouri, witnessed massive protests after the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager shot by a white police officer.
Neighbourhood volunteers clear broken glass at a Happy Socks store in the SoHo neighbourhood of New York © AP
Amid the unrest, the is US struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced 40m Americans out of work and claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.
The virus has taken a disproportionate economic and human toll on communities of colour, bringing long-simmering tensions about race and inequality back to the boil.
As Mr Trump has slipped in the polls in recent days, he has lashed out at Mr Biden and the Democrats, and resurrected the “law and order” rhetoric that he used to gee up his base during the 2016 race.
Mr Trump has blamed the protests on Antifa, a diffuse leftist anti-fascist moment. He took aim at similar groups after the 2017 protests in Charlottesville when he refused to condemn white supremacists, saying there were “very fine people on both sides”.
In his call with governors on Monday, Mr Trump said they would only have themselves to blame if they did not take harsher action.
“It’s happened numerous times,” he said about the protests. “The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak. And most of you are weak.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi