Protests swept across dozens of US cities on Saturday as demonstrations triggered by the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, while in police custody raged throughout the country.
Angry crowds clashed with police as the authorities in several large cities, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, imposed curfews in a bid to stem the chaos.
In Washington, men and women chanted, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”, a rallying cry from the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, as they gathered outside the White House, with some trying to push past security barricades.
In Minnesota, the centre of the protests following the death of Floyd on Monday, Tim Walz, the governor, sent in the National Guard in the biggest domestic deployment in the state’s history.
The unrest erupted after a video showing a white policeman kneeling on the neck of Floyd on May 25 for several minutes went viral. The 46-year-old, who was unarmed, died shortly afterwards. His death reminded many Americans of similar high-profile cases involving black men and women dying at the hands of white police officers.
The Pentagon has taken the rare step of putting active-duty members of the US Army on standby for possible deployment to Minnesota.
President Donald Trump told reporters on Saturday that “we have our military ready, willing and able if they ever want to call our military”.
“We can have troops on the ground very quickly. They have to be tough, strong and respected,” Mr Trump said. “Because these people, this Antifa, there’s a lot of radical left bad people, and they’ve got to be taught that you can’t do this,” he said, referring to claims that anti-fascist protesters had joined the demonstrations.
The Minnesota National Guard said the state would deploy nearly 2,500 guards on the streets of Minneapolis on Saturday night, more than three times the number on duty on Friday night. The number could swell to 10,000 in coming days.
Mr Walz, a Democrat, said that in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul peaceful protests in response to the “tragedy” of Floyd’s death had given way to violent demonstrations and looting that were a “mockery of pretending this is about George Floyd’s death or inequities or historical traumas to our communities of colour”.
“The situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd. It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great cities,” Mr Walz said.
He warned that the unrest would get worse, despite the imposition of curfews.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose congressional district includes Minneapolis, also urged restraint. “We can be angry,” she said. “We can take it to the streets, we can blow up the phones of people that represent you, but what we cannot do is start a fire that can take lives.”
William Barr, the US attorney-general, echoed Mr Trump on Saturday, saying: “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.”
He added: “In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organised and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far-left extremist groups, using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travelled from outside the state to promote the violence.”
Earlier on Saturday, Mr Trump, who has attracted criticism for his handling of the Floyd case, lashed out at demonstrators, including some outside the White House. “They were just their [sic] to cause trouble,” he said on Twitter. “The Secret Service handled them easily,” he said, describing the federal law enforcement agents as “totally professional, but very cool”.
On Friday, Mr Trump provoked anger when he suggested the military could fire on protesters, saying in a tweet: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The post was hidden by Twitter, which said it violated the platform’s rules on glorifying violence.
Floyd died after Minneapolis police received a 911 call about the attempted use of a forged banknote. He was arrested by four police officers, was handcuffed, and held face down on the street with a knee on his neck, until he became unresponsive and was moved on to a stretcher.
The officers were sacked by the Minneapolis police department this week. Derek Chauvin, one of the officers, was taken into custody on Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Mr Chauvin’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Floyd’s death has prompted rare public interventions from corporate America.
Mark Mason, Citigroup’s chief financial officer, said on Friday: “Even though I’m the CFO of a global bank, the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky are reminders of the dangers black Americans like me face in living our daily lives.
“Racism continues to be at the root of so much pain and ugliness in our society — from the streets of Minneapolis to the disparities inflicted by Covid-19,” Mr Mason added. “As long as that’s true, America’s twin ideals of freedom and equality will remain out of reach.”
More than two dozen business leaders in Minnesota, including Best Buy chief executive Corie Barry and Land O’Lakes chief executive Beth Ford, signed a letter saying: “It is hard to watch the video of the event as it is clearly evident Mr Floyd was not treated with the dignity and respect he was due as a human being.”
Additional reporting by Kadhim Shubber in Washington
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