FOR SEVERAL days, Americans have awakened to searing images. A police station in Minneapolis engulfed in flames. A police truck in New York driving into a sea of protesters. Scores of riot policemen, unidentifiable behind their helmets and face shields, storming down a residential street in Minneapolis, and firing paint rounds at people who did not run inside quickly enough. Joyce Beatty, an African-American congresswoman from Ohio, pepper-sprayed by police while trying to quell a confrontation. Police in multiple cities appeared to deliberately target journalists with rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters.
The proximate cause for the protests was the killing of George Floyd, who died on May 25th after Derek Chauvin, then an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, pressed his knee into Mr Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes—almost three of them after police failed to detect Mr Floyd’s pulse. On May 29th Mr Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Mr Chauvin is expected to appear in court today. Protesters in Minneapolis had been clamouring for his arrest for three days, since mobile-phone footage of Mr Floyd’s death went viral. But his arrest did not quell the demonstrations that Mr Floyd’s death sparked. Over the weekend, they spread. America is now wracked by the most widespread, sustained unrest it has seen in more than 50 years.
Rallies that began peacefully during the day have turned violent at night. At least 75 cities across America have seen protests over the past several days. Governors in at least 11 states have called up the National Guard, and dozens of mayors declared curfews. These measures may calm things down, but they may not: protests following the death of Freddie Grey at the hands of police officers in Baltimore, and Michael Brown, killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, lasted for weeks—and those were not nearly as widespread.
That is in part because the current outcry is about more than just Mr Floyd. Protesters in Georgia commemorated Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging by two white men who chased him in a truck and shot him to death, claiming they believed, without evidence, that he was a burglar. It took weeks before local officials charged the father and son who chased and killed Mr Arbury.
In Louisville, Kentucky, protesters marched in memory of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency-room technician whom police officers killed while executing a “no-knock” warrant at her apartment (police claim they identified themselves; the family disputes this). Crowds across America have chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot”, a slogan used to draw attention to the abnormally high number of police killings in America—1,099 people last year—particularly of African-Americans, who are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police.
Precisely who is responsible for the protests’ more destructive aspects remains unclear—but those aspects have been widespread, and risk undermining support for essential reforms to American policing. Vice News has reported that far-right groups have infiltrated demonstrations, intending to spark racial violence. Tim Walz, Minnesota’s governor, blamed white supremacists, and said he has seen “evidence of some pretty sophisticated attempts to cause problems”. Police across America have often appeared far more eager to escalate than de-escalate violent confrontations.
When racial unrest spread across American cities in 1967, then-president Lyndon Johnson formed a commission to investigate its causes. “We seek more than the uneasy calm of martial law,” he said, in a nationally televised speech. “We seek peace that is based on one man’s respect for another man…We seek a public order that is built on steady progress in meeting the needs of all of our people.”
America’s current president has made no such address. Although Donald Trump called Mr Floyd’s death “a grave tragedy” and has said that “healing not hatred, justice not chaos, are the mission at hand”, he has also suggested that looters should be shot without trial. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted on May 29th, echoing a phrase used by Miami’s white police chief in 1967, who boasted, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.” He has warned of “vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons” being turned against protesters outside the White House, and of unleashing “the unlimited power of our military”.
Coming from Mr Trump—who has pardoned Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL convicted of posing with a corpse, whom fellow officers accused of shooting Iraqi civilians; as well as Joe Arpaio, a police sheriff convicted of contempt of court for failing to stop his department’s racial profiling—this rhetoric is unsurprising. And while one might imagine that a violent summer during a pandemic and a period of mass unemployment might dent a sitting president’s chances of re-election, widespread revulsion at civic unrest helped put Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968. Mr Trump no doubt hopes for the same effect this year.