WASHINGTON • Cities across the United States awoke from a smouldering weekend of violent protests over race and policing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic yesterday as President Donald Trump denied claims that white supremacist groups were behind the destruction.
Mr Trump has made no major public statement to address the growing crisis but has issued a flurry of tweets, describing protesters as “thugs” and urging mayors and governors to “get tough”.
“I don’t see any indication that there were any white supremest (sic) groups mixing in. This is an Antifa organisation. It seems that the first time we saw it in a major way was Occupy Wall Street. It is the same mindset,” he tweeted early yesterday, referring to claims that right-wing white supremacist groups had accelerated the violence, and berating a loosely organised leftist movement that is a frequent target of conservative critics.
“We need law and order in this country,” White House spokesman Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News yesterday. She said Antifa, an anti-fascist group, was “certainly behind” the violence.
Mr Trump had said on Sunday that the US government will designate Antifa as a terrorist organisation, although it was unclear on what legal authority he could make that call.
Antifa is not an organisation, and it does not have a leader, membership roles or any defined, centralised structure. It is a va-guely defined movement of people who share common protest tactics and targets.
More important, even if Antifa were a real organisation, the laws that permit the federal government to deem entities terrorists and impose sanctions on them are limited to foreign groups. There is no domestic terrorism law despite periodic proposals to create one.
Chaotic demonstrations from Washington, DC to Los Angeles have swelled from peaceful protests – sparked by the death of a black man, Mr George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 – into scenes of violence that drew out National Guard troops in at least 15 states and Washington.
Mr Trump was taken to a secure area late last Friday as a “red” condition was declared at the White House, a person familiar with the matter said. It was not clear whether the measure was repeated on the two subsequent nights of protest around the White House, but the protesters were not as close to the fence on those nights as on Friday.
Hundreds of store fronts were smashed and buildings vandalised in multiple cities as protesters and police clashed.
Dozens of cities across the US faced curfews at a level not seen since the riots following the 1968 assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr as fires burned near the White House and stores were looted in New York City and other major cities.
Mr Floyd’s death is the latest in a string of similar incidents involving unarmed black men in recent years that has raised an outcry over excessive police force and racism, and re-ignited outrage across a starkly politically and racially divided country just months before the Nov 3 presidential election.
Video footage has shown a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of Mr Floyd, 46, for nearly nine minutes before he died.
As the unrest continues, Chinese officials and state media needled the Trump administration after weathering criticism and threats from Washington over Beijing’s own moves to quell unrest in Hong Kong.
At the weekend, China’s Foreign Ministry and state media seized the opportunity to fire back at Mr Trump, as Chinese propaganda outlets played up scenes from the US of violence, burning buildings, harsh police responses and protesters decrying the government as part of a broader narrative that Western democracies are regularly plagued by chaos and unrest that would never be permitted on the mainland.
Mr Trump had previously threatened to utilise the US military to quell the protests, but his national security adviser said on Sunday that the administration would not yet invoke federal control over the National Guard.
Many states had already activated National Guard troops to help manage the pandemic, further straining local budgets with no immediate sign of relief from Congress.
The demonstrations brought out a diversity of people and have spread around the globe, with demonstrations in New Zealand yesterday following events in London and elsewhere.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTMES