Large-scale protests have erupted in U.S. cities in recent days, with some resulting in violence between police, protestors, and counter-protestors. The events were catalysed by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year old man, by police officers in Minneapolis on 25 May. Floyd died after Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over eight minutes. Three other officers were present, two of whom also knelt on Floyd as he repeatedly cried ‘I can’t breathe’.
A video of the incident spread quickly on social media, sparking widespread anger at yet another killing of a black man by police officers or vigilantes. The last decade has seen similar tragedies, including the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Tensions have already been high in recent months, following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year old jogging in his neighbourhood in Georgia, as well as that of 26-year old Breonna Taylor, who was shot in her own home in Kentucky by plain-clothes narcotics officers who entered her home without warning.
Initially peaceful protests have in some cases descended into violence. CNN reports that incidents of rioting, looting, and arson occurred in Minneapolis from 27 May, with the police department’s third precinct being stormed and set alight on 28 May. Jacob Frey, Mayor of Minneapolis, stated, ‘we are doing absolutely everything that we can to keep the peace’. He condemned ‘wanton destruction’, stating that ‘there is no honour in burning down your city’. He also suggested on Twitter that white supremacists and members of organized crime groups had instigated some of the violence and looting.
Despite his early calls for the officers involved in Floyd’s death to be charged, Mayor Frey has been put in a difficult position by his inability to control the escalating unrest. Community activist Mel Reeves told CNN that ‘the mayor is new, and he said all the right things … this is not about the mayor; it’s about the police department.’
Outside of Minneapolis, a man was killed in Detroit when a man drove up and fired into a crowd of protestors, while a contract security officer was killed in a shooting in Oakland, California. NPR reports that overnight curfews have been enacted in several cities nationwide, including Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Louisville, San Francisco and Denver, as fears grow that the violence will spread. The National Guard has also been activated in several states, including Texas, Georgia, Washington, Ohio and Kentucky. Joe Biden discouraged rioting, saying that ‘the act of protesting should never be allowed to overshadow the reason we protest’.
Videos have emerged of police using rubber bullets, mace, tasers, tear gas and vehicles against peaceful protestors and bystanders. Under no circumstances should violence be used against these people, who include a woman walking home from grocery shopping shot in the head with a rubber bullet, a photo journalist in Minneapolis blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet, and a nine-year old girl pepper sprayed in Seattle. Officers who harm peaceful protestors must be held accountable.
It is equally troubling that journalists covering the protests have been arrested or assaulted, including Omar Jimenez of CNN who was arrested live on television and local TV journalist Kaitlin Rust, who had pepper balls fired at her in Louisville, Kentucky. The police must respect the right to peacefully protest and the freedom of the press, and should not escalate volatile situations with the excessive use of force.
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