‘I can’t breathe’ protests heat up as curfews imposed in several U.S. cities

A weeping protester confronts police during nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S. May 30, 2020. Picture taken May 30, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Civil unrest flared and curfews were imposed in several major U.S. cities on Saturday as demonstrators took to the streets to vent outrage at the death of a black man shown on video gasping for breath as a white Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck.

From Los Angeles to Miami to Chicago, protests marked by chants of “I can’t breathe” – a rallying cry echoing the dying words of George Floyd – began peacefully before turning unruly as demonstrators blocked traffic, set fires and clashed with riot police, some firing tear gas and plastic bullets in an effort to restore order.

The sight of protesters flooding streets fueled a sense of crisis in the United States after weeks of lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen millions thrown out of work and has disproportionately affected minority communities.

NYPD officers wait for instructions as they clash during a march against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., May 30, 2020. Picture taken May 30, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

In the nation’s capital, hundreds of demonstrators assembled near the Justice Department headquarters shouting, “black lives matter.” Many later moved to the White House, where they faced off with shield-carrying police, some mounted on horseback.

President Donald Trump said on Saturday that if protesters who gathered the night before in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, had breached the fence, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”

The full Minnesota National Guard was activated for the first time since World War Two after four nights of arson, looting and vandalism in parts of Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, and its adjacent capital, St. Paul.

Protesters rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., May 30, 2020. REUTERS/Sam Wolfe

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said the deployment was necessary because outside agitators were using protests over Floyd’s death to sow chaos.

“We are under assault,” Walz, a first-term governor elected from Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, told a briefing on Saturday. “Order needs to be restored.”

Separately, U.S. Attorney General William Barr also pointed the finger at extremist instigators, though he and Walz – neither offering evidence to support their assertions – suggested opposite ends of the political fringe were to blame.