Protests erupted across the United States on Thursday night as anger over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, intensified, with some demonstrators gaining access to a police precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and setting sections of the building on fire.
Floyd died on Monday after a white Minneapolis police officer used his knee to pin Floyd’s neck to the ground for several minutes.
A video of the incident shows Floyd pleading with officers, saying “I can’t breathe” before going motionless with the officer’s knee still on his neck.
The four officers involved were swiftly fired, but Floyd’s family, community leaders and residents are calling for arrests to be made.
“These officers, they need to be arrested right now, the people want justice right now,” Philonese Floyd, George’s brother, told CNN on Thursday morning.
“They need to be convicted and get the death penalty,” Philonese said.
Hundreds of protesters marched in downtown Minneapolis for a third night on Thursday, demanding justice and an end to police violence.
“Say his name. George Floyd,” protesters chanted. “I can’t breathe.”
Video shared on social media showed protesters stopping their march at one point, kneeling and raising a fist in a moment of silence.
— Ricardo Lopez (@rljourno) May 29, 2020
As the sun set, a large fire could be seen near the third precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). A live video stream by Unicorn Riot, an independent media organisation, showed protesters eventually entering the precinct and alarms and sprinklers going off as some rooms were set ablaze. Police could not be seen in the building, and the MPD did not immediately comment on reports that police had retreated.
The City of Minneapolis urged protesters to retreat from the area over unconfirmed reports that gas lines had been cut.
“We’re hearing unconfirmed reports that gas lines to the Third Precinct have been cut and other explosive materials are in the building,” the city tweeted. “If you are near the building, for your safety, PLEASE RETREAT in the event the building explodes.”
Protesters outside the police building could be heard yelling: “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz called in the US National Guard on Thursday to support local authorities as the protests escalated.
Earlier on Thursday, a small group of protesters “occupied” the space outside the home of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who will handle the case, to demand criminal charges for the four officers – identified as Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J Alexander Kueng – involved.
“We aren’t going anywhere until Mike Freeman prosecutes and charges the officers,” protesters said in a Facebook Live video, with at least one tent put up on the sidewalk outside the county attorney’s home.
Freeman’s office said in a statement on Tuesday it was “shocked and saddened by what appeared in a recent video”.
It said it would make a decision on prosecution after it receives the completed findings of the investigations by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI.
Freeman said on Thursday his office would work through the case “as expeditiously, as thoroughly as justice demands”.
“We just can’t rush this,” Freeman said. “These need to be done right. Please give me and give me the United States attorney time to do this right and we will bring you justice.”
Police response to protests
Thursday’s protest followed similar demonstrations in Minneapolis that have taken place for the last two days.
Floyd’s death has been compared with that of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man who died in 2014 after police put him in a chokehold. Some of Garner’s last words were: “I can’t breathe.”
While the protests have started peaceful, they have descended into chaos with reports of looting, arson and vandalism.
Police have used tear gas and non-lethal projectiles to disperse the crowds, drawing anger from local residents.
“The way the police – MPD – have been treating people, having been treating the community, have been treating young people is incredibly frustrating,” said Ramla Bile, a Somali American Minneapolis resident.
“Seeing all the sophisticated gear that they have is disgusting,” she told Al Jazeera.
Bile said she found it especially frustrating that “for a city where we are continuing to talk about inequity and disparities … we continue to funnel money to the police” instead of investing in these communities.
Protests also took place on Thursday in cities across the US, including Columbus, Ohio, Oakland, California, and New York City, where dozens of people were reportedly arrested.
Hundreds also rallied in Louisville, Kentucky, to protest against police brutality and draw attention to the killing of Breonna Taylor who was shot dead by police in March as they served a search warrant. At least seven people were shot at the protest, police said on Thursday. One person is in critical condition and no arrests have been made, police said.
— Gili Getz 🔥 (@giligetz) May 28, 2020
In Denver, Colorado, hundreds of people descended on the state capitol. Police confirmed that shots were fired near the area where the protest was taking place. It is unclear if the shots were related to the protest. Police said there were no immediate reports of injuries.
Several more protests are scheduled for Friday and over the weekend.
‘Your violence has brought this resistance’
Several prominent activists and sports stars meanwhile took to Twitter to express outrage over Floyd’s death and support for those protesting.
Rights activist and former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem at US football games to protest police brutality, tweeted: “We have to fight back!”
When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction.
The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance.
We have the right to fight back!
Rest in Power George Floyd
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) May 28, 2020
“When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction,” Kaepernick said in support of the protesters. “The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance.”
In a joint statement on Thursday, US Attorney Erica MacDonald and FBI Special Agent In Charge Rainer Drolshagen said the US Department of Justice has made the investigation into Floyd’s death a “top priority”.
US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly been accused of stoking racial tensions, on Thursday said he and his administration are “very much involved”.
He said the video of Floyd’s arrest was a “very shocking sight”, but he declined to say whether he believed the officers should be charged.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Trump called the protesters participating in any looting and setting fires “thugs” and warned the military “will assume control” if needed.
“Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” the president tweeted without elaborating.
Back in Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey, who has called for the arrest of the officer who pinned Floyd down, said on Thursday the city’s anger is “not only understandable, it’s right”.
“‘What we’ve seen over the last two days and the emotion-ridden conflict over the last night is the result of so much built-up anger and sadness … that has been ingrained in our Black community – not just because of the five minutes of horror, but for 400 years,” he said.
For communities of colour in Minneapolis, however, the words of politicians ring hollow.
“At this point, it’s status quo,” Minneapolis resident Bile said. “And status quo in the middle of a pandemic when we’ve been disproportionately harmed by everything that’s been going on on top of the existing disparities, we are being suffocated.”