Police criticized over heavy-handed response to peaceful protests across US

Tom McCarthy
Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

After a night of vandalism and police aggression against protesters across the United States, the response of law enforcement officers to widespread public demonstrations came under heavy criticism as demands grew to ensure the right of protesters to peaceably assemble.

As peaceful protests unfolded in dozens of cities across the country, from Newark, New Jersey, to Portland, Oregon, one week after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, elsewhere vandals destroyed property with impunity and provoked clashes with police and other security forces.

In a series of unusually violent clashes, police officers came under fire as well. Four officers were shot in St Louis, Missouri, and one officer in Las Vegas was on life support after being shot in the head. A police officer in New York City was in serious condition after being hit by a car.

Police were largely absent for crucial minutes in New York City as looters moved along Fifth Avenue, the central axis of Manhattan island, and through the Midtown shopping district. Crowds broke into Macy’s flagship department store and dozens of other businesses. A curfew was in place from 11pm on Monday to 5am Tuesday, and more than 700 people were arrested.

Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected criticism that the police force had failed to ensure public safety. “There were peaceful protesters who rejected the violent elements and forced them out of protests,” De Blasio said. “That ultimately is the big story here.”

The lack of a police presence echoed scenes from a night earlier in Chicago, where dozens of officers were deployed to surveil peaceful protests as vandalism played out in another part of the city.

“Why do we need over 100 police to enforce a peaceful protest in Old Town when mayhem and lawlessness runs rampant in Bronzeville and Washington Park?” alderman Pat Dowell wrote on Facebook in remarks picked up by the Chicago Tribune.

In Louisville, Kentucky, a police chief was fired after officers killed an African American restaurant owner, David McAtee. The officers involved in the incident had not activated their body cameras as required by department policy.

In Atlanta, Georgia, two police officers were fired on Sunday and three others were placed on desk duty after officers used Tasers on two college students who had been sitting in a car. The action violated department restrictions against excessive use of force.

“After review of that footage, Chief [Erika] Shields and I have made the determination that two of the officers involved in the incident last night will be terminated immediately,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a news conference.

A county prosecutor announced on Tuesday that arrest warrants had been issued for six Atlanta officers on charges including aggravated assault, simple battery, criminal damage to property, pointing a handgun and aggravated battery.

Police shot dead a member of a crowd in Las Vegas who had “multiple firearms who appeared to be wearing body armor”, the local police department said in a statement.

The prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, asked the Australian embassy to investigate the assault by security forces on a reporter and cameraman in Washington DC.  

“You heard us yelling there that we were media but they don’t care, they are being indiscriminate at the moment,” the Australian reporter said on air after the assault. The incident followed days of direct attacks on and arrests of members of the press from Des Moines to Minneapolis.

Elsewhere, in cities including Denver, Omaha, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, police officers and peaceful protesters made demonstrations of unity, with some officers kneeling or joining marches and marchers embracing uniformed officers.

Perhaps the most prominent incident on Monday evening of an unprovoked attack on peaceful protesters was not carried out by local police but at the direction of Donald Trump.

The mayor of Washington DC said the troops who unleashed teargas on protesters outside the White House so the president could stage a photo-op at nearby St John’s church were military police, not members of the local department.

A second unusual show of force, in which a US army Blackhawk helicopter hovered low over protest crowds, was not related to local police activity.