US President Donald Trump on Monday vowed to order a military crackdown on once-in-a-generation protests gripping the US, saying that he was sending thousands of troops onto the streets of the capital and threatening to deploy soldiers to states unable to regain control.
The dramatic escalation came a week after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck, leading to the worst civil unrest in decades in New York, Los Angeles and dozens of other US cities.
In Missouri, police early yesterday were trying to bring the city of St Louis under control after a night of looting and violence in which four officers were shot, St Louis Police Commissioner Colonel John Hayden said, adding that their injuries were not life-threatening.
“Mr Floyd was killed somewhere else and they’re tearing up cities all across the country,” a visibly emotional Hayden said.
Trump struck a martial tone in a nationwide address on Monday from the White House garden, as police fired tear gas on peaceful protesters outside the fence.
“I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property,” Trump said.
He slammed the previous night’s unrest in Washington as a “total disgrace” and called on governors to “dominate the streets.”
“If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said, denouncing “acts of domestic terror.”
Despite the president’s rhetoric, Monday’s protests appeared largely peaceful in major cities, although some looting was reported in New York and Los Angeles.
However, as he spoke, law enforcement, including military police, used tear gas to clear protesters outside the White House and in Lafayette Park so Trump could walk across the street to the two-centuries-old St John’s church, hit with graffiti and partially damaged by fire during unrest on Sunday.
“We have a great country,” Trump said as he stood before the church’s boarded-up windows, held up a Bible and posed for photographs.
The backlash was swift.
“He’s using the American military against the American people,” tweeted Democratic presidential hopeful and former US vice president Joe Biden.
“He tear-gassed peaceful protesters and fired rubber bullets. For a photo. For our children, for the very soul of our country, we must defeat him,” he said.
Washington’s Episcopalian bishop, Mariann Budde, said that she was “outraged” at the church visit, which she said Trump did not have permission for.
Meanwhile, Hennepin County’s medical examiner released an official autopsy on Floyd’s death, calling it a homicide caused by “neck compression,” although it also said he was intoxicated and pointed to heart disease.
The autopsy revived demands for the arrest of three other police officers who stood guard as Floyd lay dying.
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