WASHINGTON – Protesters clashed with police outside the White House and throughout the nation’s capital Saturday as the demonstrations grew more confrontational in their second day as President Donald Trump threatened to shut down “mob violence” he said dishonored the memory of George Floyd.
Even as they halted traffic on the Capital Beltway and shouted obscenities at the fleet of presidential helicopters that carried Trump back to the White House, the demonstrations scattered throughout the city remained mostly peaceful. At one point former presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., joined a group of protesters outside the White House.
But there were also signs of increased tension as the protesters sought to call attention to the killing of Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody after a white officer pinned him to the ground under his knee. Some threw bottles at Secret Service agents and police near the White House. Officers responded by firing tear gas to break up the crowds.
Nour Faladi, a 22-year-old programmer from Maryland, was among those caught in a round of tear gas on Saturday night.
She was in a crowd when a gas canister hit the ground, she said, and it was “immediately harder to breathe.” She said her eyes immediately started running.
She said a volunteer in the crowd washed her eyes out, and then she headed back into the crowd.
Police wearing helmets and holding shields formed a line between the protesters and the White House, a hot spot in the city throughout much of Saturday evening. At times, some protesters tried to knock over temporary barriers or approached officers, although none appeared to approach the tall fence at the White House.
“Multiple” special agents and uniformed officers were injured when some protesters threw bricks, rocks, bottles and fireworks at officers, officials said.
Trump attended the historic SpaceX rocket launch in Florida earlier Saturday and returned to the White House on Marine One at around 8:30 p.m. As the presidential helicopters buzzed overhear near the White House grounds some demonstrators shouted obscenities and shook their fists.
Trump used his address at the Kennedy Space Center to offer a stern warning to “rioters, looters and anarchists” against violence.
“My administration will stop mob violence and we’ll stop it cold,” Trump said, blaming violence in several cities on “radical left-wing” groups. “I will not allow angry mobs to dominate…It is essential that we protect the crown jewel of democracy: The rule of law.”
The unrest in Washington came as protests erupted in cities across the nation against police brutality and racial discrimination. At least two deaths were linked to demonstrations. Protesters set cars on fire, smashed windows and clashed with police officers dressed in riot gear in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Portland, Oregon; and elsewhere.
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Outside the White House, officers wearing plastic body shields charged and pushed back a crowd of people who had removed metal barriers set up on Pennsylvania Avenue. A police helicopter circled overhead. The smell of marijuana also hung in the air.
“Trump is the reason why cops feel they can do certain things to black people,” said Cameron Jackson, 25, a supervisor at a grocery store, as he stood in the middle of 16th Street. “He condones it. He is a racist.”
But Jackson said he opposed violence.
“I’m peaceful,” he said. “I’m away from the violence.”
Dave Pringle, 32, who works on criminal justice policy in D.C., also condemned Trump.
“This man – this occupant of this building – represents the worst of humanity,” Pringle said. “I think he is an avatar of the worst of humanity.”
Six people were arrested near Lafayette Square on Friday and early Saturday, according to the Secret Service, which said it “respects the right to assemble, and we ask that individuals do so peacefully for the safety of all.”
Secret Service agents and police carrying shields blocked off Lafayette Square north of the White House as drivers honked in support of the protesters and raised their fists in the air . Some demonstrators held up signs that read: “Stop Murdering Black People” and “White Silence is Violence.”
“I came here to enforce the Black Lives Matter movement and to get justice for the injustices we have been receiving for over hundreds of years,” said Ariel Weems, a 16-year-old high school student from Bowie, Maryland.
She called Trump part of the problem.
“I don’t agree with any of his policies,” Weems said. “His Twitter comments? Shooting and looting? That was absurd … we’re out here protesting for our lives.”
In the heat of the afternoon, some moved through the crowds passing out water bottlesBecause of the coronavirus pandemic, others distributed masks. Most of the demonstrators wore masks but were closer than six feet away from each other.
Jake Schindler, 26, was one of several people handing out water bottles. Schindler said his Christian faith “called him” to justice. After running by the protest earlier in the afternoon and seeing others giving out water, he came back with a case of bottles to distribute.
James Bryant, a 30-year-old Washington resident, said he felt “like he needed to show up as a black man in America.” The protests, he said, were part of a “collective anger” that Americans can’t ignore.
Asked if he was worried about tensions between the crowd and the cordon of police, he shrugged and said, “they’re just people.”
By early evening, some protesters marched to the National Museum of African American History and Culture near the Washington Monument. Along the route, someone pained a Wells Fargo bank branch with the words “capitalism is murder.” Others painted references to the police and to Floyd on the ground.
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Corey Gwynn, a 27-year-old speech pathologist from Virginia, told USA TODAY she had joined the protest because she was “upset about the lack of equality,” especially as people had peacefully protested for so long “with no change.”
Asked what she thought of the protests around the country, some of which turned violent, she said she “can’t blame her brothers and sisters, but that’s not the way I’m going about it.”
“Merchandise can be replaced, but black lives can’t,: she said.
Floyd, 46, died Monday evening, shortly after video footage showed him handcuffed, gasping for air and saying “I can’t breathe,” as a white officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The video, taken by a bystander, circulated online and prompted widespread protests nationwide.
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The Minneapolis Police Department fired four officers involved in the incident while state and federal authorities have launched investigations into the matter. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck, was arrested Friday and is facing third-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Subsequent charges are possible and charges for the other officers involved are anticipated, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said.
Contributing: Kristine Phillips, Bart Jansen, Maureen Groppe, Matthew Brown, John Fritze