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Protests rage nationwide Sunday as Trump threatens to label ‘antifa’ a terrorist group

Police in riot gear walk through a cloud of blue smoke
Police in riot gear advance on protesters in Minneapolis on Saturday.
(Associated Press)

Protesters took to the streets across the country again Sunday, from San Francisco to Boston, in angry but largely peaceful demonstrations, as officials in several states called in more National Guard troops and curfews were imposed to stem days of fires, tear gas and unrest.

Fury over police killings of black people, most recently the death of George Floyd in the seething city of Minneapolis one week ago, propelled protests as tensions heightened over a weekend of widespread looting and violence. On a highway bridge in Minneapolis, a man was arrested Sunday after driving his tanker truck into a large crowd of protesters, injuring some.

Such images went viral in disturbing videos that marked a conflicted nation. Thousands marched peacefully in Boston. But people robbed stores in broad daylight in Philadelphia, where citizens and police pleaded for a halt to the violence, seen as undermining calls for justice and reform. “It only hurts the cause,” said Danielle Outlaw, the police chief.

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Officers were battered with bricks and Molotov cocktails in West Philadelphia, and several police vehicles were vandalized, looted and set aflame. Curfews were imposed in major cities around the country, including Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

Mayors of several afflicted cities said they were still struggling to understand the complex dynamics behind an outbreak of vandalism and property destruction that has accompanied protests that first erupted in Minneapolis after Floyd‘s death. The 46-year-old black man died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been fired and faces third-degree murder charges.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said that two distinctly different crowds showed up on in her city Saturday. Thousands of people protested peacefully at City Hall and a police station, she said.

Police form a line on H Street as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.
(Alex Brandon/AP)

“At the same time that was going on, literally blocks away, it was a very different scene, with people who came with backpacks full of weapons of different kinds, from pipes to sticks to frozen water bottles to incendiary devices,” she said at a news conference Sunday. “When people come and they have that activity, they should expect a response from the police.”

President Trump remained out of sight in the White House, as protesters massed again by nightfall and police rushed in to reinforce the Secret Service and National Guard. Trump issued occasional staccato Tweets, such as “FAKE NEWS!” and “LAW & ORDER!”

Earlier Sunday, Trump blamed far-left activists for a flare-up of street violence amid nationwide protests against police brutality, even as critics denounced him for stoking divisiveness at a moment when COVID-19 and economic ruin are already causing upheaval across the country.

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The president tweeted that his administration would designate a loose movement of self-described fighters against fascism, known as “antifa,” as a “terrorist organization.” The label, typically used for foreign militants such as Islamic State, makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to support the organization.

Trump’s authority to make such a designation in a domestic context is unclear, and the groups he is targeting lack a formal structure and centralized leadership, raising doubts about enforcement.

“The United States of America has no legal authority to designate any domestic entities as ‘terrorist organizations,’” said Steve Vladeck, a national security law expert at University of Texas.

Just as with the coronavirus outbreak, competing political narratives have emerged over the root cause of the civil unrest. On Sunday, Trump’s national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, blamed “bad apples” in law enforcement rather than systemic racism for repeated episodes of lethal force against black men and boys.

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The president’s critics, primarily Democrats, said the wellspring was deeper. Former Newark Mayor and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination, cited a searing legacy of fear and mistrust.

“You know the history from which it springs,” he said of Floyd’s death. “You know the depth of the pain and anguish, where black people in communities all across this country live in fear of the police.”

Booker, interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said the protests were “not just a reaction to a live or caught-on-tape murder, but to deep wounds within our society, within our body politic.”

Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Floyd family, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “the only thing that can put out these fires are police accountability and equal justice.”

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As unrest has spread, the Trump administration has insisted that outsiders using protests as cover for acts of violence were left-wing anarchists, not right-wing extremists, such as white nationalist groups that have been cited as a threat by the Department of Homeland Security.

Atty. Gen. William Barr, at a news conference on Saturday, blamed “anarchic and left extremist groups” who traveled across state lines to take part in protests, without specifying how that conclusion was reached.

Mayors and other state and local officials have generally painted a more nuanced picture, saying it is not entirely clear who violent outside actors are.

“We’re working to get to the bottom of that right now,” said Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., interviewed on “Face the Nation.” Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said community organizers had “shared that these were people from the outside” committing acts of violence, but “they did not know them, and had no idea where they came from.”

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O’Brien, on “State of the Union,” said he was not aware of reports that white nationalists and other far-right groups may have infiltrated the protests. “This is being driven by antifa,” he said. In a separate appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” he echoed that, saying “everything I’m seeing is that this is antifa.”

But mixed messages are not uncommon in the Trump administration, and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, interviewed on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures,” was less definitive.

“I think it still remains to be seen exactly how what began as peaceful protests by people who were clearly saddened and frustrated by the police action against George Floyd … proceeded to get this way,” Pompeo said. “But we have seen this pattern before, where outsiders have come in.”

Top Trump aides have been consistent, however, in avoiding any characterization of police misconduct as a recurring pattern. On CNN, O’Brien was asked whether Floyd’s death pointed to systemic racism in American law enforcement agencies.

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“No. I don’t think there’s systemic racism,” O’Brien said. “There are some bad apples in there, and there are some bad cops that are racist.” He used almost identical language in an appearance on ABC: “There are a few bad apples out there, whether they’re racist or ill-trained or just vicious.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, left his home in Wilmington, Del., Sunday afternoon to visit the site of Saturday’s protests there. It was only the second time that he has appeared publicly outside his house since stay-at-home orders were issued during the pandemic.

A photo on Biden’s Instagram account showed him wearing a mask and blue suit, talking with men also wearing masks on a street corner strung with police tape. In a statement below the photo, he wrote that “we are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us.” Instead, he wrote, anguish must be turned to purpose.

“And as president, I will help lead this conversation -- and more importantly, I will listen, just as I did today visiting the site of last night’s protests in Wilmington,” Biden wrote.

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Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.
(Alex Brandon/AP)

Events surrounding the protests also revived a familiar debate over the president’s bellicose rhetorical style.

A tweet by Trump on Friday saying that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a quote dating back to police crackdowns on civil rights marchers in the 1960s — was flagged by Twitter as violating the social media site’s rules prohibiting the glorifying of violence.

The president also tweeted Saturday that if protesters outside the White House had breached its fence, they would have been met by “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.”

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Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, appearing on “Meet the Press,” said Trump should refrain from “divisive tweets that are meant to hearken to the segregationist past of our country.”

“He should just stop talking,” Lance Bottoms, the Atlanta mayor, said on CNN. “He speaks, and he makes it worse.”

Even a Republican senator offered mild criticism. “Those are not constructive tweets, without any question,” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina told “Fox News Sunday.”

Scott said he spoke with Trump on Saturday and expressed the belief that the president would strike a more constructive tone going forward. Trump did invoke unifying language following the successful space launch of two U.S. astronauts in Florida on Saturday when he declared himself “a friend and ally to every American seeking justice and peace.”

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But by late Saturday, he appeared to again be making veiled threats of use of force when he wrote on Twitter that the National Guard had been “released” in Minneapolis, adding: “No games!”

About 5,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen were activated over the weekend in 15 states and Washington, D.C.

Trump also unleashed a fresh attack Sunday on the news media, following reports from journalists who said they were deliberately targeted by police during protests. “They are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda,” he tweeted.

Laura King reported from Washington, D.C.; Richard Read reported from Seattle.


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