Police in several cities significantly increased their use of force on Saturday night against protesters decrying police use of force – wielding batons, rubber bullets and pepper spray in incidents that also targeted bystanders and journalists.
Some of the most aggressive actions were taken by police in Minneapolis, where the protests began. There, a video posted online showed police arresting a local TV cameraman, firing nonlethal projectiles at a CBS-TV crew and firing a round that scatters paint into a group of people watching from their front porch.
The intent seemed to be a forceful restoration of control, after earlier nights where police in Minneapolis were criticized for being too passive – even abandoning a police precinct to protesters, who set it afire.
But in Minneapolis and elsewhere on Saturday the effect was often the opposite, signaling disorder among those whose job it was to restore order.
The use of force by police sometimes seemed unconnected to any threat that they faced, and aimed at people who had little to do with the violent protests.
“I’ve covered protests involving police in Ferguson, Missouri; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Dallas and Los Angeles. I’ve also covered the U.S. military in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. I have never been fired at by police until tonight,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Henessy-Fiske, who said she had been shot with at least one rubber bullet by Minnesota State Patrol officers while standing on a street in Minneapolis.
“Where do we go?” Hennessy-Fiske said she yelled at the officers, asking for them to direct her and a group of other journalists to safety. “None of the officers responded. Instead, they chased us along the wall and into a corner.” Hennessy-Fiske said she escaped after scaling a wall, with two bloody wounds to her leg.
On Sunday, President Donald Trump and officials in Minnesota praised the more-aggressive police response the night before.
“These aren’t particularly pretty actions that we take . . . but it was necessary,” said Col. Matt Langer, the head of the Minnesota State Patrol, in a news conference.
“I supported the actions that were out there. I gave the order to go with them,” said Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, though he said the use of force toward reporters was “unacceptable.”
“Other Democrat run Cities and States should look at the total shutdown of Radical Left Anarchists in Minneapolis last night,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
The protests began early this week, after 46-year-old George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has since been fired, arrested, and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Since then, many protests have been peaceful. But in other cases, protesters have looted stores, set fire to buildings and police cars, and thrown firecrackers, bottles, bleach and even a molotov cocktail at police, according to police departments.
Dozens of police have been injured, according to news reports. In Philadelphia on Saturday night, for instance, police said an officer on a bicycle was run over by a car as he tried to stop looters, suffering a broken arm. In Ferguson, Missouri – the epicenter of similar protests in 2014 – all nonessential personnel were evacuated from police headquarters after protesters throwing rocks and fireworks injured four officers, county police said.
“The level of anger and violence in a number of these cities has been really challenging for the police,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group. He said the events of the past week were more widespread, and angrier, than the protests in 2014. “It feels we haven’t seen this level of national violence in a long time.”
Wexler said the covid-19 pandemic has posed a new difficulty for police. Historically, he said, police are trained to focus on mask-wearers in any crowd, as a way of identifying potential troublemakers among peaceful protesters. Now, however, mask-wearing is widespread.
Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said he hoped that “as each day goes by, the anger and the riots will likely go down.”
“I ask people to put themselves in the law enforcement officer’s position in these scary situations,” he said. “People are throwing bottles and bricks and all sorts of things at you and at the same time, they’re expecting you to just stand there, take this abuse, and not react. There comes a point where officers have to protect themselves and protect other people around them.”
In many cities, mayors had imposed curfews Saturday night. These, in theory, were supposed to weed out the peaceful protesters, because they would go home. That would allow police to isolate a smaller group of disruptive lawbreakers.
“The situation on the ground in Minneapolis & St. Paul has shifted & the response tonight will be different as a result,” the Minnesota Department of Public Safety posted on Twitter at about 6 p.m. local time Saturday. “The coordinated … law enforcement presence will triple in size to address a sophisticated network of urban warfare.”
But in Minneapolis, protesters said there was another effect: After the curfew, police began to treat everyone on the street as someone engaged in “urban warfare,” regardless of their behavior.
Three protesters said that, just after the curfew came into affect at 8 p.m., police fired tear gas at what had been a peaceful sit-in.
“Bus reinforcements came by, and a lot of officers just came at us firing tear gas,” said a student from Macalester College, who gave his name only as Nate. “No reason for it, completely unprovoked attack on a completely peaceful sit-in protest.”
In one incident captured on social media, police in Minneapolis confronted a group that wasn’t on the streets at all: They were standing on a front porch, watching a column of officers go by. The officers ordered the group inside, but they didn’t go.
“Light ’em up!” someone in the group of police yelled. Then there were at least two bangs, as rounds that dispersed green paint hit the group. No one in the group appeared seriously injured.
Edward Maguire, a professor at Arizona State University who recently published a guidebook on police crowd-control procedures, said this instance was especially egregious. Officers fired potentially dangerous rounds at people who posed no threat.
“Everything that police do in these types of situations should be aimed at de-escalation, and that is really, really stunning example of escalation,” he said. “You cannot be shooting projectiles at human beings, unless you have a really good reason to do so.”
Watching the events of Saturday night, Maguire said he felt like police chiefs across America had read his guidebook on crowd control and decided to do the opposite. “I’m just seeing examples all over the country right now of bad policing,” he said. “Poorly conceived strategies for how to handle protests.”
In another Minneapolis incident, a CBS-TV news crew said they were shooting video of a group of officers standing around in a parking lot when someone fired rubber bullets at them. “They’re sighting us in, dude,” one of the crew says in the video posted by CBS reporter Michael George, after the bullets came closer. Michael Adams, a reporter for VICE News, recorded himself being pepper-sprayed by police in Minneapolis, even while he was already on the ground.
One night earlier, TV reporter Kaitlin Rust was reporting live from a protest in Louisville when she was hit by a pepper-ball fired by an armor-clad police officer who appeared to be targeting her repeatedly.
These actions – and videos showing lines of officers in riot gear in several cities – seemed to defy the crowd-control tactics recommended by policing groups, which say police should avoid using armor-clad officers unless absolutely necessary.
Instead, police groups have recommended sending out officers in their regular uniforms, at least at first.
The logic is that when police don their armor it can reduce officers’ inhibitions about using force, since they are harder to identify by name. And it can also make protesters more likely to turn violent, since it dehumanizes the officers they are attacking.
“It’s not just that they lead to a certain amount of impunity among the police. It’s that they actually escalate the likelihood that people will attack them,” said Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College who has studied the policing of protests for 20 years. “It’s a magnet. It’s a magnet for violence.”
In New York, video posted to social media showed two police SUVs driving into a crowd of protesters after the protesters blocked their way and pelted them with water bottles. It was unclear if anyone was injured in the incident.
Afterward, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the incident was under investigation – but that he would not criticize police officers facing such an “impossible situation.”
“If those protesters had just gotten out of the way and not created an attempt to surround that vehicle, we would not be talking about this,” de Blasio said on local television station NY1.
He added: “In a situation like that, it’s a very, very tense situation. And imagine what it would be like, you’re just trying to do your job and then you see hundreds of people converging upon you. I’m not gonna blame officers who are trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation,” de Blasio said. “The folks who were converging on that police car did the wrong thing to begin with and they created an untenable situation. I wish the officers had found a different approach. But let’s begin at the beginning. The protesters in that video did the wrong thing to surround them, surround that police car, period.”
But other New York politicians criticized the officers’ actions: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called it “outrageous” and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blasted de Blasio on Twitter.
“@NYCMayor your comments tonight were unacceptable,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This moment demands leadership & accountability from each of us. Defending and making excuses for NYPD running SUVs into crowds was wrong.”
The aggressive response in these cities was not the rule everywhere. In Camden, New Jersey, the county police chief marched with protesters decrying Floyd’s death.
In Flint, Michigan, Gennessee County Sheriff Chris Swanson did the same. In a moment captured on video, he told protesters, “I want to make this a parade, not a protest.”
In Baltimore, during a protest at police headquarters, one person carried a sign listing the names of African Americans killed by police. In a moment captured on video by Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood, a police lieutenant read the names aloud.
“Oscar Grant,” read Lt. Peter Heron, who was wearing a uniform but no riot gear. Grant was killed by a California transit police officer in 2009, shot as Grant lay on the floor of an Oakland train station.
“Next name!” the crowd shouted back.
“Keith Scott,” Heron read. Scott was killed by police in Charlotte in 2016.
After Heron finished reading, Wood reported, the protesters moved on, and even shook hands with some officers.