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The United States is bracing for its sixth day of mass protests against racism and police brutality, a rising wave of anger that has swept dozens of cities across the country.

Authorities called in the National Guard and imposed a record number of curfews – at least 40 by late Sunday – but demonstrators were largely ignoring them.

During the weekend, protests took over streets from coast to coast, rioters torched buildings and cars, and officers cracked down with rubber bullets and tear gas. The protests were some of the largest in the country’s long history of caustic race relations, rivalling in size the civil-rights demonstrations that took down segregation laws in the 1960s.

With states and cities doubling down on efforts to crush the unrest and protesters condemning the police response as further evidence of a broken justice system, there was no immediate end in sight.

The unrest, which began in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd last Monday, comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has left tens of millions out of work and disproportionately killed African-Americans. It represents the country’s most widespread mass gatherings in nearly three months.

Watchdog groups say dozens of journalists have been attacked or arrested while covering U.S. protests

U.S. President Donald Trump sent out an incendiary tweet Friday, saying “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He also threatened to use the army to deal with protesters. The following morning, he called for a “MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE,” suggesting that his supporters should show up when the protesters did.

On Sunday, the President said he would designate Antifa, a loosely organized left-wing anti-fascist movement, as a terrorist organization. He issued no similar condemnation of the mostly white anti-lockdown protesters who brandished semi-automatic rifles at the Michigan state legislature in April.

Video of Mr. Floyd, an African-American man, gasping for air as white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck reignited simmering frustration with a country that has failed to confront racist brutality despite numerous similar tragedies and protests.

“It could have been me,” said Michael West, a 34-year-old project manager at a Washington-area hospital as he protested on the streets of the capital Saturday night.

Mr. West, who is black, recounted being followed by a police officer in the prosperous suburb where he lives because the officer found him “suspicious.” When Mr. West requested the officer’s badge number, he said, the policeman became aggressive. Only the intervention of another officer who de-escalated the situation, Mr. West said, saved him from potentially becoming a victim of police brutality.

“When I have to tell my 12-year-old son he has to comply and just don’t ask any questions when these police officers are corrupt – that hurts,” he said.

At the Washington protest, thousands of demonstrators converged on the White House in the late afternoon and remained past midnight. Chanting “I can’t breathe,” Mr. Floyd’s words to Mr. Chauvin, they breached a low security fence in a nearby park and were driven back by riot police.

Demonstrators gather in front of San Diego Police in downtown San Diego, California on May 31, 2020.

ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP/Getty Images

A smaller group of protesters snaked through the city, smashing up businesses and police cars, torching dumpsters and at least one SUV, and setting off fireworks. Officers used batons, tear gas and flashbang grenades on the crowd, which pelted them with water bottles.

In New York, police arrested hundreds of people after several protests and riots across the city. In one incident, video showed police driving two SUVs into groups of demonstrators and knocking people down. In Minneapolis, officers were seen firing paintballs at people standing on their porches in a residential neighbourhood. In Louisville, Ky., police pepper-sprayed a television news reporter during a live broadcast, and one protester broke the hand off a statue of Louis XVI.

More than 2,500 people were arrested over the weekend, according to a tally by The Washington Post. At least three people were killed around the protests – in Indianapolis, Chicago and Oakland, Calif. – though it was not immediately clear if all of the incidents were connected to the demonstrations.

Mayors in a number of cities, including Los Angeles, Washington and Minneapolis, brought in overnight curfews, demanding everyone clear the streets under threat of arrest.

There were also some more peaceful moments. In Coral Gables, Fla., members of the Miami-Dade Chiefs of Police Association knelt in prayer with the protesters. In Flint, Mich., the local sheriff discarded his helmet and baton and joined the protest.

The demonstrations follow a string of high-profile killings of unarmed black people. In March, Louisville police opened fire in Breonna Taylor’s apartment after bursting in to serve a search warrant on the 26-year-old hospital emergency-room worker. In early May, police in Georgia charged three white vigilantes with the February murder of 25-year-old jogger Ahmaud Arbery – arrests that only took place after video of the incident went viral.

It also comes after people of colour have been particularly hurt by the novel coronavirus. Research from Yale University estimates that African-Americans were 3.5 times and Latinos twice as likely to die of COVID-19 as white people. A Pew Research survey found that black and Latino people were also far more likely to know someone who lost a job or income as a result of the pandemic-related shutdown.

Some officials worried that the protests would further spread infection, and burden a health system already stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19.

“It’s a pandemic and people of colour are getting hit harder,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Sunday on CNN. “We’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks.”

Minnesota Lieutenant-Governor Peggy Flanagan, meanwhile, accused white supremacists of joining the protests and engaging in vandalism to deliberately stoke chaos.

The crackdown spurred international embarrassment for the U.S., with Chinese leaders seizing on the protests to accuse Washington of hypocrisy for encouraging pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

“The Chinese government has not shown any support for the riots in the U.S. I hope Americans notice Beijing’s restraint. We have not tried to kick the U.S. while it’s down,” Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run Global Times said in a Twitter video.

A police officer kneels down in solidarity with protesters during a rally in Washington, D.C. on May 31, 2020.

JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

Democratic Party politicians tried to find a balance between backing the protesters and condemning property destruction.

Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the 1960s civil-rights movement, contended that peaceful protest would be a more effective way to make change.

“To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country: I see you, and I hear you. I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness,” he said in a statement. “Rioting, looting and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”

Former vice-president Joe Biden, Mr. Trump’s presumptive challenger in November’s election, criticized demonstrators’ “violence.” He also vowed to tackle police brutality if elected, but offered no specific proposals.

“We are a nation enraged, but we cannot allow our rage to consume us. We are a nation exhausted, but we will not allow our exhaustion to defeat us,” Mr. Biden wrote in a post on Medium.

But Alvin Tillery, an expert in American race politics, said the focus on property destruction was misplaced. Such acts, starting with the Boston Tea Party that protested against British taxation of the American colonies, are par for the course in the country’s history.

George Floyd's niece Gabrielle Thompson, centre, reacts during a 'Justice for George Floyd' event in Houston, Texas on May 30, 2020.

MARK FELIX/AFP/Getty Images

“No one’s condoning violence,” said Prof. Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. “But just from an analytic standpoint, we’ve got to understand that when people see the system breaking down, this is a perfectly normal reaction to it.”

He argued that this wave of protests was different from previous uprisings over racist police brutality because millennials and Generation Z are less inclined to put up with institutional racism than their forebears.

“Young people are not willing to wait, or accept platitudes around slow changes in the ways that, say, earlier generations were willing to,” he said.

The arrest of Mr. Chauvin, for instance, appears to have done nothing to dampen the protests. Prosecutors charged the officer Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; his bail was set Saturday at US$500,000. But demonstrators in Washington shouted that the charges were too lenient and that he should not be allowed out of prison ahead of his trial. Protesters have also called for charges against the other three officers involved.

“Once the anger has receded," Prof. Tillery said, "I think that there’s an opportunity in Minnesota, with their leadership, to really keep pushing for police reform and to push more broadly for democratic reforms that make people believe that the system is working better for them. That’s really all they can do.”

People march in Saint Paul, Minn. on May 31, 2020.

LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters

“It’s also an opportunity for the minority party, the Democrats to step up and put forward an agenda for change around these issues,” he said. “The good news from the streets is that so many young, white kids in the millennial and Gen Z generations obviously want change and that is a really really powerful marker that the Democrats could take advantage of if they weren’t afraid of their own shadow.”

He also said the Black Lives Matter movement has to focus on seizing this moment to build a multiracial national coalition pushing for racial justice.

Protester Raj Lakhiani, 37, said the demonstration was about broad inequality and lack of economic opportunity as much as about specific instances of police racism.

“You look around at who’s here, it’s the young people. They can’t buy a house, they can’t buy a car,” he said. “I think this year could be the tipping point.”

Mr. West, the project manager, contended that nothing less than wholesale change at the ballot box in November would fix the entrenched scourge of racism. And he urged people of all races to join together to make it happen.

“It’s not just Trump; everything under him has to go,” he said. “This isn’t just a black issue or a Latino issue, it’s an American issue.”

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