President Donald Trump on Monday warned US governors to crack down on protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, calling them “weak” as he vowed to clamp down “very strong” in Washington.
“You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time,” Mr Trump said, according to CBS News, which obtained a recording of his call with the governors. “They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
Mr Trump blamed violence on the “radical left”, and asked the governors why they were not prosecuting looters.
“You have every one of these guys on tape. Why aren’t you prosecuting them?” he said. “The tougher you are, the less likely you’re going to be hit.”
His comments came as the US reeled from another night of protests over police killings of black Americans, which left one dead in Kentucky, as authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets, while fires blazed near the White House.
Dozens of cities were clearing up debris after crowds ignored curfews and demonstrated on Sunday night over the killing of Floyd, a black man, who died after a white police officer shoved his knee into his neck for eight minutes as he cried, “I can’t breathe.”
Thousands of National Guard troops have been deployed in multiple states. Kentucky’s Democratic governor ordered an investigation after a citizen was fatally shot as protesters in Louisville clashed with the city police and Kentucky national guard.
Washington mayor Muriel Bowser said the city would impose a curfew again on Monday from 7pm, as looting in the capital spread to some of the suburbs that rarely see unrest. Department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, were boarded up in Friendship Heights, a Washington suburb, the morning after the protests.
Mr Trump told the governors that the capital was under “good control” but would be brought more under control. “We’re going to pull in thousands of people . . . We’re going to clamp down very, very strong.”
New York City officials were also considering imposing a curfew after incidents of violence and looting on Sunday night.
The US is facing the worst protests since the civil-rights era, creating another existential crisis for Mr Trump five months before the election. Since Floyd’s death, Mr Trump has come under fire for appearing to incite violence against protesters, and was reportedly taken to a bunker under the White House on Friday as demonstrations erupted nearby.
Former president Barack Obama on Monday said the protests were a “genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system” in the US. He said the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful, and criticised the “small minority of folks” who resorted to violence.
“If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves,” Mr Obama said in a post on Medium.
While some police across the US have demonstrated solidarity with protesters, others have taken actions that have inflamed tensions and pointed to systemic police brutality.
Two police cruisers in New York City drove into protesters on Saturday as one of the vehicles was surrounded and pelted with objects. On Monday, Dermot Shea, the police commissioner, told CBS News that some protesters were engaging in deliberate “criminal activity”.
Struggling to control the protests, police have also arrested and used rubber bullets against the media, sparking criticism that the country’s police forces had become too militarised and were eroding civil rights.
The death of Floyd — the latest example of black man to die at the hands of white police — has again raised the question of systemic racism in America. Asked why black men kept being killed by police, Mr Shea told CBS: “It speaks to pervasive problems in this country . . . they go well beyond one police department or law enforcement.”
The protests come five years after riots broke out in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. The previous year, Ferguson, Missouri, witnessed massive protests after the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager shot by a white police officer.
The unrest comes as the US struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced 40m Americans out of work and claimed the lives of more than 100,000.
The virus has taken a disproportionate economic and human toll on communities of colour, bringing long-simmering tensions about race and inequality back to the boil.
While some advisers have urged Mr Trump to address the nation, critics argued that he had no capacity to bring the country together, given his past support for white supremacist protesters and the incendiary rhetoric he has employed on Twitter.
As Mr Trump has slipped in the polls in recent days, he has lashed out at Mr Biden and the Democrats, and resurrected the “law and order” rhetoric that he used to gee up his base during the 2016 race.
“Sleepy Joe Biden’s people are so Radical Left that they are working to get the Anarchists out of jail, and probably more,” the president tweeted on Monday.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll on Sunday found that Mr Biden had a 10-point lead over Mr Trump,
Mr Trump and William Barr, the attorney-general, have blamed the protests on Antifa, a diffuse, extreme leftist anti-fascist moment. Mr Trump blamed similar groups after the 2017 protests in Charlottesville when he refused to condemn white supremacists and said there were “very fine people on both sides”.
In his call with governors on Monday, Mr Trump said they would only have themselves to blame if they did not take harsher action.
“It’s happened numerous times,” he said about the protests. “The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak. And most of you are weak.”
Follow Demetri on Twitter: @dimi