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Protests continue as US defense secretary rejects Trump’s demand for troops

Martin Pengelly in New York, Vivian Ho and Maanvi Singh in Oakland
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Protests over the death of George Floyd continued across the US on Wednesday, after a largely peaceful night. As demonstrators returned to the streets, police chiefs called for reform – and the US secretary of defense publicly rejected Donald Trump’s threat to deploy combat troops.

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Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, died in Minneapolis on 25 May when an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. That officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired then charged with murder. On Wednesday afternoon Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general, announced an elevated charge against Chauvin and charged three more officers with aiding and abetting.

Protests against police brutality and racism arose after Floyd’s death, before a crackdown by federal and state authorities led to the worst civil unrest in the US since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968.

Curfews remain in place in most major US cities, dampening the potential for confrontation between protesters and police in the hours of darkness. On Tuesday, many marchers defied the deadline.

Minneapolis and St Paul, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta and other cities remained largely peaceful. In cities including Portland, Oregon, and Tampa and St Petersburg in Florida, crowds were forcibly dispersed.

In Washington, where the area around the White House has seen intense clashes involving federal officers, demonstrators gathered calmly. On Wednesday, a crowd formed again in the capital. Thousands knelt and sang as law enforcement officers in riot gear stood watching over the crowd, which stretched down 16th Street near the White House.

Large, peaceful demonstrations continued coast-to-coast in cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, and around the world, with passionate crowds gathering at the heart of London, as well as Helsinki and Stockholm.

In San Francisco, thousands gathered in the city’s Mission District on Wednesday. Among the “Black Lives Matter” and “defund the police” signs, Aztec dancers danced and protesters burned sage. Organizers handed out masks, gloves and water bottles. 

Alongside chants of “George Floyd” and “Breonna Taylor”, protesters shouted the names of their own who were killed by police: Mario Woods. Jessica Williams. Alex Nieto. Oscar Grant in Oakland. 

“They still feel like they can just kill us,” said 15-year-old McKinna Lincoln. Her mother, Mink Lincoln-Price, brought her five-year-old and seven-year-old sons with them to the protest.

Across the bay in Oakland a large group gathered in defiance of the city’s 8pm curfew. Thousands of protesters stepped into a major intersection and sat down, chanting their message loud and clear: “Fuck your curfew.”

Protesters gathered near Dolores Park in San Francisco on Wednesday. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

As the US president continued to defend the decision to use rubber bullets and chemical agents against protesters around St John’s church on Monday, the defense secretary, Mark Esper, said he did not agree with Trump’s wish to use combat troops to impose or maintain order.

“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon, referring to 1807 legislation which would allow the president to call in units moved close to Washington.

The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, later told reporters the Insurrection Act was “definitely a tool within [Trump’s] power”. She also declined to say if Trump might fire his defense secretary for his public comments. It was later reported that the Pentagon had reversed a decision to move combat units away.

Support for the movement came from prominent figures on Wednesday, including two former presidents. Jimmy Carter called for Americans in positions of power and influence to fight racial injustice, saying “silence can be as deadly as violence”, while Barack Obama, speaking at an event, said the urgency of the current moment was “as powerful and transformative as anything I’ve seen in recent years”.

Meanwhile Trump’s former defense secretary, James Mattis, delivered a blistering criticism of the president’s response to the protests, accusing him of abusing executive authority. “I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” he said.

Elsewhere, a prominent African American police chief called for a ban on police chokeholds and restraints similar to that which killed Floyd, whose official autopsy ruled his death a homicide.

“We do not just need a nationwide ban,” Cerelyn Davis, the police chief of Durham, North Carolina, told ABC News. “We need nationwide standards. We need sweeping changes that are supported with legislation … to ensure that every agency large and small have the best practices in place or we are going to continue to see these [deaths].”

“The emotions and feelings that we see expressed out on the streets of cities all across the country going way back are substantiated,” Davis added. “There have been years and years of systemic racism in law enforcement.”

In New York in July 2014, a chokehold during an arrest resulted in the death of Eric Garner. His last words, “I can’t breathe”, became a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. Floyd said the same words as he lay handcuffed in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

The New York police chief, Terrence Monahan, told ABC all police leaders needed to “take a good hard look at their agency, to bridge the gap between cops and community”.

“Whatever reforms there are it’s important that we see one another as human,” he said.

A protester holds up picture of George Floyd on her phone in Washington DC, on 3 June. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Police forces have been criticized for their heavy-handed response to protests, and several people have died since the unrest began. On Wednesday police in the San Francisco area said a man suspected of stealing from a pharmacy was fatally shot by officers who thought he was carrying a firearm in his waistband but actually had a hammer.

Floyd’s memorial service will be in Minneapolis on Thursday. His funeral will be in Houston, where he grew up, next week. Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief, rejected Trump’s threat to send troops into states that do not “dominate” protesters.

“This is Texas,” Acevedo told ABC, “cities are safe, things are going well here, we do not need any support in terms of federal troops.”

The Insurrection Act of 1807 was passed by Thomas Jefferson and last invoked in 1992, over riots in Los Angeles provoked by the police beating of Rodney King.

Trump has repeatedly said he thinks the US is in such a situation. On Monday, the president harangued governors on a call leaked to outlets including the Guardian. On Wednesday, he told Fox News Radio: “After we had the one evening which was a little rough, we brought in the troops.”

He also claimed he had not spent part of Friday night in a bunker under the White House, but had “inspected” it briefly during the day. That was contrary to multiple reports citing White House officials.

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Trump also said protesters “burned down” St John’s church, where on Monday the president posed with a Bible, a controversial photo op staged to reassure evangelical supporters. In fact, the rector of the “Church of the Presidents” told parishioners a “small fire” damaged part of the basement.

Esper also addressed criticism for his decision, with Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to walk with Trump to St John’s after peaceful protesters were forcibly cleared from the area. The defense secretary said he always “tried to stay apolitical” and had not been “aware that a photo op was happening”.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against Minneapolis police and the Minnesota state patrol, alleging violations of the rights of journalists covering protests.

Journalists have been injured across the US. The lead plaintiff in the ACLU case is Jared Goyette, a freelance reporter who has covered the protests for the Guardian. He says he was shot in the face by a rubber bullet fired by police.

Julia Carrie Wong contributed reporting