US National Guard deployed in Minnesota protest over black man's death in police custody

Police gather near a protest, on May 28, 2020, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Police gather near a protest, on May 28, 2020, in St. Paul, Minnesota.PHOTO: AFP

MINNEAPOLIS (REUTERS) - Minnesota's governor activated the National Guard on Thursday (May 28) to help restore order following two days of violent protests in Minneapolis over the death of a black man seen in a graphic video gasping for breath as a white officer knelt on his neck.

Governor Tim Walz had declared a state emergency and ordered the Guard troops to assist the police as local, state and federal law enforcement officials sought to ease racial tensions sparked by Monday night's fatal arrest of George Floyd, 46.

Four city police officers involved in the incident, including the one shown pressing his knee into Floyd's neck as he lay on the ground, were fired from their jobs the next day.

At a morning news briefing, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo apologised to Floyd's family, conceding that his department had contributed to a "deficit of hope" in Minnesota's largest city even before Floyd's deadly encounter with the police.

"I am absolutely sorry for the pain, devastation and the trauma that Mr Floyd's death has left on his family, his loved ones and our community," he said.

Hours later, officials overseeing investigations from the US Justice Department, FBI, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and local prosecutors appealed for calm at a joint news conference, as they gathered evidence.

"Give us the time to do this right, and we will bring you justice, I promise you," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told reporters. He acknowledged the policeman's conduct depicted in the video was "horrible", but said, "My job is to prove that he has violated a criminal statute." Freeman said his office had also reached out to veteran civil rights activist Jesse Jackson for help in conveying the message that law enforcement takes the case seriously.

Minnesota's US attorney Erica McDonald pledged a "robust and meticulous investigation into the circumstances surrounding" Floyd's arrest and death.

The investigation, which Attorney General William Barr had designated a "top priority", will focus on whether the arresting officers used the "colour of law" to deprive Floyd of his civil rights, a federal crime, she said.

The Minnesota State Patrol arrested a CNN reporter reporting live on television early Friday morning while covering the Minneapolis protests, without giving any reason, and led him and three crew members away in handcuffs.

Black reporter Omar Jimenez had just shown a protester being arrested when about half a dozen white police officers surrounded him.

“We can move back to where you like,” he told the officers wearing gas masks and face shields, before explaining live on air that he and his crew were members of the press. “We’re getting out of your way.”

“This is among the state patrol unit that was advancing up the street, seeing and scattering the protesters at that point for people to clear the area. And so we walked away,” Jimenez said before being told he was under arrest and handcuffed by two officers. “Why am I under arrest, sir?”

Thursday marked a third night of arson, looting and vandalism in Minnesota over the death of  Floyd, and President Donald Trump suggested in a tweet that looters would be shot. Twitter accused him of breaking its rules by “glorifying violence.” 

Floyd, a Houston native known affectionately to friends as"Big Floyd", and who had worked as a nightclub security employee, was reportedly suspected of trying to pass counterfeit money when police took him into custody.

 
 
 

'I CAN'T BREATHE'

An onlooker's video of the arrest showed Floyd lying face down on the street, gasping for air and repeatedly groaning for help as he pleaded, "Please, I can't breathe." The officer pinned Floyd's neck to the ground for about eight minutes, until he grew still. He was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later.

A second night of disturbances on Wednesday, punctuated by looting, vandalism and arson, began hours after Mayor Jacob Frey urged local prosecutors to file criminal charges in the case.

Most protesters had been peaceful, while a core group engaged in unruly behaviour, the police chief said.

The Floyd case was reminiscent of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man in New York City who died after being put in a banned police chokehold.

Garner's dying words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, calling attention to a wave of killings of African-Americans by police using unjustified lethal force.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the US authorities on Thursday to deal with "entrenched and pervasive racial discrimination" in America's criminal justice system.

The city named the four officers involved in the encounter as Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng.

Local news media have identified Chauvin as the officer seen kneeling on Floyd's neck.

Chauvin's attorney, Tom Kelly, declined comment in an e-mail to Reuters.

Police department records posted online show 18 internal affairs complaints filed against Chauvin, 16 of which were closed without discipline.