Protests fuel flames of crisis in coronavirus-stricken America

Does this week’s violence in the US represent another wave of protests or a pivotal turning point?

LAW ENFORCEMENT personnel stand guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (photo credit: JAMES HARNETT/SOCIAL MEDIA VIA REUTERS)
LAW ENFORCEMENT personnel stand guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
WASHINGTON – The scene in downtown Washington, DC, was surreal. Military-style vehicles were closing the main intersections around the White House and its surrounding streets, as thousands of people marched from Lafayette Park to Capitol Hill and back on Wednesday afternoon. They were wearing face masks and chanted George Floyd’s name. On the road, there were still marks of cars that were set on fire earlier this week.
Hundreds of restaurants and other businesses that were already struggling to operate due to the COVID-19 pandemic were boarded up, shielding themselves from looting. One restaurant, Ollie’s Trolley at 12th and E Street NW, blocks from the White House lawn, left a small note on the wooden board: “We are open.”
The demonstration was another in a week of protests, which have erupted throughout the US following the death of Floyd, the 47-year-old black American who became a national symbol seen on video gasping for breath in his final minutes and pleading “I can’t breathe” as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
The sight of protesters flooding streets fueled a sense of crisis in the US after weeks of lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen millions thrown out of work and disproportionately affected minority communities.
Violence spread over the nights this week, despite curfews in several major cities rocked by civil unrest in recent days, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver, Cincinnati, Portland, Oregon, and Louisville, Kentucky.
Many of the protests have descended into looting and vandalism, and have sparked clashes with police that are among the worst civil strife seen in the US in recent years. Claims of both radical right-wing and left-wing interests fueling the protests, and anger of black Americans for their own means, flew back and forth all week.
Much of the focus has centered on Washington, where the daily protests near the White House have placed US President Donald Trump squarely in the magnifying glass.
On Monday, Trump said in the White House Rose Garden he was going to deploy thousands of heavily armed soldiers and law enforcement agents to halt violence in the US capital, and vowed to do the same in other cities if mayors and governors failed to regain control of the streets.
“If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said.
As Trump spoke at the Rose Garden on Monday, authorities dispersed a peaceful protest outside the White House. Then, in a heavily criticized move, he walked out of the White House – surrounded by dozens of security personnel – across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was damaged by fire amid protests on Sunday night.

He stopped in front of the boarded-up windows at the yellow church, where many presidents have attended services, along with several members of his administration, including Attorney-General William Barr, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and other top aides.
As an acrid smell still hung in the air, Trump held up a Bible for cameras before walking back to the White House. Claims that peaceful protesters, gathered legally, had been tear-gassed ostensibly to enable a photo-op by the president did nothing to ease tensions and instead only helped fuel the flames.
WEDNESDAY’S MARCH in the nation’s capital was mostly peaceful. At one point, protesters laid on the ground on Pennsylvania Avenue for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time for which Floyd’s neck was pinned to the ground by the police officer. “I can’t breathe,” they occasionally called.
Star Makonnen was born in Washington and now lives in its suburbs. She told The Jerusalem Post she decided to attend the protest despite her fear of COVID-19. “I’ve been really scared of the virus so I’ve been home. But it did take this to get me out of the house. I hope that we don’t all get sick, but I’m just trying to look at the bigger picture. I’m trying to look at the changes that we’re making in our actions, and I hope that it’s working,” she said.
Asked about previous waves of protests and whether she believes this could be a turning point in race relations in America, she said: “This feels different to me; it feels like it is making some kind of difference. I feel like if we didn’t protest, the charges [against the four policemen] wouldn’t have been amplified. We have a lot more work to do outside of this protest right here. But, yes, I do feel a shift.”
Makonnen said she believes the protest is not about a specific demand, but rather about the big picture. “I am hoping that in the future, more minority people would be in places of power that can make changes internally from the inside out.” she also addressed the military presence in the nation’s capital, and said: “this is meant to intimidate us, but I’m proud of the people that haven’t allowed it to.”
As for the violence and looting that took place earlier in the week, she said: “I’m not for looting. I am really just for the protesting. I feel like there have been groups outside of the Black Lives Matter movement that have infiltrated the movement and are using it as an excuse to do bad things in the community. I’m just hoping that our voices and our actions are louder than this.”
Jen Conklin is a high-school teacher in Washington, said she decided to demonstrate “because the injustices that have been happening in our country have been going on too long. This is our way of expressing those feelings supporting Black Lives Matter and justice.”
Rhythm Bowers, a 23-year old visual artist, told the Post attending the protest made her optimistic change is possible. “I’m very optimistic that things will begin to change because I feel like a lot more conversations are taking place, and if it’s not directly influencing the law right away, there are changes between people’s communities,” she said. “So, if we don’t see a global scale change, we will definitely see a community-based change and which can lead up to a global change.”
“I think it’s definitely a turning point in America because I’ve never seen all 50 states protest at one time,” she continued. “So I feel like that is very powerful. And the future can not be determined. I can’t guess what the future is, but I’m hoping to see a difference based on how much we’ve come together. I feel like this is a step towards something bigger that needs to change.”
“This is history, and the greatest potential for change is with us,” Prof. Ronald Hall, a Michigan State University expert on racism and diversity, said in an email correspondence. “This is also more impactful across race, religion, and nationality,” he added.
Asked about the violence and looting there happened in some of the protests, he said: “Violence and looting are symptoms. Treating the symptoms will not cure the disease. The police problem is a matter of culture.”
Among the protesters, there were a group of some 100 medical students from local universities; some of them wore white coats. “We need to make sure that our voices are heard and add our point of view because we’re the ones who see these people who come into the hospital, who died on the operating table and who die in the emergency rooms, and this needs to stop,” said one, who asked not to be named.
“We’ve seen it so many times. Sometimes we become numb, but the fact that we actually watched this man die right in front of our eyes and someone held him down for over eight minutes, it felt a lot different this time,” they added. “I do feel like it’s going to be a turning point because you don’t see only people of color here but people of all different shapes. It shows that we do want a difference in this country.”
By the week’s end, the intensity of the protests and violent confrontation was reported as abating, but the fury, anger and sense of desperation Floyd’s killing unleashed is bound to reverberate on the streets of America – and within the country’s capital – for some time to come.

Reuters contributed to this report.