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Police turn more aggressive against protesters and bystanders nationwide, adding to violence and chaos

Police in several cities significantly increased their use of force on Saturday night against protesters decrying police use of force - wielding batons, rubber bullets and pepper spray in incidents that also targeted bystanders and journalists.

Protesters stand near a Minnesota National Guard vehicle Friday, May 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.
Protesters stand near a Minnesota National Guard vehicle Friday, May 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.Read moreJohn Minchillo / AP

Federal authorities urged local officials on Sunday to crack down harder on rioters after American cities were rocked by fiery spasms of violence and vandalism, part of a nationwide wave of protests over police misconduct.

President Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, urged cities to follow the example set Saturday night by Minneapolis, where the unrest began earlier this week over the case of 46-year-old George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Floyd's death has led to large-scale protests in dozens of cities. In some places, protesters have set fire to police cars and buildings, smashed windows, and looted stores.

» READ MORE: Amid protests come fears of new coronavirus cases; Philly looting continues; Rizzo statue cleaned

On Saturday night, police in several cities intensified their use of force - wielding batons, rubber bullets and pepper spray in incidents that also targeted bystanders and journalists.

In Minneapolis, videos posted online showed police officers yelling, "Light 'em up!" before firing paint at them as they stood on a front porch of a home. No one in the group appeared to be seriously injured.

Edward Maguire, a professor at Arizona State University who recently published a guidebook on police crowd-control procedures, said this instance was egregious because officers fired potentially dangerous rounds at people who posed no threat.

"Everything that police do in these types of situations should be aimed at de-escalation, and that is a really, really stunning example of escalation," he said. "You cannot be shooting projectiles at human beings, unless you have a really good reason to do so."

Watching the events of Saturday night, Maguire said police chiefs across America had read his guidebook to crowd control - and decided to do the opposite. "I'm just seeing examples all over the country right now of bad policing," he said. "Poorly conceived strategies for how to handle protests."

In another incident in Minneapolis, a CBS TV news crew said it was shooting video of a group of officers standing around in a parking lot when someone fired rubber bullets at them. "They're sighting us in, dude," one of the crew says in the video posted by CBS reporter Michael George, after the bullets came closer. Michael Adams, a reporter for VICE News recorded himself being pepper-sprayed by police in Minneapolis while he was on the ground.

One night earlier, TV reporter Kaitlin Rust was reporting live from a protest in Louisville, Kentucky, when she was hit by a pepper ball fired by an armor-clad police officer who appeared to be targeting her repeatedly.

The president said other jurisdictions facing protesters should follow Minneapolis' example.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted: "Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors. Other Democrat run Cities and States should look at the total shutdown of Radical Left Anarchists in Minneapolis last night."

The president's call to arms against unruly people was underscored by the attorney general, who issued a statement declaring it was "time to stop watching the violence and to confront and stop it."

Barr blamed "outside radicals and agitators" for "exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent extremist agenda." In Minnesota, local officials had made similar claims over the weekend, though arrest records show those charged were overwhelmingly from the area.

The Trump administration sought to blame an anti-fascist movement called antifa for the violence, though the available evidence for that claim is sparse. For several years, conservative groups have said antifa is a growing and pernicious criminal organization; people who have studied self-described antifa activists say it is a very small, scattered group of individuals without an organizational structure or leader.

"The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization," Trump declared in a tweet, though there is no mechanism in federal law to brand domestic groups terrorists the same way the government can do so for foreign terrorist groups.

In pushing for a tougher approach to violent protesters, Barr said he had tasked the FBI's joint terrorism task forces - large teams of investigators from agencies whose mission is to investigate terrorism suspects - to "identify criminal organizers and instigators" around the protests.

» READ MORE: As Philly protests descended into chaos, police restraint was no match for volatility

Video clips from the weekend showed that in some instances, police used force to clear streets, regardless of who was there or what they were doing.

"I've covered protests involving police in Ferguson, Mo., Baton Rouge, La., Dallas and Los Angeles. I've also covered the U.S. military in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. I have never been fired at by police until tonight," wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske, who said she had been shot with at least one rubber bullet by Minnesota State Patrol officers while standing on a street in Minneapolis.

"Where do we go?" Hennessy-Fiske said she yelled at the officers, asking for them to direct her and a group of other journalists to safety. "None of the officers responded. Instead, they chased us along the wall and into a corner." Hennessy-Fiske said she escaped after scaling a wall, with two bloody wounds to her leg.

Col. Matt Langer, head of the Minnesota State Patrol, acknowledged that the actions by his officers "aren't particularly pretty" but called them necessary.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, agreed.

"I supported the actions that were out there. I gave the order to go with them," said Walz, who added that the use of force toward reporters was "unacceptable."

Many of the protests have been peaceful, but the violence escalated in many major U.S. cities on Friday and Saturday nights, when stores were looted and some demonstrators threw firecrackers, bottles, bleach and a molotov cocktail at police, according to officials.

Dozens of police have been injured, according to news reports. In Philadelphia on Saturday night, police said an officer on a bicycle was run over by a car as he tried to stop looters, suffering a broken arm. In Ferguson, Missouri - the epicenter of similar protests in 2014 - all nonessential personnel were evacuated from police headquarters after protesters throwing rocks and fireworks injured four officers, county police said.

» READ MORE: ‘We’re sick of it’: Anger over police killings shatters U.S.

“The level of anger and violence in a number of these cities has been really challenging for the police,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group. He said the events of the past week were more widespread, and angrier, than the protests in 2014. “It feels we haven’t seen this level of national violence in a long time.”

Wexler said that the coronavirus pandemic has posed a new difficulty for police. Historically, he said, police are trained to focus on mask-wearers in any crowd, as a way of identifying potential troublemakers among peaceful protesters. Now, however, mask-wearing is widespread among protesters, giving would-be criminals more camouflage, and making officers more nervous.

Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said he hoped that "as each day goes by, the anger and the riots will likely go down."

"I ask people to put themselves in the law enforcement officer's position in these scary situations," he said. "People are throwing bottles and bricks and all sorts of things at you and at the same time, they're expecting you to just stand there, take this abuse, and not react. There comes a point where officers have to protect themselves and protect other people around them."

On Friday night in Oakland, California, two federal security officers were shot outside a government building, killing one and critically wounding the other, officials said.

In many cities, mayors had imposed curfews Saturday night. These, in theory, were supposed to weed out the peaceful protesters, because they would go home. That would allow police to isolate a smaller group of disruptive lawbreakers.

“The situation on the ground in Minneapolis & St. Paul has shifted & the response tonight will be different as a result,” the Minnesota Department of Public Safety posted on Twitter at about 6 p.m. local time Saturday. “The coordinated . . . law enforcement presence will triple in size to address a sophisticated network of urban warfare.”

But in Minneapolis, protesters said there was another effect: After the curfew, police began to treat everyone on the street as someone engaged in "urban warfare," regardless of their behavior.

Three protesters said that, just after the curfew came into effect at 8 p.m., police fired tear gas at what had been a peaceful sit-in.

"Bus reinforcements came by, and a lot of officers just came at us firing tear gas," said a student from Macalester College, who gave his name only as Nate. "No reason for it, completely unprovoked attack on a completely peaceful sit-in protest."

These actions - and videos showing lines of officers in riot gear in several cities - seemed to defy the crowd-control tactics recommended by policing groups. They have recommended that police avoid using armor-clad officers unless absolutely necessary.

Instead, police groups have recommended sending out officers in their regular uniforms, at least at first.

The logic is that - when police don their armor - it can reduce officers' inhibitions about using force, since they are harder to identify by name. And it can also make protesters more likely to turn violent, since it dehumanizes the officers they are attacking.

"It's not just that they lead to a certain amount of impunity among the police. It's that they actually escalate the likelihood that people will attack them," said Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College who has studied the policing of protests for 20 years. "It's a magnet. It's a magnet for violence."

In New York, video posted to social media showed two police SUVs driving into a crowd of protesters after the protesters blocked their way and pelted them with water bottles. It was unclear whether anyone was injured.

Afterward, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said that the incident was under investigation, but that he would not criticize police officers facing such an "impossible situation."

"If those protesters had just gotten out of the way and not created an attempt to surround that vehicle, we would not be talking about this," de Blasio said on local television station NY1.

He added: "In a situation like that, it's a very, very tense situation. And imagine what it would be like, you're just trying to do your job and then you see hundreds of people converging upon you. I'm not going to blame officers who are trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation," de Blasio said. "The folks who were converging on that police car did the wrong thing to begin with, and they created an untenable situation. I wish the officers had found a different approach. But let's begin at the beginning. The protesters in that video did the wrong thing to surround them, surround that police car, period."

Other New York-based politicians criticized the officers' actions: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat, called it "outrageous," and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., blasted de Blasio on Twitter.

"@NYCMayor your comments tonight were unacceptable," Ocasio-Cortez said. "This moment demands leadership & accountability from each of us. Defending and making excuses for NYPD running SUVs into crowds was wrong."

The aggressive response in these cities was not the rule everywhere. In Camden, New Jersey, the county police chief marched with protesters decrying Floyd's death. In Flint, Michigan, Gennessee County Sheriff Chris Swanson did the same, in a moment captured on video. He told protesters, "I want to make this a parade, not a protest,"

In Baltimore, during a protest at police headquarters, one person carried a sign listing the names of African Americans killed by police. In a moment captured on video by Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood, a police lieutenant read the names aloud.

"Oscar Grant," read Lt. Peter Heron, who was wearing a uniform but no riot gear. Grant was killed by a California transit police officer in 2009, shot as Grant lay on the floor of an Oakland train station.

"Next name!" the crowd shouted back.

"Keith Scott," Heron read. Scott was killed by police in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2016.

"Next name!"

After Heron finished reading, Wood reported, the protesters moved on and shook hands with some officers.