By Brendan O’Brien
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – U.S. protests over the death of a black man in custody dwindled overnight into early Thursday after prosecutors leveled new charges against four Minneapolis policemen implicated in the killing.
Huge crowds have defied curfews and taken to the streets of cities across the country for nine nights in sometimes violent protests that prompted President Donald Trump to threaten to send in the military.
George Floyd, 46, died after a white policeman pinned his neck under the officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, propelling the issue of racial justice to the top of the political agenda five months before the presidential election on Nov. 3.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, after long refusing to explicitly criticize a sitting president, denounced a militarization of the response to civil unrest. Current Defense Secretary Mark Esper also said he did not back the use of troops to patrol the country.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in 2018, wrote in a statement published by The Atlantic.
“Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, issued a message reminding the armed forces of their oath to uphold the Constitution, which gives Americans the right to “freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”
Similar messages were delivered by other military leaders.
Thousands of demonstrators massed near the White House lit up their cellphone flashlights and sang along to the 1970s soul tune “Lean on Me,” before resuming a chorus of anti-police chants.
Several major cities scaled back or lifted curfews imposed for the past few days. In New York City’s Brooklyn borough, police in riot gear charged into a crowd of about 1,000 protesters defying a local curfew, albeit peacefully, near an outdoor plaza, and clubbed demonstrators and journalists as they scurried for cover in heavy rain.
A man armed with a knife stabbed and wounded a Brooklyn policeman in the neck and two officers who ran to his rescue were wounded before they shot the attacker multiple times, police said. All four were taken to the hospital.
The confrontations in Brooklyn appeared to be the biggest exception to a calmer night, hours after the new charges in were brought in Minneapolis.
Derek Chauvin, 44, arrested on charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter, was also charged with second-degree murder.
The added charge, defined under Minnesota law as unintentionally causing another person’s death in the commission of a felony offense, can carry a sentence of up to 40 years, 15 years longer than the maximum sentence for third-degree murder.
Chauvin was the white officer seen in video footage kneeling on Floyd’s neck as Floyd gasped for air and repeatedly groaned, “Please, I can’t breathe.”
The video immediately went viral, igniting the nationwide protest and civil strife. Demonstrators have also taken to the streets overseas, from Britain to New Zealand.
Floyd, whom police suspected of trying to pass a counterfeit bill to pay for cigarettes, was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after the May 25 encounter.
Floyd tested positive for the coronavirus, his autopsy showed, but the infection was not listed as a factor in his death.
The official cause of death, according to the full 20-page report made public on Wednesday by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office, was cardiopulmonary arrest while Floyd was being restrained by police.
The autopsy also cited “complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression.”
The manner of death was listed as homicide.
Three fellow officers fired from the Minneapolis police department along with Chauvin the next day were charged on Wednesday – each with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter.
The three men – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao – have also been taken into custody. Aiding and abetting second-degree murder carries the same maximum punishment as the underlying offense – 40 years in prison.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a black former U.S. congressman, has requested bail of $1 million for each of the four defendants.
Memorial services, which will stretch across six days and three states, were due to begin on Thursday in Minneapolis, the attorney for Floyd’s family told media. The Reverend Al Sharpton, a television political commentator and civil rights activist, will give the eulogy, media reported.
Services will also be held Saturday in Hoke County, North Carolina, where Floyd’s sister lives, and in Houston on Monday, near where Floyd lived, media said.
A funeral is planned for Tuesday with private services at an undisclosed location.
Reporting by Aakriti Bhalla, Brendan McDermid, Nathan Layne, Maria Caspani, Rich McKay, Jonathan Allen, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart, Daphne Psaledakis, Andy Sullivan and Idrees Ali, Paul Simao and Steve Gorman; Editing by Nick Macfie.