Police detained 125 people on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where protests continued to grow over the fatal shooting by officers last week of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African American, as he was pinned down during a struggle.
Military-style vehicles, teargas and smoke grenades returned to American streets for the first time this summer, and Barack Obama appealed for calm and condemned those who would attack law enforcement for undermining the cause of social justice.
Among those arrested was DeRay Mckesson, a high-profile national leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. Police said Mckesson was arrested for blocking a street even as video he was livestreaming at the time of his detention indicated that he was off the roadway. He was released from custody late Sunday with a charge of “simple obstruction of a highway of commerce”.
Protesters complained they were being denied their rights to peaceful assembly. “In cities across America, police are responding to peaceful protests with provocation, violence, and unconstitutional arrests,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a prominent activist with the group Campaign Zero and a close ally of Mckesson’s.
Another 100 people were arrested during clashes with police in and around St Paul, Minnesota, where the death of Philando Castile after his shooting by a police officer last week was broadcast live on Facebook, causing widespread public anger.
As protesters blocked an interstate highway, police flooded streets in Bearcat military vehicles and used smoke bombs to break up demonstrations. The police chief, Todd Axtell, said about 20 of his officers had been struck with bottles, rocks and other items pelted at them by crowds, which he said was “a disgrace”.
Dozens more protesters were detained by police during protests in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore and Phoenix, where police used teargas and pepper spray to disperse crowds. More protests were planned for late on Sunday, including in St Louis, Missouri, where in August 2014 an unarmed black 18-year-old was killed in the suburb of Ferguson in a flashpoint that continues to reverberate two years later.
Tensions have risen even as the city of Dallas mourns the assassination-style killings of five police officers last week by Micah Johnson, an army veteran and member of the New Black Panther party.
On Sunday, the Dallas police chief, David Brown, said investigators had found bomb-making equipment and written evidence indicating that Johnson was plotting attacks “large enough to have devastating effects throughout our city and our north Texas area”.
“We’re convinced that this suspect had other plans, and thought what he was doing was righteous,” he added.
Brown said Johnson had apparently been planning to “target law enforcement, and make us pay for what he sees as law enforcement’s efforts to punish people of colour” since before last week’s fatal shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, which merely triggered his actions.
The police chief disclosed that Johnson had daubed the letters “RB” in his own blood on a wall of the parking garage where he was cornered and eventually killed by a police robot. The significance of the initials were unclear.
Investigators have also learned that Johnson had practiced military-style drills in his backyard and trained at a private self-defence school that teaches special tactics, including “shooting on the move”, a technique in which an attacker fires and quickly changes position, to keep his location uncertain and create the impression of multiple assailants.
The deaths of Sterling and Castile had had apparently moved Johnson to act before his more ambitious plan could be realised, Brown said. The gunman had kept a journal of combat tactics, Brown said, but his writings included “quite a bit of rambling in the journal that’s hard to decipher”.
The police chief also revealed details of the two-hour standoff between the gunman and police, which ended when officers sent a robot carrying a pound of C4 explosive to detonate near Johnson. The gunman, hidden in a brick corner where snipers could not see him and officers could not safely approach, demanded to speak only with a black police negotiator, Brown said.
“He lied to us, laughing, playing games, singing, asking how many did he get and saying he wanted to kill some more,” he said. The police chief eventually made the decision to improvise with the robot. “I began to feel he was going to charge us and take out many more before we would kill him,” Brown said, adding: “I approved [the decision] and I’d do it again under the same circumstances.”
Obama cut short a visit to Europe early this week and will travel to Dallas before convening a summit at the White House between police chiefs and community leaders. Speaking Spain on Sunday, he defended the “messy and controversial” tradition of American protest but reiterated his condemnation of violence against law enforcement.
“Whenever those of us who are concerned about failure of the criminal justice system attack police, you are doing a disservice to the cause,” Obama said.
Also on Sunday, Dallas’s mayor, Mike Rawlings, said marchers carrying weapons and dressed in body armor had distracted law enforcement from the actual gunman on Thursday, telling CBS’s Face the Nation that other individuals carrying guns on the scene “took our eye off the ball for a moment”.
“You can carry a rifle legally and when you have gunfire going on, you usually go with the person that’s got a gun,” he said. “And so our police grabbed some of those individuals, took them to police headquarters and worked it out and figured out that they were not the shooters. But that is one of the real issues with the gun rights issues that we face – that in the middle of a firefight, it’s hard to pick out the good guys and the bad guys.”
He added that investigators were talking to Johnson’s neighbors and family to learn whether “there’s anybody that aided and abetted him, conspired with him. We don’t have any new news on that regard. That is probably going to take some days.”
Author: Jon Swaine, Edward Helmore