The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Third consecutive weekend of anti-racism protests expands to suburbs, as ‘Blue Lives Matter’ demonstrators push back

Demonstrators participate in a protest rally for Robert Fuller in Palmdale, Calif. His body was found hanging from a tree a block from Palmdale City Hall. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)

Protesters around the country took to the streets Saturday for the third straight weekend of demonstrations as national tensions over race and police brutality evolved to include actions in the suburbs and a few counter-protests aimed at defending law enforcement.

While the protests were largely peaceful and many were smaller in size than previous weekends, they took on a new flavor as several groups gathered to voice their solidarity with police and their opposition to activists who have called for law enforcement agencies to be reformed or defunded.

The predominantly white “Blue Lives Matter” and “Back the Blue” protests taking place in cities including Washington and Tampa highlighted the racial tensions that have been amplified since Memorial Day, when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of an unarmed black man who then died. In some places, Black Lives Matter protesters clashed with the pro-police demonstrators, resulting in shouting matches and other confrontations in the summer heat.

The scenes depicted a nation that continues to grapple with stark divides along racial lines over issues ranging from the proper role of police in society to how best to reckon with a history marred by racism, slavery and oppression of minorities.

In Tampa, a rally to support law enforcement turned contentious Saturday when Black Lives Matter supporters showed up, forcing law enforcement to form a barrier to separate the groups.

When the two groups were face to face, they tried to drown each other out with chanting.

“Black Lives Matter!” the diverse group of protesters shouted.

“Back the Blue!” the pro-police demonstrators chanted in return.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) spoke to reporters June 13 about the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks, calling for the officer who shot him to be fired. (Video: WSB/AP)

President Trump, who has faced criticism for stoking the nation’s racial tensions during a time of deep division, sought to project a sense of unity during a speech to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment,” Trump said Saturday. “When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring, and eternal.”

The speech came just hours after Trump announced that he would be rescheduling his first campaign rally in months following criticism that it was set for Juneteenth, the observance of the end of slavery in the United States, in a city that experienced one of the country’s worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.

Trump said in a tweet Friday night that he was moving the rally in Tulsa from June 19 to June 20 “out of respect” for the Juneteenth holiday and “all that it represents.”

But Trump, who began Saturday by tweeting a call for “LAW & ORDER,” has continued to play a divisive role amid the national protests over racial injustice. While Trump has expressed sorrow for the death of George Floyd and criticized the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, he has also celebrated the use of force against peaceful protesters and relied on conspiracy theories to brand demonstrators as terrorists.

Many of the white pro-police demonstrators cast themselves as Trump supporters, waving flags with the president’s name and espousing his views on policing, race and American history.

In Philadelphia, a crowd of about 50 white South Philadelphians gathered in a neighborhood park, surrounding a towering statue of Christopher Columbus — many armed with baseball bats and golf clubs, and one man in army fatigues strapped a rifle to his chest. They said they were there to protect it. Some expressed their support for Trump and their antipathy toward the antifa activists the president has railed against. The group began dispersing Saturday afternoon without incident.

Peaceful protests over Floyd’s death and broader issues of racial injustice continued in cities around the country and in Europe, many without any counterprotesters present.

In cities including New York, Chicago, Paris and Zurich, demonstrators marched through streets and demanded an end to racial injustice and police brutality. The diversity, breadth and endurance of the protests since Floyd’s death on May 25 offer an indication of the growing power of the Black Lives Matter movement.

New video evidence of alleged police misconduct continues to give fuel to activists.

In Atlanta, spontaneous protests started late Friday after police shot and killed a black man outside a Wendy’s in an encounter captured on video. The clip, which appeared to show the man running away before he was shot, threatened to spark more protests in the city. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned Saturday amid unrest over the death of the man, identified as 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks. Georgia investigators said Saturday that Brooks had resisted arrest and taken a police officer’s Taser.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called for the immediate termination of the police officer who pulled the trigger, saying she did not “believe that this was a justified use of deadly force.” Since news of Brooks’s death circulated late Friday night, activists, including the Georgia NAACP, had called for Shields to depart her post.

In Palmdale, Calif., where a 24-year-old black man was found hanging from a tree last week, protesters gathered Saturday to demand answers from local authorities. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s department said an initial investigation indicate the man, Robert Fuller, committed suicide — a conclusion rejected by his family.

In Tampa, pro-police demonstrators stood firmly on the side of law enforcement, describing their gathering as a response to anti-police rhetoric that has become more mainstream in recent weeks.

The “Back the Blue” rally began at the Tampa Police Department’s District 1 headquarters, as a large “Thin Blue Line” flag hung from a crane and signs read “blue lives matter.”

A small dog carried a sign that said “police dogs matter.”

Jim Martin and his wife, Jana, white retirees, drove about an hour from Sarasota to attend the rally.

“We support our police all over the country and we believe all lives matter,” Jana Martin said. “Everyone deserves a good life.”

As Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” played from a black Ford Mustang, a group of Black Lives Matter supporters arrived, some hanging out of cars and chanting at the “Back the Blue” protesters.

“Respect existence or expect resistance,” one sign read.

Monica Beard, 23, a white woman from Bradenton, Fla., said that the group of about 100 was there to counter the pro-police protest.

“I care about the cause, and I want people to know that Black Lives Matter,” she said.

After police got involved to separate the two groups, rally organizer Kristen Krutz asked the “Back the Blue” supporters to disperse.

“I feel that the first hour before BLM showed up was peaceful,” she said. “This wasn’t about race.”

In Washington, a mostly white group of about two dozen gathered on the Mall to show support for law enforcement — the first such event the nation’s capital has seen since Floyd’s death.

The event, called “We Back Blue,” was meant to give conservatives a voice in the ongoing national conversation about the role of police, according to a video posted to Facebook by organizer Melissa Robey. The schedule for the event included speeches and a march to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

Close to 11 a.m., the kickoff time, the handful of attendees gathered by a boombox playing pop music, picked up custom T-shirts designed for the occasion and posed for pictures. They were nearly outnumbered by the D.C. police on motorcycles who had assembled to guard the procession.

Anti-racism demonstrations also continued in Washington, as people gathered near the White House and the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Some activists sought to advance the cause by bringing the protests, which have largely taken place in cities, to suburbia.

In the predominantly white suburb of Shoreview, Minn., hundreds of people gathered outside of the city hall for a Black Lives Matter march. The turnout, which rivaled the size of some of the marches in Minneapolis, surprised Bri Sislo-Schutta, a 20-year-old college student who helped organize the event.

“I didn’t know if this was a community that would show up for black lives because for a long time we haven’t felt like they showed up for us,” she said.

The third weekend of protests in Chicago turned to a side of the city that rarely gets people marching in the street: Jefferson Park, a neighborhood located on the far northwest side of the city known primarily as a bedroom community populated by many police, firefighters and blue-collar workers. Hundreds of demonstrators showed up with signs Saturday for the first time, surprising many of the residents.

“You have to go where they live,” said Sterling, 27, a black protester who declined to give his last name.

A group of teenagers in Mason, Ohio, organized a march of about 600 people in the Cincinnati suburb — chanting “black lives matter” in the overwhelmingly white town.

Mariah Norman, a 17-year-old Mason High School junior who helped organize the event, said the Republican-leaning town is “ready to join the fight” for racial equality.

“It’s like the town has woken up,” she said.

The massive protests over Floyd’s death and quickly shifting public opinion about racism and policing have already moved political leaders to begin enacting policy changes.

The Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution Friday aimed at transforming its approach to public safety, part of a sweeping tide of police overhauls being embraced by state and local leaders from New York to Seattle.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) signed into law new police accountability measures, including one that would allow officers’ disciplinary records to be disclosed. The package also included a ban on chokeholds.

“Police reform is long overdue,” Cuomo said Friday during the signing ceremony.

In Iowa, the front page of Saturday’s Des Moines Register newspaper featured a picture of Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signing police legislation that bans most chokeholds and increases accountability. Surrounding her were black lawmakers with their fists raised in the air.

Rachel Siegel, John Wagner, Colby Itkowitz and Rachel Chason in Washington; Tarkor Zehn in Shoreview, Minn.; Mark Guarino in Chicago; and Miranda Green in Palmdale, Calif.; contributed to this report.