The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump pulls back National Guard, and cities cancel curfews, as peaceful protests continue and grow

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) marched with a crowd singing “This Little Light of Mine” in Washington.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) marched with a crowd singing “This Little Light of Mine” in Washington. (Michelle Boorstein/The Washington Post)

A day after thousands of people filled the streets of Washington and other cities to demand action against police brutality and systemic racism, local and national figures on Sunday moved to further de-escalate tensions, with President Trump pulling back the National Guard and more cities — including New York, Philadelphia and Chicago — lifting curfews.

As Americans again turned out for what researchers are calling the most sweeping and sustained protests in the country’s history, the steps taken by leaders in Washington and elsewhere were a reflection of the fact that the demonstrations, which were initially marked by confrontations and violence, have become more peaceful even as several cities saw their largest ever crowds.

Trump announced Sunday morning that he was ordering National Guard troops to begin withdrawing from the nation’s capital, the morning after more than 10,000 people marched through the District in what was mostly a festive day of demonstrations.

“I have just given an order for our National Guard to start the process of withdrawing from Washington, D.C., now that everything is under perfect control,” Trump tweeted.

“They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed,” he warned. “Far fewer protesters showed up last night than anticipated!”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) cited the weekend’s protests, which took place with no major clashes between police and demonstrators, in announcing an immediate end to his city’s curfew, which had been set to expire Monday morning.

“Yesterday and last night we saw the very best of our city,” the mayor said on Twitter early Sunday. “Tomorrow we take the first big step to restart. Keep staying safe. Keep looking out for each other.”

A number of local politicians had called on de Blasio to lift the curfew — the city’s first in over 70 years — and on Friday, civil rights groups threatened to sue the mayor if he extended his order.

Officials in Chicago, Dallas, Sacramento, Indianapolis, Orlando and Buffalo also announced Saturday that they would lift their curfews, citing few instances of violence and arrests.

The de-escalation came after more than a week of nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who pinned Floyd to the ground, faces second- and third-degree murder charges, and three other former officers who were at the scene face charges of aiding and abetting the killing.

Trump is set to hold a roundtable with law enforcement on Monday — the same day his presumptive general-election rival, former vice president Joe Biden, is expected to meet privately with members of Floyd’s family in Houston.

Biden is also recording a video message that will play at the funeral, according to his campaign. He is not planning to attend the service, citing his Secret Service detail and not wanting to disrupt it.

As the president was tweeting Sunday, more demonstrators were headed toward the White House — which is almost surrounded by more than a mile of fencing — for a 10th day of protests.

Among those who joined the crowds was Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who told The Washington Post that he was marching because he is committed to “finding a way to end violence and brutality and to make sure that people understand that black lives matter.”

Romney is the highest-profile Republican to be seen participating in the protests in Washington.

On Saturday afternoon, organizers with Black Lives Matter spray-painted the words “Defund the Police” in large yellow block letters near the mural the city had installed at the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza on 16th Street NW.

Asked whether the city will remove the defunding message, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Sunday said that she had not had the opportunity to review the matter.

“We certainly encourage expression, but we are using the city streets for city art,” Bowser said in an appearance on ABC News’s “This Week.” She added that “the response that we’ve gotten from people about the Black Lives Matter mural has just been incredible.”

Amid renewed calls by demonstrators for long-sought policing reforms, lawmakers and Trump administration officials on the Sunday morning news shows debated the existence of systemic racism in the criminal justice system and the next steps for Congress, including whether to take action to cut funding for police.

In an interview on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr signaled his reluctance to open an investigation into possible systemic problems at the Minneapolis Police Department, arguing that the actions of one officer did not necessarily indicate widespread problems.

Asked whether he thinks there is “systemic racism in law enforcement,” Barr said, “I think there’s racism in the United States still, but I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.”

“I understand the distrust, however, of the African American community given the history in this country,” Barr said. “I think we have to recognize that for most of our history, our institutions were explicitly racist.”

Acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf also pushed back against the notion that there is systemic racism in U.S. policing, arguing that although some officers abuse their jobs, it’s unfair to consider the misconduct a sweeping concern.

“I do not think that we have a systemic racism problem with law enforcement officers across this country,” Wolf said in an interview on “This Week.”

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the multiracial character of the protests across the nation has been “incredibly inspiring” and voiced hope that it bodes well for the police reform legislation that black lawmakers are introducing on Capitol Hill on Monday.

“I think we’re in a real moment in our country, the passion that the people are displaying,” Bass said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I’m so glad now that the protesting is peaceful. It has been every day. It has been across the country. I think that it is going to lay the basis for the momentum for us to bring about the change that we need to do.”

The Justice in Policing Act that the caucus will unveil Monday focuses on police accountability, transparency and training, Bass said. She acknowledged, however, that Republican support for the measure in the GOP-controlled Senate remains an open question.

Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) will be introducing companion legislation in the Senate. On NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Booker said Sunday that the measure is aimed at doing “things that should’ve been done in this country a long time ago — banning certain police practices, creating deeper accountability.”

In Sunday’s interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Barr defended the aggressive clearing by police of a crowd of largely peaceful demonstrators from outside Lafayette Square last week.

He claimed that no tear gas was used, even though people on the scene were hit with a gas that stung their eyes and induced coughing. He also made the claim that pepper spray is “not a chemical irritant.”

“It’s not chemical,” Barr said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “pepper balls” — the projectile munitions the U.S. Park Police has said were used in Lafayette Square — to fit within the broad umbrella term of “tear gas.”

Several Democratic-led cities, including Los Angeles and New York City, are considering slashing their police budgets, a proposal welcomed by activists who argue that an increased police presence does not drive down crime.

Wolf, meanwhile, called defunding police “an absurd assertion” and argued that arrests and violence have declined in recent days during the protests because of more officers on the streets.

“If you’re concerned about needing to reform different police departments or law enforcement agencies, you want to make sure that you are giving them the right training, the right oversight and the right leadership to do that,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “You don’t do that by slashing budgets.”

The recent surge of protests also has forced a reckoning in the media industry as newsrooms have faced internal uproars over their editorial decisions and treatment of black employees.

The New York Times on Sunday announced the resignation of its editorial page editor, James Bennet, and the reassignment of deputy editorial page editor Jim Dao, days after the newspaper published an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) titled “Send in the Troops.”

The move came one day after the Philadelphia Inquirer announced that its executive editor and senior vice president, Stan Wischnowski, was resigning over the paper’s decision to run a column with the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too.”

“It’s no coincidence that communities hurt by systemic racism only see journalists in their neighborhoods when people are shot or buildings burn down. . . . We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age,” a group of about 50 Inquirer journalists of color wrote in an open letter, the paper reported Saturday.

Antonio Olivo, Hannah Natanson, Brent Griffiths, Matt Viser and Brittany Shammas contributed to this report.