After months silent and empty, America's streets have suddenly filled with voices of protest, tear gas, crowd control bullet casings and burned-out detritus.
Protests are spreading across the country night after night, since George Floyd died after a policeman kneeled on his neck in Minnesota last week. The death of the unarmed and handcuffed 46-year-old African American man has sparked the most widespread civil unrest since the beating of Rodney King, another black man, by police in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago.
Amid public uproar, one Minnesota policeman is facing murder and manslaughter charges. But his arrest has done little to appease enraged Americans, who know from years of similar deaths that such cases rarely result in convictions. What they are protesting now is not only Floyd's death, but what it seems to prove -- that racism and inequality remain deeply rooted in America's policing, legal and political systems, more than 150 years after slavery was abolished and 50 years after segregation ended.
There is more context to the fury: After months of lockdown, parallel health and economic crises have disproportionately claimed the lives and livelihoods of black Americans. President Donald Trump -- who jump-started his political career with racist rhetoric and fuels it by tearing at social divides -- has seized on the unruliest elements of the protests as a distraction from his disastrous handling of the coronavirus outbreak that has so far killed more than 104,000 Americans. Now he's threatening "shootings" and "vicious dogs" to pose as a law-and-order President — five months before he asks voters for a second term.
As pandemic and protests collide, there is a palpable sense of recklessness in Washington. On a balmy evening this weekend, restaurant terraces in the uptown nightlife area reopened, and revelers thronged crowded streets. Meanwhile, demonstrators tested a ring of steel around the White House, abandoning any pretense at social distancing, while agitators in the crowd smashed windows and set buildings ablaze, and military trucks sped through the streets. Just like the country itself, the US capital suddenly seems stretched to a splitting point by long-suppressed forces bursting into the open.