'Abuse of power': global outrage grows after death of George Floyd

Oliver Holmes and Daniel Boffey
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The EU’s top diplomat has described the death of George Floyd as an “abuse of power”, adding his voice to growing international unease around the US killing as well as Washington’s subsequent violent crackdown against protesters.

“We here in Europe, like the people of the US, we are shocked and appalled by the death of George Floyd and I think that also societies must remain vigilant against the excess of use of force,” said Josep Borrell, the European body’s foreign policy chief.

“This is an abuse of power and this has to be denounced as we combat [it] in the States and everywhere. We support the right to peaceful protest and also we condemn violence and racism of any kind and, for sure, we call for a de-escalation of tensions,” said Borrell, who was previously Spain’s foreign minister.

Borrell’s remarks in Brussels were some of the most forthright so far to come out of the 27-nation bloc. However, they came the same day as the UK said people should be “allowed to protest peacefully”, while Germany and Australian announced they were looking into attacks on the media at US demonstrations.

World outrage has grown at the fate suffered by Floyd, whose heart stopped on 25 May as a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, according to a medical examiner. Demonstrations in the US during the past week have resonated around the world, with solidarity protests held in other countries.

The leading United Nations human rights official said on Tuesday that the US protests underscored police violence at a time when the coronavirus was already having a “devastating impact” on ethnic minorities worldwide.

“This virus is exposing endemic inequalities that have too long been ignored. In the United States, protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd are highlighting not only police violence against people of colour, but also inequalities in health, education, employment and endemic racial discrimination,” Michelle Bachelet said.

Protesters shout slogans and hold up placards during a rally in Sydney on Tuesday against the deaths of members of the Aboriginal community in Australia and of George Floyd in the US. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Governments around the world also expressed concern over a heavy-handed police response to protests. In Washington DC on Tuesday, officers, including members of the military police used teargas, rubber bullets and flash-bangs to chase away peaceful demonstrators as Donald Trump addressed the press outside the White House.

In the UK, a spokesman for the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said: “The violence which we’re seeing is clearly very alarming … people must be allowed to protest peacefully.”

Meanwhile, Germany’s government warned that journalists in the US should be protected and be able to do their jobs. The statement came after a correspondent for the country’s public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, said he was shot at live on air while reporting in Minneapolis, the city in which Floyd was killed.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said his government would question US authorities on that specific case “to find out the exact circumstances”. 

“Democratic countries must apply the highest standards in protecting press freedom. In this context, all violence must not only be criticised by also prosecuted and clarified so that journalists can be effectively protected while carrying out their work,” Maas told reporters.

An Australian cameraman was also apparently assaulted in Washington, leading Canberra to say it had asked its embassy in the US to approach authorities with questions.

“I want to get further advice on how we would go about registering Australia’s strong concerns with the responsible local authorities in Washington,” the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

On Tuesday evening in Sydney, hundreds of people marched through the city, chanting “black lives matter” and protesting against the killing of Floyd in the US but also Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia. 

Protesters chanted “I can’t breathe” and “justice today, for David Dungay” – the 26-year-old Aboriginal man who said “I can’t breathe” 12 times before he died in 2015 while being restrained by prison guards.

His family said they had been traumatised anew by the footage of the death of Floyd, who used those same words while under restraint.

In France, protests were scheduled for Tuesday evening in Paris following calls from the family of a French black man who died shortly after he was arrested by police in 2016. A separate protest was also planned in The Hague, Netherlands.

Agencies contributed to this report