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Disunity on display as U.S. riven by divisions marks independence

Columbus statue thrown in Baltimore harbor, Seattle man plows car into protest, Georgians march against massive Confederate carving, and Trump stokes discord with combative speech

By Agencies and TOI staff

Demonstrators chanting “Black Lives Matter” exchanged words with activists waving pro-Trump signs outside a fortified White House as America’s Independence Day was marked Saturday in Washington and elsewhere by confrontations and disunity.

In Seattle, one woman was killed and another was seriously hurt when a speeding car barreled into a Black Lives Matter protest. In Baltimore, protesters yanked a statue of Christopher Columbus free and threw it into the city’s harbor, and in Washington, US President Donald Trump railed against protesters as the Independence Day holiday put some of the nation’s deepest divisions on display.

As it struggles to contain the coronavirus and reckons with waves of protesters demanding racial justice, the United States is deeply polarized, with the gulf seemingly insurmountable on a day usually marking patriotism and unity.

The one thing people outside the White House — surrounded by an imposing police cordon — and on the nearby National Mall seemed to be able to agree on was that this was not where they wanted America be.

“We should be celebrating our unity, diversity, liberty, we shouldn’t be looking at each other as enemies ready to go to war,” pro-Trump transgender activist Kristy Pandora Greczowski told AFP.

Mary Byrne, 54, who came with her two sons, said she was worried about the “antagonism” that currently reigns.

“We are not talking to each other anymore, we are yelling at each other. We need to look inside to see what’s wrong with us,” she said.

Racial justice protests were held in several cities around the country as protesters expressed grievances with what they described as systemic racism and America’s inability to reckon with the unsavory history of some of its past heroes.

Protesters in Baltimore pulled down a statue of Columbus and threw it into the city’s Inner Harbor on Saturday night in an expression of that frustration.

Demonstrators used ropes to topple the monument near the Little Italy neighborhood, news outlets reported.

Protesters mobilized by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police have called for the removal of statues of Columbus, Confederate figures and others. They say the Italian explorer is responsible for the genocide and exploitation of native peoples in the Americas.

According to The Baltimore Sun, the statue was owned by the city and dedicated in 1984 by former mayor William Donald Schaefer and president Ronald Reagan.

Statues of Columbus have also been toppled or vandalized in cities such as Miami; Richmond, Virginia; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Boston, where one was decapitated.

Earlier in the day, police in nearby Anne Arundel County, Maryland, said a privately owned Confederate statue at a church was toppled and vandalized.

The word “racist” was written in red spray paint on the platform and descriptive plaque for the statue of Private Benjamin Welch Owens, who served in a Confederate Maryland artillery unit during the Civil War.

In Georgia, a group of armed protesters marched through the state’s Stone Mountain Park, calling for a massive Confederate carving there to be removed.

The predominantly Black demonstrators spoke out against the huge sculpture depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, WXIA-TV reported. Carved into a granite mountain, the bas-relief sculpture is the largest Confederate monument ever crafted.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association spokesman John Bankhead said there were between 100 and 200 protesters. He said the protesters, many of whom carried large rifles, were peaceful.

Although the park has historically been a gathering spot for white supremacists, the city of Stone Mountain currently has a majority-Black population.

The park usually holds a Fourth of July laser show and fireworks display with the carving as a backdrop, but this year’s presentation was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The day began with a horrifying scene in Seattle, as a 27-year-old man drove a car onto a closed freeway and barreled through a panicked crowd of protesters, critically injuring two women, officials said.

Dawit Kelete of Seattle drove the car around vehicles that were blocking Interstate 5 and sped into the crowd about 1:40 a.m., according to a police report released by the Washington State Patrol. Video taken at the scene by protesters showed people shouting “Car! Car!” before fleeing the roadway.

Summer Taylor, 24, of Seattle, later died of her injuries, while Diaz Love, 32, of Portland, Oregon, was upgraded to serious condition in the intensive care unit, Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman Susan Gregg said.

Love was filming the protest in a nearly two-hour-long Facebook livestream captioned “Black Femme March takes I-5” when the video ended abruptly; with about 15 seconds left, shouts of “Car!” can be heard as the camera starts to shake before screeching tires and the sound of impact are heard.

A graphic video posted on social media showed the white Jaguar racing toward a group of protesters who are standing behind several parked cars, set up for protection. The car swerves around the other vehicles and slams into the two women, sending them flying into the air.

The driver fled but was caught soon after and booked into the King County Correctional Facility on Saturday morning on two counts of vehicular assault. Bail was denied.

Officials were trying to determine the motive as well as where he got onto the interstate, which had been closed by the state patrol for more than an hour before the women were hit. Mead said they suspect Kelete drove the wrong way on a ramp. Trooper Rick Johnson said the driver went through a barrier that closed the freeway before striking the women.

Troopers did not know whether it was a targeted attack, but impairment was not considered a factor, Mead said.

Americans have long been divided between liberal and conservative values. But the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic has caused deep fear and anxiety.

Then in May, Floyd, an African American man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, igniting waves of protest.

Since then the United States has begun a historic soul-searching as it reckons with its racist past, modern racial injustices — including those further illuminated by the impact of the virus — and police brutality.

Trump, far from advocating national reconciliation, has stoked divisions.

“We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children or trample on our freedoms,” he told the crowd on the White House lawn Saturday evening.

Earlier, on the avenue outside the White House, Jennifer Friend said the president was being “disrespected.”

“All lives matter, but protesters pick what they want to protest about. It’s hypocritical,” said the 53-year-old tourist from Florida.

Further along the sun-drenched National Mall, Katima McMillan, 24, from Kentucky, was with a group of activists.

On the lawn, they spread the bands of the three colors of pan-Africanism: red for blood shed in liberation struggles, black for the people of the continent, and green for the natural wealth of Africa.

“We are no less than anybody else, black rights are human rights,” the young African American said.

But then there were those whose determination to enjoy the holiday no matter what offered a glimmer of hope that American institutions might yet withstand the divisions.

Wayne and Lynnis, a couple from Maryland, were among the guests hand-picked to attend Trump’s “Salute to America” speech on the White House lawn.

“I am very excited,” said Lynnis, 56.

“I don’t care who’s in office, it’s an honor to go to your White House,” she added with a smile.

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