Former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis issued a stinging rebuke of his erstwhile boss Donald Trump on Wednesday, accusing the president of trying to "divide" America and failing to provide "mature leadership" as the country reels from days of protests.
"Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people -- does not even pretend to try," Mattis wrote in a blistering statement posted online by The Atlantic.
"Instead, he tries to divide us," added the retired Marine general, who had previously argued it would be inappropriate for him to criticise a sitting president.
"We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership," he stated.
The fury was ignited by the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a black man who suffocated beneath the knee of a white police officer, and whose agonising death was filmed by bystanders.
Protesters welcomed new charges brought Wednesday against Minneapolis officers in the killing of Floyd -- but thousands still marched in cities across the country for a ninth straight night, chanting against racism and police brutality.
With a key demand met, demonstrators nevertheless staged large and mainly peaceful rallies calling for deeper change in cities from New York to Los Angeles, hours after the new indictments were announced.
In Minnesota, prosecutors had initially charged 44-year-old Derek Chauvin -- the white officer filmed kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes -- with third-degree murder.
But they said Wednesday they were upgrading the charge, roughly akin to manslaughter, to second-degree murder, which does not involve premeditation but carries stiffer penalties.
Chauvin's three colleagues at the scene of Floyd's May 25 arrest for allegedly seeking to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit bill are accused of being complicit in the killing. Floyd tested positive for the coronavirus, his autopsy showed, but the infection was not listed as a factor in his death.
The three police officers -- Tou Thao, 34, J. Alexander Kueng, 26, and Thomas Lane, 37, -- were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, and taken into custody.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a black former US congressman, has requested bail of $1 million for each of the four defendants, reports Reuters.
Floyd's family, in a statement thanking protesters, called the arrests and new charges a "bittersweet moment" -- and a "significant step forward on the road to justice."
They urged Americans to continue to "raise their voices for change in peaceful ways."
A memorial service led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton was set to be held for Floyd in Minneapolis yesterday.
Former president Barack Obama applauded the "change in mindset" he sees among Americans demanding racial justice.
He urged the nation to "take the momentum that has been created as a society, as a country, and say 'Let's use this' to finally have an impact."
TWO NEW YORK POLICE SHOT
A man armed with a knife stabbed a New York policeman in the neck on Wednesday and two officers who ran to his rescue were wounded before they shot the attacker multiple times, police said.
All four were taken to Kings County Hospital where the police were in stable condition and the suspect was in critical condition, police said.
The attack in Brooklyn came amid mass protests and some rioting in New York over the death in Floyd. It was not immediately clear if the attack was related to the protests, but Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said the police were on duty to stop looting.
US cities including Los Angeles and Washington delayed the start of their curfews by several hours Wednesday after looting and violence had subsided the previous night, while Seattle scrapped its curfew with immediate effect.
"For those peacefully demonstrating tonight, please know you can continue to demonstrate," tweeted Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan. "We want you to continue making your voice heard."
But several arrests were made in New York after groups of protesters continued to march in Manhattan and Brooklyn after the city's 8:00 pm curfew had passed.
A large group also protested at the US Capitol in Washington DC beyond curfew.
Thousands took to the streets in both Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to redirect $250 million toward black community health and education from budgets including the police department.
'LAW AND ORDER'
While condemning Floyd's death, Trump has adopted a tough stance towards the protesters, saying they include many "bad people" and calling on governors to "dominate the streets."
"We need law and order," he repeated on Wednesday.
The US president has raised the possibility of invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active duty troops to quell unrest.
But Mattis' successor Mark Esper said that option should only be used as "a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations."
"We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," said the current defence secretary.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that the act remains "a tool available" to the president, who is facing a tough re-election battle in November.
"The president wants to protect America's streets," McEnany said, describing the criticism from Mattis as "a self-promotional stunt to appease the DC elite."