There were times overnight when America's capital city descended into chaos, with running battles between protesters and police through the streets.

And coursing through the crowd was a seething anger that only built as the evening wore on.

We encountered activists pleading with the police to show restraint.

Some were kneeling in front of the police lines and begging for the officers to see that there was another way than confrontation.

  • Robert Moore asks a protester kneeling in front of police lines: 'What is your message to these police officers?'

But there was vandalism and looting too by a tiny minority, and for an hour or so police lost control of the area immediately around the White House and were forced to make repeated baton charges.

Clouds of tear gas and pepper spray engulfed elegant Lafayette Square, just to the north of the presidential mansion.

Several buildings were set alight, including the ground floor of the headquarters of a major American labour union.

As the only reporter on the scene, I called 911 so the fire could be contained.

But the firetrucks could only reach the area once police had repeatedly launched baton charges to clear away protesters. The building was eventually saved.

Demonstrators march past the Washington Monument at they protest the death of George Floyd. Credit: AP

A curfew was clamped on the city as the protest grew.

The mayor, Muriel Bowser, demanded that all residents stay home from 11pm to 6am, and she activated the National Guard.

Twenty-four hours earlier,during the Saturday night protest, the Secret Service had taken the President to the safety of the White House underground bunker.

It is not clear whether Trumphad the ignominy of being moved there a second time, but undoubtedly the sound of the clashes could be heard inside the private Residence and in the West Wing.

Fires broke out in the capital as parts of the protest turned violent. Credit: AP

He has made no call for national unity, but he has been tweeting from inside the barricaded building.

Once more accusing the media of being "fake news" and he sent one tweet amid the protests that simply read, "Law and Order."

For some black activists, there is the danger that their largely peaceful protest movement - powerful and eloquent - is being hijacked by more militant elements.

In San Francisco, people knelt in front of the Hall of Justice. Credit: AP

Washington DC is just one city among dozens across the country that is experiencing this wave of unrest and the re-emergence of deep seated racial grievances.

There is a sense that America is on the brink - tested by a pandemic, by this wave of turmoil, and by a President who cannot hear the anguish just a few metres beyond his own residence.