Days after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd and sparked a rebellion, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz claimed state officials “assessed that up to 80 percent of those protesting or rioting came from outside Minnesota.” He suggested “far-right white supremacists” and “organized drug cartels” were responsible.
“We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out-of-state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region,” Walz declared on May 29.
With a curfew in place, Walz deployed the state’s National Guard and insisted that “United States intelligence agencies were providing the state with information about who was behind the protests.”
Yet, according to the Washington Post, an unnamed “federal law enforcement official was not aware of any intelligence about cartels infiltrating the protests.”
Anonymous U.S. officials also indicated they were “skeptical that foreigners were taking part in protests or had helped organize them.”
Minnesota Public Radio analyzed county jail records and found 83 percent of people, who were arrested in connection with the protests from May 28-29, were from Minnesota. “Fifty-six percent were from Minneapolis or St. Paul.”
President Donald Trump seized upon this falsehood to reinforce his administration’s belief that “anarchists” and anti-fascist groups (“antifa”) were responsible for violence. It eventually led the Justice Department to impulsively label “antifa” a “domestic terrorist organization,” even though there is no such organization because “antifa” is a movement.
As the Post acknowledged. “Leaders at the federal, state, and local levels said large numbers of outsiders had seized upon protests begun by Minnesotans to advance their own political agendas.” But the officials offered no evidence for this assertion, and they contradicted each other.
This is but one example of how efforts by officials to blame “outside agitators” for looting, vandalism, and arson flopped. It contrasts sharply with events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015.
During the Baltimore uprising that occurred after police killed Freddie Gray, CNN aired a segment, where anchor Don Lemon and correspondent Sara Sidner attributed the “unrest” to “professional protesters,” who were not from the city.
When a grand jury refused to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, Missouri authorities drafted contingency plans and sought intelligence from U.S. police departments on “out-of-state agitators, fearing that fresh riots [would] erupt.”
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who burnished his reputation as the city cracked down on protesters, declared, “Many a criminal element that have been coming to Ferguson are not from the area. Tonight, some of those arrested came from as far away as New York and California.”
While ABC News examined jail records and challenged Johnson’s claim, the sense that officials were spreading claims about protesters that were probably false was not as pervasive in media coverage.
In Washington, D.C., WUSA9, a local CBS News affiliate, investigated claims by President Donald Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr, and others that “rioting and looting” that erupted was the work of “outside agitators.”
“Of the 104 arrests reviewed by WUSA9, 79 subjects listed their residence as within 20 miles of D.C. Of those, 50 live in D.C. itself,” WUSA9 reported. “Only one person arrested over the weekend, a 29-year-old man from North Carolina, listed an address outside of either D.C., Maryland, or Virginia.”
Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat scrutinized the claims of Seattle officials, like the city’s police chief, who declared, “What we can’t have is people coming into this city and literally tearing it up.”
“Police listed general addresses for 62 of the people picked up Saturday and Sunday for looting, assault and other crimes,” Westneat wrote. Only two of the arrestees were from out-of-state.
“All the rest are from Washington state. Twenty-three have Seattle addresses, while the others are from close-in Puget Sound cities such as Kent, Federal Way, Bremerton or Sea-Tac. Three are from Eastern Washington cities,” Westneat additionally noted.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board published clearly articulated why saying the chaos was the product of “outside agitators” is so pernicious.
“The claim in 2020 that this is all the fault of outside agitators is made for the same reason it was in 1964: to deflect blame — blame for the violence and blame for the underlying circumstances causing it all,” the editorial board argued.
“It’s much easier for a politician to point a finger at people from afar than admit that the unrest is rooted in deep racial division and long-standing inequities, in systemic and individual racism; in police brutality; in lack of quality education, health care, housing and job opportunities; and in the simmering anger that comes from knowing that nothing of consequence is being done about these social ills.”
“Blaming outsiders avoids having to admit some responsibility for these maladies,” the Baltimore Sun added.
It is possible journalists did not try to prove the “outside agitator” narrative this round because they sympathized with the rage that was sparked. Like everyone, they watched a video, where over a span of eight minutes Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane participated in the murder of George Floyd who said, “I can’t breathe.”
Three men, one an Army reservist and the other two former members of the Navy and Air Force, allegedly plotted to commit violence at protests in Las Vegas. They were charged on June 3 with “conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, material support for committing an act of terrorism, and multiple explosives violations.”
The FBI says they identify with the Boogaloo movement, which has members from the left and right but what supposedly unites the movement is a desire for a violent uprising against the U.S. government.
In the past, CNN and establishment media outlets would hold this case up as proof that the government claims around “outside agitators” hijacking protests were correct. Yet, a day after the indictment, CNN.com published an article cautioning readers.
“The narrative of the ‘outside agitator’ has long been used to undermine protest movements in the United States. Even Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr.—often invoked in conversations today about how people should demonstrate—was referred to by Southern white people as an outside agitator,” CNN’s Harmeet Kaur declared.
It might as well have been published by Jacobin because it summarizes how the “outside agitator” label has been used to discredit movements, distract from underlying causes of protests, ignore how movements are connected across states, justify violence against protesters, and prevents movements from growing.
Riots Are Homegrown
As time passes and the public processes what unfolded over these ten days, from the time George Floyd was murdered to when all four officers were charged, it is worth recalling the work of John P. Spiegel, who was a psychiatrist who studied urban riots extensively in the 1960s.
Spiegel contended “only rioting and violence seem to spur the white community to act on the problems of the ghetto.”
“The contemporary ghetto riots,” as he termed the rebellions of the 1960s, grew “out of the failure of the civil rights movement in its attempt to achieve normative readjustment for black people through nonviolent protest.”
The Anti-Riot Act was passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and during a hearing on the legislation, Spiegel outlined why it was inappropriate to suggest “outside agitators” were responsible for riots.
He assessed that the role of alleged “outside agitators” was typically so infinitesimal that they would not alter events.
“If it had not been the outside agitator, it would have been an inside agitator,” Spiegel said. “So the situation would have developed in that direction probably anyway.”
Reflecting on his work studying riots, Spiegel testified, “Riots are homegrown so to speak. They occur because of problems within the city, and there are usually enough people within the city who are agitated by the integrating event, sufficiently agitated by it, to increase the tension and sort of direct the energy of the people toward the ‘Roman Holiday’ stage. So that it certainly doesn’t require an outside agitator to produce the riot.”
To Spiegel, there were four stages in a riot—the spark, the confrontation, the “Roman Holiday” event, which is when youth typically feel emboldened to throw rocks and bottles and taunt police, and war, when adults join the youth in their acts against police.
Correspondents covering protests frequently sought to distinguish those looting, vandalizing property, and setting fire to buildings as individuals who are not part of peaceful protests and therefore they have no message. However, those acts did not occur in a vacuum. The message was the acts themselves, which so offend authorities and show that a population refuses to no longer obey “law and order” because it fuels their oppression.
[Note: In 2019, the Anti-Riot Act was declared “unconstitutionally broad” by a federal judge.]
‘Right Out Of The Russian Playbook’
Remarkably, the most incredible example of how the “outside agitator” narrative flopped may have come from Susan Rice, who was President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.
On May 31, Rice appeared on CNN’s “The Situation Room” and blamed Russia for the rioting in Minneapolis:
RICE: We have a problem here, Wolf. We have peaceful protesters focused on the very real pain and disparities that we are all wrestling with that have to be addressed and then we have extremists who have come to try to hijack those protests and turn them into something very different.
And they probably also, I would bet based on my experience, I’m not reading the Intelligence today, or these days, but based on my experience, this is right out of the Russian playbook as well, but we can’t allow the extremists, the foreign actors to distract from the real problems we have in this country that are long-standing, centuries-old and need to be addressed responsibly by new leadership.
BLITZER: You’re absolutely right on the foreign interference, because we know for decades, the Russians, when it was the Soviet Union, the communist, they’ve oftentimes tried to embarrass the United States by promoting the racial divide in our country, but what you are suggesting, Ambassador is that they’re still trying to do that? Is that what you’re saying?
RICE: Well, we see it all the time. We’ve seen it for years, and, frankly, every day on social media, where they take any divisive painful issue whether it is immigration, whether it is gay rights, whether it is gun violence, and always racism, and they play on both sides.
Their aim is not simply to embarrass the United States, Wolf. They’re aim is to divide us, to cause us to come into combat with each other. To disintegrate from within, and I would not be surprised to learn that they have fomented some of these extremists on both sides using social media.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they are funding it in some way, shape or form, and that is something that we need to take seriously, but we cannot allow it to distract us from the real problem that is an American problem, that we alone can address and we need leadership desperately, Wolf, that doesn’t demonize peaceful protesters from — frankly from Colin Kaepernick to those who have tried peacefully protest in recent days.
Neither Rice nor Blitzer had any evidence to support their belief that Russia could be stirring up chaos in Minneapolis and other parts of the United States, and what this statement showed is how deeply Democrats are indoctrinated into this New Cold War belief that Russia is behind all dissent and turmoil.
In many ways, Russiagate is the ultimate “outside agitator” narrative, and it has dominated the political discourse throughout Trump’s administration. This is dangerous when the White House is occupied by a counter-subversive president, who is hostile to social justice movements and will deploy the military to crush rebellion.
Rice even suggested it may be “fine” to designate antifa as a “terrorist organization,” and with widespread reports that arrested protesters are being questioned by the FBI about their associations with antifa or their views about the movement, this represents the bipartisan consensus that will allow Trump’s Justice Department to target some activists.
Fortunately, the claims of Russia being behind “outside agitators” never gained any traction.