Some U.S. officials have blamed so-called outside agitators for stoking unrest as nationwide demonstrations against police violence have ruptured America this week, and experts say those claims echo a decades-old tactic to dismiss and delegitimize protests.
The protests started in Minnesota where George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. Some officials in the state were quick to blame outsiders for protest violence over the weekend.
“Our best estimate right now that I heard is about 20 per cent is what we think are Minnesotans and about 80 per cent are outside,” said the state’s governor, Tim Walz, at a press conference Saturday.
He didn’t provide any proof. Similar assertions were made by the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, though later St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said that he was given inaccurate information about the provenance of the protesters.
U.S. President Donald Trump also echoed Walz’s statement on Twitter Saturday.
“80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE. They are harming businesses (especially African American small businesses), homes, and the community of good, hardworking Minneapolis residents who want peace, equality, and to provide for their families,” said Trump in a tweet.
Why the ‘outside agitator’ idea persists
“It’s not beyond the pale for any of us to assume that this (outside agitators) could be a factor in the violence,” said Yohuru Williams, dean of the College of Art and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a professor of African-American history.
“It’s a question of scale and degree, rather than the question of whether it is one thing or the other.”
The claims of outside agitators bring up memories of the civil rights movement for Williams.
“In a lot of communities, southern sheriffs and politicians would raise the spectre of outside agitators to deflect from the legitimate concerns of local activists,” he said.
“The Communist Party, for example, is one of the favourite whipping boys of the southern segregationists who claimed that it was communist influences that were really stirring up civil rights protests.”
Williams sees the same deflection happening now, as some public officials once again focus on outside agitators and blame them for the violence instead of addressing the concerns over racism voiced by the protesters.
“We’re now focused singularly on the issue for these outside agitators. And that bait and switch historically has been detrimental to social movements because it then becomes all about catching the so-called bad guys,” he said.
“It has a damning effect on the message because, ultimately, it takes the attention away from the core issue here in Minneapolis right now. This is a question of police brutality.”
Williams said most of the protesters he saw over the weekend seemed to be local people frustrated with their inability to have their concerns heard.
“When I was there, I saw people who were, quite frankly, just deeply hurt and frustrated by their inability to get people to recognize the very simple march of the organization at the forefront of this that black lives matters.”
What arrest records show
Jeremy Zoss, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, whose jurisdiction takes in Minneapolis, provided numbers to CBC News on Tuesday showing that as of 12:30 p.m. CT, 544 people had been arrested in the county in relation to the protests. Of those, 446 were from Minnesota.
A total of 77 people arrested were from outside Minnesota, and 21 were listed as unknown. In other words, local residents made up the majority of those arrested.
Zoss said the people arrested were transported to the Hennepin County jail and processed there. Many have since been released.
Impact on the protests
The trope of outside activists instigating protests makes it easier for governments to respond to protests with heavy-handed tactics, says Heidi Matthews, an assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and co-director of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at York University.
The idea of the outside agitator “is really a longstanding trope that has been used, I would say, for well over 100 years in many different contexts in the U.S. and Canada and globally to sort of shut down and delegitimate protest movements that are challenging, broadly speaking, status quo power structures,” she said.
“Generally, this has a racial element.”
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In Canada, the myth of the outsider who agitates has come up in connection with Indigenous protests, and in China, it has been cited in connection with protesters from the Uighur ethnic minority, Matthews said.
“We actually see this cropping up all over the place over the course of many, many years.”
When looking at protests, it’s a valid question to ask who is present and where they’re from, she said.
“It’s certainly true that there are often people who physically come from outside, No. 1, and then 2., who actually have a different sort of political commitment or goal in being involved in the protests than local organizers or activists might have,” said Matthews.
But the suggestion that it’s not legitimate for people from outside of the nearby area to participate in protests ignores the nature of protests and why people are angry, she said.
On Monday night, speaking outside the White House, Trump blamed the violence on “professional anarchists” and anti-fascists (also known as antifa), among others.
Minnesota Gov. Walz made similar remarks about the protesters at his Saturday press conference, saying, “They are adapting. They are receiving information together. They are being fed by professionals in this, in professional tactics in urban warfare.”
Matthews said it’s not uncommon for protest movements organize beyond just local areas.
“It ignores the truth, essentially, that effective organizing often happens not at the purely local or municipal level but at the state level, the national level and the global level as well,” she said.
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