Pandemic Protests, Part Two: Outside Instigators

Robert Brooks Contributor
Pandemic Protests, Part Two: Outside Instigators
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Cover: One element of the demonstrations that has received a fair amount of attention is the idea of “out-of-state instigators.” Here’s what each side is saying


This post is the second installment of a multi-part series dedicated to trying to understand what’s causing the recent unrest in our country. Click here to read Part One.

Outside Instigators: As curfews are set and protests continue throughout the country, one element of the demonstrations that has received a fair amount of attention is the idea of “out-of-state instigators.” Stated plainly, these are people who don’t live in the city or state where a protest is taking place, but travel there to participate anyway. For example, in New York two sisters “from the Catskills” allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at the NYPD van in Brooklyn. One of them is now facing federal charges. From a top-down perspective this is a dynamic of the demonstrations that is being observed and echoed on both sides. From the bottom-up, there are different views about who these figures are, however. Here’s what each side is saying:

On the Right
: On Saturday U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said that far-left extremists and anarchists were behind the violent protests against police brutality in more than a dozen cities, and warned federal law enforcement could take action against them. “In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and far-left extremist groups using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence,” Barr said. On Sunday, President Trump then tweeted, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” For what it’s worth, POLITICO notes that, “Under current law, the State Department can designate foreign organizations as terrorist groups. But the U.S. has no domestic terrorism statute.” ABC News adds that “current and former government officials have repeatedly worried that officially designating a U.S.-based group as a terrorist organization could have significant First Amendment consequences.” Either way, conservatives and right-leaning outlets tend to believe that radical-left fringe groups comprise these “out-of-state instigators.”

On the Left
: Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Saturday that officials think “white supremacists” could be behind the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. On Twitter, Frey said, “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.” According to the New York Times, “Residents also say that Minneapolis has a core group of white anarchists. A man known as the Umbrella Man, dressed in all black and carrying a black umbrella, who appears to be white, was filmed breaking windows at an AutoZone store.” Here is a picture of the so-called “Umbrella Man.” Many argue that he was not there with the intention of protesting George Floyd’s death or the mistreatment of African Americans at the hands of police.

Flag This
: While there are undoubtedly “out of state instigators” traveling to various cities to protest, a majority of demonstrators, so far, appear to be from local areas. In Minnesota for example, KARE 11 found that about 86 percent of those arrested listed Minnesota as their address. Ultimately, given the chaotic nature of the protests, those in charge are simply looking for a quick and easy answer to explain away the utter disarray. As Jesse Walker writes for Reason, the “outside agitator” story is the “perpetual scapegoat for unrest.” In fact, our country has a long history of utilizing this narrative. Walker continues to point out that “The most infamous cases were in the Jim Crow South, when segregationists regularly claimed that most blacks were satisfied with their lot and that any conflict was the creation of the national civil rights movement. But there are plenty of other examples. Antebellum southerners convinced themselves that white abolitionists were stirring up slave revolts. 20th century politicians blamed race riots on Bolsheviks right after the Russian revolution, on the Japanese during World War II, on the Soviet bloc in the ’60s. After the first flareup of the 2015 Baltimore riots, city leaders tried to attribute the violence to “isolated pockets of people from out of town.” In summary, there’s no denying that outside instigators exist—they absolutely do. They simply might not exist on the scale that some of our government leaders are suggesting.