This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
The narrative changed as soon as it became clear that the protests in Minneapolis would not be quelled, and that they would instead spread to other U.S. cities. Once officials understood that the long-simmering anger over the continued killing of Black people at the hands of the state had boiled over, when they realized the threats and violence towards protesters would not make them shut up and go home, they pulled out a tried and true trick: the “outside agitators” claim.
“The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents,” Mayor Jacob Frey said, referencing the instances of violence and looting during the protests. “They are coming in largely from outside of this city, outside of the region, to prey on everything we have built over the last several decades.” Then, too, Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul announced that “every single person” who’d been arrested in his city during a tense night of protest had been “from out of state” (he later walked those comments back after discovering that the police records he’d been given were inaccurate). Florida Senator Marco Rubio also decided to weigh in, and went so far as to claim that some of these “outside agitators” were coming in from Beijing.
If all these comments sound remarkably similar to you considering they were coming from three different people, you’re not wrong: The government has a playbook when it comes to breaking up protests and shutting down social movements, and talking about “outside agitators” is part of it. Doing this sows discord, by creating a sense of doubt among the public about the organic aspect of the protests. If officials can delegitimize the protesters, they can delegitimize the protests and fewer people will join them. We saw this narrative deployed during the protests in Ferguson in 2014 after the police killing of Mike Brown, and in Baltimore following Freddie Grey’s 2015 death in the back of a police van.
The term “outside agitators” can be traced to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, during which time the term was coined and deployed by the police and KKK, but the trope about “communists” and “Jews” — “outsiders” — being responsible for leading Black liberation movements, is even older than that. Before that, it was in regards to how slaveholders in the South responded to uprisings of enslaved people. As Anna Merlan writes at VICE, “The line there was the same: Abolitionist activists must have been stirring up trouble among the enslaved, who were surely incapable of revolting on their own, and would have had no desire to do so.”
This idea that Black people have no agency in their own fight for freedom and must therefore be being influenced by outsiders is rooted in white supremacist ideology. “White supremacists view Black folks [as] animalistic and incapable of complex thought and organizing; so they couldn’t possibly construct complex liberation movements,” Spencer Sunshine, a long-time researcher of far-right movements, told It’s Going Down. “Jews, however, are seen as crafty and manipulative, who act as puppet masters but don’t get their own hands dirty. So Jews are portrayed as manipulating Black activists against the supposed interests of non-Jewish Whites. (Jews of color don’t exist in the white supremacist worldview). We see this very clearly today in the claims that George Soros—a liberal Jewish financier and philanthropist—is behind the protests.”
Police claims of ‘outside agitators’ is one of the oldest PR tactics in the book and one should be careful spreading it uncritically. The addition of white supremacists is a new twist to peel off fence-sitting liberals but the goal is the same: to delegitimize social unrest pic.twitter.com/SMrkaxSy6o
— Citations Needed (@CitationsPod) May 30, 2020
Police and government officials are motivated to shut down unrest. The rebellions directly threaten the power structures that those people operate within. And so it is in their best interest to blame the anger and destruction on people outside the community who are coming in to cause trouble. As journalist Wesley Lowry noted on Twitter (and as evidenced by St. Paul’s Mayor Carter having to walk back his statement), “The police are not a source of objective info about the police.”
However, there is some element of truth in the “outside agitators” narrative — but it’s not the truth the police want you to believe. The “agitators” who are causing the most violence and damage are indeed people who live “outside” the communities where the protests are taking place, but they are not the people protesting against racism, rather they are the members of the police force themselves, who overwhelmingly live outside the cities where they work, and they are white supremacists who travel into protests to seed chaos and destabilize the movements (though those numbers are likely negligible compared to actual protesters). Years after the Baltimore protests demanding justice for Freddie Grey’s death, it was discovered that the looting of pharmacies had been done by police officers who then sold the drugs on the street. Police departments have been infiltrated by white supremacist groups, meaning many of the white supremacists on the streets are wearing police uniforms (there’s nothing really new about this: modern police departments are descended from slave patrols and have always served to oppress Black Americans).
With the white supremacist state and police departments being the one to sow the “outside agitators” narrative, it combines anti-Black and anti-Semitic sentiment into one trope. “The ‘Jews control Black Liberation movements’ allows the Right to get to blame others, mobilize their base, and never face social reality or take responsibility for their actions,” Sunshine told IGD.
But what the “outside agitators” trope misses is that even if people were coming in from other places to rise up against the injustice happening, it doesn’t mean that the anger and uprising are illegitimate. In rebellions against the state itself, the public cannot depend on information from that state to be accurate. It is in the state’s best interest to shut down the resistance as quickly as possible, even if that means spreading misinformation. It sanitizes the real anger that Americans feel about the state of policing and the continued racist violence that is killing Black people in this country that, yes, may bubble over at times into property damage or other violence. That doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate.
As the protests continue and show no signs of slowing down, having occurred in all 50 states, it is clear that there is no such thing as an “outside agitator.” The protests are nationwide; the entire country is taking to the streets and rising up against racist violence at the hands of the state. The police are trying to quash that anger by unleashing more violence, which is only serving to further legitimize the protests. The American public is the outside agitator. And they do not appear to be going home any time soon.
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