Protests, Riots, and Looting

Outside agitators, including white supremacist groups, are shaping public perception of the George Floyd protests.

The anger over police officers killing unarmed black men, tied to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, continues to escalate across the country. Peaceful protest is intermixed with rioting, looting, and general mayhem. The degree to which they are linked is not fully clear.

Below is a sampling of how the elite, non-ideological media is covering the events. I’ve deliberately excised descriptions of the Floyd incident, with which readers are familiar, and most statements by politicians. I’m just focusing on the coverage of the events directly surrounding the protests.

NPR (“Grief, Outrage Over George Floyd Spreads Further“):

Police and demonstrators clashed in dozens of cities across the U.S. on Saturday during another night of protests in response to the death of George Floyd.

At least one person is dead after being shot in Indianapolis. Police are investigating whether the incident was connected to demonstrations in the city.

In Los Angeles, protesters blocked the 110 freeway downtown and were seen breaking windows of stores at The Grove mall.

[…]

Overnight curfews were enacted in several cities nationwide — including Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Louisville, San Francisco and Denver — as authorities sought to stem any violence. The National Guard was also activated in several states, including Texas, Georgia, Washington, Ohio and Kentucky.

[…]

At least one person has died after being shot in downtown Indianapolis Saturday night. Police Chief Randal Taylor said at a press conference that authorities were still investigating the incident’s connection to ongoing demonstrations in the city.

“Downtown is not safe at this time,” Taylor said. He urged residents who do not live in the area to leave.

Mayor Joe Hogsett called the day’s protests “successful” in a tweet, but condemned the “small group of people” that grew violent later in the night.

[…]

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti requested assistance to restore order Saturday night amid protests. A curfew began at 8 p.m. PT and is expected to end at 5:30 a.m. local time.

The LAPD said hundreds of protesters were arrested amid the protests. An unlawful assembly was declared in the the Mid-Wilshire area and businesses were asked to close. Protesters blocked the 110 freeway in downtown LA and videos taken at protests showed looting and broken windows at stores in The Grove mall.

Garcetti urged protesters to “take a breath” and “step away” at a press conference. He asked residents to go home and protest peacefully at a later time.

NYT (“George Floyd Protests Live Updates: Fury and Frustration in Cities Across U.S.“):

Police cars were set ablaze, stores were looted and fires raged in at least 75 cities as mayors declared curfews and the National Guard was deployed. Protests also reached the gates of the White House.

[…]

A largely peaceful day of protests descended into a night of chaos, destruction and sporadic violence overnight Saturday as tens of thousands of people poured into streets across the United States to express anger and heartbreak over the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police.

On Sunday morning, the authorities were still sorting through the smoldering wreckage as the vast scope of the unrest came into sharper focus.

Squad cars had been set on fire in Philadelphia, stores were looted in Los Angeles, police officers in Richmond, Va., were injured and hospitalized, and at least one person was killed in Indianapolis, where a deputy police chief said the department had received so many reports of shots fired that they had lost count.

As protests spread from coast to coast, mayors in more than two dozen cities declared curfews — the first time so many local leaders have simultaneously issued such orders in the face of civic unrest since 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In several cities, the National Guard was brought in to assist overwhelmed local police.

[…]

For more than two months, millions of people have been ordered to stay in their homes to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the country. And the measures put in place to combat the virus have led to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with 40 million people out of work.

Careful plans to reopen shuttered shops and ease restrictions in locked-down cities have been thrown into disarray by the protesters’ outpouring of anguish.

Despite images of fires lighting up the night sky and lawlessness that threatened to overwhelm many of the nation’s police forces, many protesters were not looking for physical confrontation, but rather venting deep frustration and calling for change. “I’m not here to fight someone,” said Eldon Gillet, 40, who was on the streets in Brooklyn. “I’m here to fight a system.”

WaPo (“Demonstrators, police clash across nation in another night of protest“):

Officials across America were responding to another night of escalating unrest after clashes erupted between protesters and police in dozens of cities Saturday. Tensions flared in cities from New York to Philadelphia to Columbia, S.C., as thousands of people amassed to protest the death of a black man in police custody.

Police cars were set aflame, freeways were blocked, windows were shattered and authorities deployed tear gas and even rubber bullets. Multiple governors activated the National Guard and curfews were enacted in several major cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Denver, Miami and Milwaukee.

Here are some significant developments:

*California Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard to help enforce a citywide curfew as violent demonstrations continue on the streets of Los Angeles. Mayor Eric Garcetti initially resisted using troops because he did not want to evoke memories of the 1992 Rodney King riots. But conditions have continued to deteriorate in sections of the city where businesses were ransacked.

*President Donald Trump’s allies are urging him to address the nation while Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden released his own statement condemning the violence.

*One person was fatally shot in downtown Indianapolis and police there are warning residents the city is not safe. Officers are investigating if the shooting is connected to the ongoing protests. A 21-year-old man sitting in their car was also shot dead in downtown Detroit a day earlier after someone opened fire toward a protesting crowd.

*New York City looked like a war zone with nearly two dozen torched police vehicles resulting in dozens of arrests. People defied curfews in cities across the country and experienced looting, break-ins and arson. In

*Philadelphia, demonstrators broke into a store near city hall and attempted to tear down the statue of a former mayor.

*Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) said he was “fully” mobilizing the National Guard in the Twin Cities. The Guard has also been activated in Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee and Utah. Seattle called in 200 National Guard members, who were to be unarmed.

CNN (“Protesters break curfew on another night of fury and frustrations over George Floyd’s killing“):

Protests over the death of George Floyd raged from coast to coast — with crowds breaking curfew in major cities on another night of fury and frustrations.

Fires burned and and tear gas canisters flew in Minneapolis as people threw objects at officers. In Seattle, smoke filled the air as police in riot gear lined up outside stores. And in Philadelphia, firefighters doused blazes and officers chased a group of protesters down the streets for violating curfew. The words “I can’t breathe” were scrawled on a building not far from where smoke billowed.

Looters ransacked stores on the famous Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, leaving shelves bare and setting some buildings ablaze.

The degree to which all of this helps promote changes in public policy that makes black men safer is a subject for another post.

The question here is the degree to which the protests and mayhem are part and parcel of the same thing. In terms of coverage—and therefore perception—they’re inseparable. The same was true, for example, in the LA riots following the police officers who beat Rodney King being found “not guilty.”

There is certainly anecdotal evidence of “outside agitators.” The governor of Minnesota is certainly trying to portray them as a major factor. CNN:

State and local authorities said the violence in Minneapolis was being fueled by outsiders.

“Nothing we do to provide justice” for Floyd “matter(s) to any of these people who are out here firing upon the National Guard, burning” businesses and “disrupting civil life,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz told reporters on Saturday.

The governor said he understands that “Minnesotans’ … inability to deal with inequality” and racism was the catalyst for the protests — but he said rough estimates indicate only 20% of protesters there are Minnesotans.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said everyone arrested in his city on Friday night was from out of state.

A CNN analysis of data from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office showed that more than 80% of those booked into jail on riot and other potentially riot-related charges over the last two days were from Minnesota.

Of the 51 people booked into jail between noon Thursday and noon Saturday on riot, unlawful assembly, burglary or damage to property charges, a total of 43 had an address listed in Minnesota, the data showed.

The data only covers people booked into jail, not necessarily all arrests. Hennepin County includes Minneapolis, but not St. Paul.

John Harrington, the state public safety commissioner, said that assertions about outside agitators come partly from arrest data as well as information from fliers and online postings.

Officials did not provide further details about who exactly was fueling the unrest and where they were from. Harrington said he hoped to release more information later Saturday.

The records surveyed by CNN don’t match the claims. And, indeed, Harrington has walked back his claims.

I’m frankly skeptical that massive numbers of outside agitators are flocking to the Twin Cities while also rampaging in every other major city. Hell, they’re at it in Manassas, Virginia, a sleepy hamlet mostly known as the site of two early Civil War battles.

Still, there’s some evidence of mischief.

USA Today (“‘There are anarchists’: Minnesota officials say ‘outside agitators’ are hijacking peaceful protests“) reports:

Drifting out of the shadows in small groups, dressed in black, carrying shields and wearing knee pads, they head toward the front lines of the protest. Helmets and gas masks protect and obscure their faces, and they carry bottles of milk to counteract tear gas and pepper spray.

Most of them appear to be white. They carry no signs and don’t want to speak to reporters. Trailed by designated “medics” with red crosses taped to their clothes, these groups head straight for the front lines of the conflict.

Night after night in this ravaged city, these small groups do battle with police and the National Guard, kicking away tear gas canisters and throwing back foam-rubber projects fired at them. Around them, fires break out. Windows are smashed. Parked cars destroyed. USA TODAY reporters have witnessed the groups on multiple nights, in multiple locations. Sometimes they threaten those journalists who photograph them destroying property.

The mayor and governor say outside agitators are hijacking peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd and literally fanning the flames of destruction. And experts say things will likely get worse in Minneapolis and in other cities seeing similar peaceful protests that turn violent like Los Angeles; Louisville, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa; Detroit, Atlanta; and Washington, D.C.

“The real hard-core guys, this is their job: They’re involved in this struggle,” said Adam Leggat, a former British Army counterterrorism officer who now works as a security consultant specializing in crowd management for the Densus Group. “They need protests on the street to give them cover to move in.”

A Minneapolis Public Radio report (“Outsiders, extremists are among those fomenting violence in Twin Cities“) offers more:

On his way home from a protest Friday night in Minneapolis, Jonathan Turner Bargen encountered a white man in a red pickup truck. The man was carrying an assault rifle and a handgun, Turner Bargen said. Then he noticed a symbol from the far-right militia group Three Percenters affixed to the truck.

“I circled back and took pictures of the vehicle. I was concerned about why they were present at the downtown protest, and had no idea who to notify,” said Turner Bargen in an email to MPR News. 

He added that he was afraid to confront the person, and afraid to call the police. 

State officials, protesters and residents say they’re alarmed by the presence of extremists who may be using Twin Cities protests against the police killing of George Floyd as cover to burn down buildings and face off with law enforcement. Hundreds of buildings have been damaged and many totally burned in recent days. 

Gov. Tim Walz said state officials estimated that 80 percent of the people involved in the violence and destruction were from outside the state, but the man driving the pickup truck had Minnesota license plates.

According to an analysis of Hennepin County jail records, 83 percent of people who were booked in connection with the protests over a 24-hour stretch starting Friday were from Minnesota, and 56 percent were from Minneapolis or St. Paul.

Walz said that what began as peaceful demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd in police custody on May 25 have turned into something else. 

“The situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd,” Walz said at a morning news conference. “It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear, and disrupting our great cities.”

But every mayor and police chief seems to want to blame outsiders for the crime spree. Take Houston, for example:

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded for calm in Houston Saturday after the 12-hour protest that rocked downtown Houston Friday night.

Acevedo said eight police officers were injured, 16 patrol cars were damaged, and some businesses were vandalized. He said 137 people were arrested, mostly for blocking highways.

The chief praised the vast majority of protesters who were peaceful and blamed outside agitators for inciting violence.

“We’re seeing that there are people — who are not people of color — who are coming into this city and other cities to actually start agitating and actually engaging in violence,” Acevedo said. “Unfortunately, what happens is there are provocateurs or anarchists or those who want to hijack the legitimate pain, the legitimate grievances, the legitimate activities of 80 percent — if not more — of that crowd.”

And Miami:

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez blames outside agitators for inciting violence at a George Floyd protest in Miami on Saturday.

“The residents of Miami Dade County, the good residents of Miami Dade County, who are rightly expressing their anger and what happened, but actually outside agitators, professional agitators that are here to cause trouble. We think that we have some in our midst,” said Mayor Gimenez to CBS4 News. “And our message is do not be swayed by these professional agitators asking you to do something, partake in something you shouldn’t be if you are actually participating in one of these demonstrations.”

CBS4’s Jim DeFede also reporting Saturday night that senior law enforcement sources also believe outside agitators are responsible.

Jim said on CBS4 News at 11, “Police have been monitoring social media for the past couple of days and found out that in the last 48 hours, there were some high level meetings between many of the police chiefs in Miami and South Florida, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, a number of conference calls, where they were briefed on the idea that there are outside agitators.”

However, it’s not known who they are.

“The Attorney General was talking about Antifa; the President has talked about Antifa. We’ve been hearing these reports from other places around the country talking about outside agitators who are taking advantage of the situation. So at the very least, what I can tell you is that the backdrop for the police was that they believed going into tonight, that there were going to be these outside agitators who are going to come in and try to capitalize and use the peaceful protesters to try to ignite something larger,” said DeFede. “And I can also tell you that in the course of the protest today, police detained two individuals who they found backpacks filled with rocks and rubber hammers and who they believe are linked to various groups, you know, that are on the left, who sort of that Antifa type of wing who they believe came to Miami to help instigate things. They’ve been tracking them for days in terms of social media, they’ve been tracking others in terms of social media.”

I’m skeptical that are armies of white supremacists and/or Antifa activists are to blame for all of the rioting and mayhem associated with these protests. Or even the majority of it. But it’s quite plausible that they are adding fuel to the fire, trying to incite further backlash against the mostly black protestors and detract attention from their cause.

At the same time, authorities are clearly over-selling this notion. The claims in the Twin Cities that all of those arrested were outsiders were, to put it charitably, wildly inaccurate. Similarly, I’d bet my house that most of the criminality on display in Houston and Miami is organic to those cities.

It’s rare, indeed, for massive protests, especially those sparked by genuinely outrageous circumstances, to remain purely peaceful. Some people will naturally use the cover of a mob to engage in rioting, looting, and other acts of mayhem. They’re attacking police stations and police cruisers because they’re visible symbols of oppression. We’ve seen it constantly in protests around the country and, indeed, around the world.

Alas, mayhem, whether created by outside agitators or locals using the protests as cover, has the same impact: clouding and likely weakening the message protestors are trying to convey.

UPDATE: Mia Bloom, a scholar specializing in Middle East terrorism, offers some anecdotal evidence that a group of white agitators called “accelerationists” are involved in said agitation.

The accelerationists, if you have never heard the term, are an extreme subset of white nationalism whose goal is to bring about chaos and destruction. The basic tenet of accelerationism argues that since Western governments are inherently corrupt, the best (and only) thing supremacists can do is to accelerate the end of society by sowing chaos and aggravating political tensions. “Accelerationist ideas have been cited in mass shooters’ manifestos — explicitly, in the case of the New Zealand killer — and are frequently referenced in white supremacist web forums and chat rooms,” Zack Beauchamp explained.

She has no evidence—and makes no claims—as to scale but her report is worth reading.

Again, it both strikes me as plausible that such groups’ interests are served by turning the coverage into one of black crime rather than black grievance and implausible that they have the manpower to be at the root of the a nationwide problem simultaneously.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    You are right, unless the farm-hands are heading to the cities to agitate, there are not enough “outsiders” to account for all the outsiders being blamed.

    They tried to protest peacefully, but they were called “sons of bitches” and told they were being unpatriotic.

    So here we are.

    15
  2. Kit says:

    When you’re black, you get unlawful assembly and stop and frisk, while those white enough get the 1st and 4th amendments.

    5
  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    As I commented here and from your comment after and this post we’re in agreement on outside agitators.

    Governmental leaders and the protest leadership has a vested interest in blaming outsiders. If the leadership of the violent factions were local, the authorities would need to pursue charges and the protest leadership would need to explain any connection to violence perpetrated by local ringleaders. Best just to blame outsiders.

    I chuckle at the anecdotal evidence, such as, a person reporting seeing a white guy in a pickup with a couple of guns and a 3%’r sticker, I’d suppose that there are more than one and fewer than 100,000 red blooded, Vikings loving Minnesotans that are sporting 3%’r stickers.

    Are there some outsiders, probably, are they the biggest organizers and perps, no. I’ve seen several articles in the last couple of days the commented on lots of social media discussion about going to Mpls or some other city. That is likely where it is staying, lots of bragging and brave talk.

    1
  4. DrDaveT says:

    I am disappointed by how consistently the press coverage makes it sound like these protests are about George Floyd personally, and not a response to the ubiquitous constant barrage of George Floyd events in this country. The mule is beaten constantly; it only kicks occasionally, at which point it gets beaten twice as hard for a while.

    Knowing the names of Rodney King and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Eric Garner makes too many of us forget that we don’t know the names of the hundreds (thousands? more?) of black men murdered with impunity by law enforcement officials. Comfortable white society doesn’t see an ongoing systematic brutalization; they see an occasional “incident” accompanied by “overreaction”. I’m open to suggestions for how to illuminate the magnitude of the problem.

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  5. It seems axiomatic that events like this will draw out any number of people willing to take advantage of (it the broadest of senses of that term) of the situation, whether it is for disparate political reasons or to commit crimes. It is also probably nearly impossible to assess exactly what is going on in the heat of the moment.

    I will say that it was irresponsible of the Mayor of Minneapolis to make the claim he did. Disinformation, even if it is simply a mistake, adds to the tensions of these events.

    1
  6. Mister Bluster says:

    Donald Trump Tweet 9:34am Sat. 5/30/2020
    Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???’
    Source

    Later Trump stated:
    ‘MAGA says Make America Great Again – these are people that love our country,’ he said, according to Fox News. ‘I have no idea if they are going to be here.
    ‘I was just asking, but I have no idea if they’re going to be here. But MAGA is “Make America Great Again.” By the way, they love African American people, they love black people. MAGA loves the black people.’
    Source

    So Donald Trump has called for “outsiders” who support him to travel to The White House and give him some love.
    I have searched local, national and international news sites but can not find reports of any new MAGA Mammals that have slithered into our nations capitol last night.
    I shall continue my search.

  7. Gustopher says:

    I’m skeptical that are armies of white supremacists and/or Antifa activists are to blame for all of the rioting and mayhem associated with these protests

    Antifa activists are reactive, and mostly exist to punch Nazis like the Proud Boys. Ideologically, Antifa wants to preserve society by punching Nazis, so they aren’t going to be destroying things and creating arbitrary chaos.

    There are other groups on the left, which are basically anarchists and who want to overthrow the system. These are the people who will attack symbols of corporate power like a Target, or try to provoke a larger reaction to tear down everything.

    4
  8. Mister Bluster says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:..It is also probably nearly impossible to assess exactly what is going on in the heat of the moment.

    This was the scene in Sleepytown 50 years ago during the Anti-Vietnam War, Anti-Draft demonstrations. Minutes after this picture was taken the Illinois State Police declared everyone under arrest for violation of curfew, saturated the area with tear gas and charged the crowd with billy clubs swinging. The crowd was chased seven blocks south towards campus right through the main business district.
    Hundreds of storefronts of local businesses were trashed. One of the few that was spared was theDairy Queen that was surrounded by demonstrators and protected from the mob. This DQ still stands today.
    This event started two weeks of demonstrations and confrontations and chaos that finally ended when the University closed down several weeks before finals and graduation.
    Upon reflection I can not refute the “outsider” claim. The enrollment at the time was 20,000+ undergraduate students, almost all of them were from outside Jackson County.
    Having been there I can say you are correct. It is impossible “to assess exactly what is going on in the heat of the moment.”
    I think that’s why they call them riots.

    PS These were not “race riots”. Everybody was white.

  9. CSK says:

    Target has announced that it will be closing, mostly temporarily, 100 of its stores, largely in Minneapolis, but in other major cities nationwide. Why is Target such a prime target for looters? Politically its stance is fairly liberal, if I’m not mistaken.

  10. restless says:

    My city burned last night. We’re small, only about 60K residents, so you won’t see us on CNN.

    It started peacefully with a march downtown protesting both George Floyd and an incident with police at our local trolley station.

    But the protest spilled onto the freeway, which brought county-wide media coverage. Perhaps that may have brought in outsiders – our local NextDoor had residents saying that there were people parking on their street in the evening, and getting out of their cars with gas-masks and baseball bats.

    However, the police responded to graffiti and rocks with tear gas and rubber/pepper bullets. At least one person was struck, in the face. That surely didn’t help.

    Stores were vandalized and looted. Cars burned. There’s video of local buildings being set on fire deliberately.

    I know MLK said a riot was the language of the unheard. I know racism, blatant and subtle, is pervasive.

    I want to help fix it and I don’t know how.

    1
  11. An Interested Party says:

    And now the wannabe fascist wants to label antifa as a terrorist group…

  12. de stijl says:

    @restless:

    Your city did not burn.

    Unless Google News and CNN is lying to us all no mid sized city burned to the ground yesterday.

  13. de stijl says:

    “Outside Agitators” is recycled code language from long ago.

    Discredited code.

  14. restless says:

    @de stijl:

    Did I say the entire city burned “to the ground”?

    Chase and Union banks did burn; nothing left but bent steel girders. There were husks of cars in the street. Our son woke us at 2am to show us the live stream of the fires and the smashed windows and looting.

    The violence at the police station started while the original protesters were out blocking the freeway. So maybe not outsiders, but not the same group.

    And Sunday morning my neighbors came out with brooms and trash bags to help our city clean up. It was a good feeling.

    Unless I’m missing the sarcasm, and just need to finish my coffee?

  15. Lynn says:

    @CSK: Why is Target such a prime target for looters?

    I can’t evaluate the accuracy of this article, but here it is

    https://hotair.com/archives/karen-townsend/2020/06/01/heres-looters-chose-target-stores-focus-rage/

    1
  16. Tony W says:

    @restless: The only city I know of where Chase and Union Bank burned was La Mesa, CA (east of San Diego) – which had its own incident with the police that day, in which a black man was treated horribly, on video, and the footage went viral.