A white police officer pinned a handcuffed black citizen to the ground by the neck. The black citizen said that he could not breathe. Some bystanders asked the officer to cease obstructing the man’s breath; the three uniformed bystanders made no such suggestion. The officer kept kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds — long enough to take the life out of George Floyd’s body and George Floyd out of the lives of his friends and family.
Local people of goodwill took to the streets. Outraged by the persistence of police misconduct and racial inequity — but possessing a tacit faith in our Republic’s perfectibility — these patriotic dissenters peacefully exercised their First Amendment rights. Within days, authorities affirmed the righteousness of their cause by charging the kneeling officer with third-degree murder. Then the community could have begun to heal; the moral arc of history could have inched toward justice.
But outsiders agitated. Unruly out-of-towners infiltrated the protests and instigated violence, smashing a police precinct’s windows and looting scores of businesses. These miscreants may have been white anarchists raging against their own ennui, or white supremacists thirsting for race war, or thieves looking for a chance to loot. But one thing is certain: They do not live among us.
Or so goes one prominent narrative about the past several days of unrest in the United States.
The account was first articulated by officials in the Twin Cities. “The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents,” Mayor Jacob Frey said of the violence in his city Friday night. “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.”
Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul echoed this assessment, announcing that “every single person” who’d been arrested on his city’s streets Friday night had been “from out of state.”
Of course, protests in response to Floyd’s death were not limited to the region in which it occurred. Across the country, officials saw their cities overtaken by the same amalgam of peaceful demonstrations, violent clashes between police and protesters, and anarchic property destruction. As it turned out, the “outsiders” were everywhere.
In New York, Mayor de Blasio warned that “a small set of men … came to do violence in a systematic organized fashion.” Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Bottoms suggested that a lot of the violence in her city was perpetrated by people from outside its borders. Attorney General Bill Barr, meanwhile, lamented that “the voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent radical elements,” explaining that “outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.”
According to Marco Rubio, some of the agitators were from as far outside as Beijing. On Saturday, the Florida senator warned that “social media accounts linked to at least 3 foreign adversaries” were “actively stoking & promoting violence & confrontation from multiple angles.” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said Sunday that Rubio’s analysis was “spot on” and that the Chinese were key culprits.
The “outsider” narrative has elements of truth. Judging by arrest records, some people are indeed traveling a good distance from home to commit acts of violence in cities gripped by civil unrest. A few white supremacists affiliated with the far-right “Boogaloo” movement appear to be among them. Separately, the bulk of the organized political opposition to police violence in the U.S. — and the vast majority of those who marched in the wake of George Floyd’s death — are committed to nonviolent change. Thus one could argue that wherever those engaging in arson and vandalism happen to hail from geographically, they stand outside the main currents of dissent. Mayor Bottoms argued precisely this on Sunday, when asked whether she still believed, contrary to arrest records, that outsiders were principally responsible for the violence. “Our normal organizers in the city,” Bottoms said, “who organize many of the marches and protests that we have in the city, shared that many of the people who were wreaking havoc, they did not recognize.”
Of course, “the people committing acts of violence are unknown to the leaders of racial justice groups that communicate with the mayor’s office” is a much weaker claim than “the people committing acts of violence aren’t from around here.” And in just about all instances, the latter has been proved untrue. According to reports from Minneapolis’s Fox 9 and KARE 11, upwards of 80 percent of those arrested in the city Friday night claimed local addresses. NBC News, meanwhile, could find “few signs” that “unrest, violence, and property destruction in cities across the U.S.” had been “stoked by organized extremists.”
The problems with the “outside agitator” narrative aren’t limited to its literal falsity. In casting extremists and crooks as the sole instigators of violence, officials obscure the myriad documented instances in which police officers have committed acts of unprovoked brutality — not only against law-abiding protesters but also against clearly identified members of the press. Unruly agents of the state are the most “inside” of all possible agitators.
Fundamentally, the very concept of the “outside agitator” is incoherent in the context of nationwide protests over a nationwide problem. America saw 1,004 of its people killed by police officers last year, a higher tally than any nation besides Brazil, Venezuela, the Philippines, or Syria. A majority of those killed had light skin. There is no one in the United States who lacks standing to protest this state of affairs. Police departments may be local, but their capacity to use force is expanded or constrained by federal policy. If one wishes to see one’s representatives in D.C. pursue police reforms, traveling to the Twin Cities to join in its protests — and thus amplify its message of discontent with the status quo — is a reasonable thing to do.
The “outside agitator” trope was actually more coherent in its initial application. During the civil-rights movement, civic leaders in the South routinely ascribed local unrest to northern infiltrators who were riling up previously docile and contented African-Americans with their communistic propaganda. This was a grotesque and racist lie. But in the context of battles over desegregation, the “outside agitator” epithet did have logical coherence: The (real and imagined) northern infiltrators were opposing racial arrangements that they did not themselves live under. The pathologies of 21st-century American policing, by contrast, do not stop at the Mason-Dixon Line.
To be sure, Melvin Carter’s invocation of the “outside agitator” trope in 2020 is nowhere near as sinister as Sheriff Jim Clark’s was in 1965 (however less coherent the former may be). Carter, Bottoms, de Blasio, and Frey are not attempting to deny the existence of discontent with policing and racial inequity in their cities. They are not even aiming to deny the righteousness of that discontent. Whereas southern segregationists attempted to discredit (largely) nonviolent protest movements by coding them as foreign and communistic, these liberal mayors aim, at least in part, to legitimize peaceful protest movements by coding their violent fringes as utterly alien.
There are less noble lies. Violent unrest is deeply unpopular. And assaults on the livelihoods of random small-business owners — let alone on human beings who attempt to prevent such destruction — are morally odious. It is unquestionably in the electoral interest of these politicians to disavow such violence. And it is almost certainly in the political interest of movements for police reform to avoid association with such activity.
But whatever its political utility, the claim that violent unrest is wholly attributable to “outsiders” remains a lie. And it is a fiction that reflects our society’s broader affinity for blaming its internal divisions on the machinations of external adversaries. The truth about the past several days of unrest is messy and plural. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of 75 cities. Among the subsection of that great mass that engaged in violence, there were surely some white-supremacist provocateurs, reckless thrill-seekers with radical pretensions, and opportunistic criminals. But in a country that incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other on the Earth, where almost every police killing of unarmed suspects goes unprosecuted, where the racial wealth gap has been growing for decades, where racial discrimination in hiring and housing persists, where schools are becoming more segregated, where working-class wages have stagnated as housing costs have exploded, where access to basic medical care is a privilege, where the first black president’s tenure coincided with a foreclosure crisis that devastated black homeowners, where a bungled pandemic response just cost tens of millions their jobs — and where optimistic economists now expect the nation’s most vulnerable workers (the “low skilled,” nonwhite, and/or formerly incarcerated) to remain jobless for years to come — surely a few of those who broke windows this week did so out of an earnest conviction that violence is the only language this political system understands.
Regardless, none of the so-called rioters are outsiders to this country. Not the rebels, criminals, nihilists, white supremacists, or cops. No other society is responsible for their outrage, boredom, hatred, or brutality. The fact is that we live in an increasingly low-trust society where established institutions are rapidly losing legitimacy for reasons good and bad. Our best hope for averting more weekends like this past one is to eliminate the good reasons. And that will require confronting the legitimate, native-born sources of mass discontent. China did not bring rage to our cities, just as Russia did not introduce disinformation to our electoral campaigns. The agitation cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we will ourselves be its author and finisher.