From the earliest days of the civil rights era, officials have been quick to assert that demonstrations were the work of “outside agitators,” as a way of distracting from the protesters’ grievances and mobilizing local opinion against them. Last week, as protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer erupted around the nation, the phrase reemerged, amplified by social media and echoed across the political spectrum, from the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis to Attorney General William Barr and President Trump.
And in some cases, it seemed, they might be right, although the facts remain hard to ascertain. Had the countless fires, broken windows and vandalized police vehicles seen in cities across the country, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C., been caused by mostly white, far-left antifascists? Or was it the work of white supremacists or far-right antigovernment “Boogaloo Bois” trying to provoke a race war?
At least in the Twin Cities, the epicenter of the protests, there was support for the idea that many, or even most, of the violence was committed by outsiders. At a press conference Saturday, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said that everyone arrested in relation to civil unrest in his city Friday night had been from out of state, though a spokesman later admitted that claim was based on incomplete information.
“The Mayor went with the information he had at the time and learned after the media conference more than half are from Minnesota,” communications director Peter Leggett told Yahoo News in an email. KARE 11, a local NBC News affiliate in Minneapolis, conducted a review of all arrested made by Minneapolis-based law enforcement agencies during the same time period for crimes related to rioting, burglary and unlawful assembly and found that “nearly all of the people arrested in likely connection to the riots live in Minneapolis or the metro area.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, however, was similarly insistent that those who’d caused destruction and damage over the last few nights were “not Minneapolis residents.” In a Twitter thread posted Saturday afternoon, Frey doubled down on this assertion, and echoed a claim made earlier by Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington that initially peaceful protests were being co-opted by “white supremacists, members of organized crime, out of state instigators and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region.”
In response to a request for more details or evidence that the protests had been infiltrated by white supremacists and other outside actors, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety told Yahoo News: “We are unable to provide additional information due to ongoing investigative activity.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department did not respond to a similar request for more information about allegations made Saturday by Attorney General William Barr, who stated that it was, in fact, “anarchic and … far-left extremist groups, using antifa-like tactics” who were responsible for causing the violence that had erupted out of many recent protests.
Violent protest in Minneapolis
Barr’s comments echoed claims promoted by President Trump on Twitter Saturday. Though Trump agreed with the Minnesota officials that the riots were the work of “organized groups” who “had little to do with the memory of George Floyd,” he was emphatic about who he believed the real perpetrators were.
“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” he tweeted. “Don’t lay the blame on others!”
Trump underscored the point on Sunday, tweeting that “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” The authority to designate terrorist organizations lies not with the president, but the U.S. Department of State, and is legally applied to clearly established foreign entities, not loosely defined movements based in the United States.
Trump’s view has been shared on Fox News and by various other right-wing voices on social media, who’ve been circulating photos and videos of white people dressed in black spray-painting buildings and vandalizing police cars.
Antifa members typically wear black, including black face masks, when they take to the streets, but pictures of black-clad demonstrators in various cities proves nothing.
But some African-American activists in Detroit and other cities have criticized white protesters for co-opting protests against police brutality with violent and destructive tactics that discredit the movement for justice.
Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project, in an interview with the Guardian, drew a distinction between violence by African-Americans, which she saw as justifiable, and by whites. “If a black person decides ‘I’m going to set this building on fire’ … it’s self-determination,” she said. But she didn’t want “black and brown bodies funneled into jails based on white people’s actions.”
Despite widespread claims on social media, little hard evidence has emerged of organized efforts by white supremacists or other far-right extremists to recruit or mobilize sympathizers to infiltrate protests. But a search of various social media platforms frequented by these movements indicated that the protests had drawn interest from some individuals and groups who are claiming to have joined the action.
Conspicuous among them are factions of the so-called Boogaloo movement, a disparate collection of fringe groups with overlapping interests in a coming civil war in America. Proponents of “Boogaloo” have previously seized on other events, including the gun rights rally in Richmond, Va., earlier this year, where they see a potential for chaos and armed confrontation with law enforcement.
While some white supremacists and neo-Nazis, are in fact, promoting the “Boogaloo,” J.J. MacNab, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, cautioned that “the Boogaloo movement is not cohesive.”
“While there are pockets of white supremacist Boogaloos, the younger and bigger groups are generally not,” MacNab wrote in a Twitter thread Saturday. Though some “Boogaloos” strongly support Trump, many others “hate him,” as well as the police.
“While there are Boogaloos that want to discredit protests angry at the murder of a black man, there are younger Boogaloos that are incensed by the murder and want to join the protests,” wrote MacNab.
In a detailed report on this confusing and contradictory movement earlier this week, the independent investigative journalism site Bellingcat noted how the mounting protests sparked by the death of George Floyd were seen as a “call to arms” by some “Boogaloo Bois,” driven by their own animosity toward law enforcement. Public posts on Facebook and Instagram indicate that adherents have at least been present — and heavily armed — at recent protests in Minneapolis, Dallas and Philadelphia. One “Boogaloo”-affiliated Instagram account that has been posting and live streaming from the demonstrations in Dallas urged others on Friday to “Come out to support George Floyd tonight!” in a post on Instagram. “FYI I need 3 unarmed people to volunteer to walk among me and build relationships. We have the same goal as BLM: purify the corrupt justice system.”
While the stated goals of different “Boogaloo” factions may vary, they share a desire to bring about violent conflict, including armed clashes with law enforcement, that will ultimately lead to a civil war.
The spate of violent clashes between police and African-American activists have caught the attention of some of the more extreme white supremacist and neo-Nazi factions known as “accelerationists,” who specifically advocate for a race war that will end in an all-white society in the U.S.
Public accelerationist channels typically known for promoting white supremacist and neo-Nazi propaganda have been flooded with photos, videos and police scanner feeds from the protests, interspersed with racist and inflammatory language.
“If someone really wanted to kick off the boogaloo, now would be the fine time to fire some shots and frame the crowd around you as responsible,” read one comment posted Thursday on the prominent neo-Nazi channel Terrorwave Refined. Another post from the same day, written in the style of a popular internet meme, displays the caption “Heading to Minneapolis to make sure it kicks off like” beneath a photo of a person wearing a black skeleton face mask and holding what appears to be a semi-automatic rifle above the caption. It’s unclear whether these kinds of posts have actually motivated anyone to join the protests, but they have certainly caught the attention of government and law enforcement officials in many parts of the country.