Are ‘outside agitators’ exploiting Floyd protests?

Why We Wrote This

Rumors about extremist groups – and even foreign adversaries – co-opting the demonstrations for their own agendas have abounded. So far, evidence suggests their involvement has been relatively minimal, though still worrying.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Protesters gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in downtown Richmond, Virginia, Wednesday evening, June 3, 2020, to protest racism and police brutality. On Thursday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the statue of the Confederate general would be removed.

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Many of the mass protests that have swept across the United States, ignited by the death of George Floyd under a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis last week, have been peaceful. But in various locales, they’ve been accompanied by looting and destruction that have raised questions about whether so-called outside agitators are seeking to exploit the demonstrations for their own interests.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey initially said his city’s provocateurs were largely from outside the Twin Cities, but later admitted that was “wishful thinking” after data showed the vast majority of those arrested were from the area.

But figuring out where those causing the destruction come from is just part of the equation. Discerning whether they share the core protesters’ desire for racial justice is more difficult. Given the organic, volatile nature of the unrest, it’s hard to neatly categorize participants. As for extremist actors, they don’t appear to be a main driver of events on the ground, but their sometimes violent rhetoric is worrying.

“When you have something this catalytic, you’re also going to attract thrill-seekers, accelerationists, and thieves who steal things,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.

As thousands of people gathered in Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday around a heavily graffitied Robert E. Lee statue to protest racism and police brutality, some in the crowd worried that not everyone was there for the right reasons.

“I heard it’s not all Richmond people here,” says Ikeisha, who asks that her last name not be used because she skipped work to join the demonstrators. Sitting on a blanket with her 8-year-old son, who is shirtless in the hot sun and licking Cheetos crumbs off his fingers, she adds: “People are blowing our stuff up, and then they just go to their home.”

Many of the mass protests that have swept across the country, ignited by the death of George Floyd under a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis last week, have been peaceful. But in various cities and locales, they’ve been accompanied by looting and destruction that has raised questions about whether so-called outside agitators are seeking to exploit the demonstrations for their own interests.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, along with his St. Paul counterpart and the state’s governor, initially said his city’s provocateurs were largely from outside the Twin Cities, but later admitted that was wishful thinking after data showed the vast majority of those arrested were from the area.

But figuring out where those causing the destruction come from is just part of the equation. Discerning whether they share the core protesters’ desire for racial justice is more difficult. Given the organic, volatile nature of the unrest, it’s difficult to neatly categorize participants. As for extremist actors, they are showing up in small numbers and don’t appear to be a main driver of events on the ground, but their online rhetoric about capitalizing on the chaos is worrying.

“When you have something this catalytic, you’re also going to attract thrill-seekers, accelerationists, and thieves who steal things,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.

Some looters appear to be acting in defiance, driven by anger and frustration over racial injustice and economic woes – including the 40 million unemployed due to COVID-19 shutdowns, which have disproportionately affected minorities. Others, like those in wealthy Santa Monica, California, appear to be purely opportunistic.

President Trump has blamed antifa, the far-left amorphous movement known to use aggressive and sometimes violent tactics in the name of fighting fascism. Right-wing militias and several white supremacist groups have also showed up, including “accelerationists,” who seek to hasten what they believe to be an impending race war.

Boogaloo, an emerging right-wing movement of armed individuals that is virulently anti-government and anti-police and anticipates civil war, appears to be building on their momentum from lockdown protests this spring. The group had 125 Facebook pages as of late April, 60 percent of which were formed between February and April, according to the Tech Transparency Project. The Justice Department announced Wednesday that three men who were members of the Nevada Boogaloo Facebook group have been charged in federal court with “conspiracy to cause destruction” in Las Vegas protests over the weekend, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported.

“What these extremists would like to do is screw up these demonstrations and make it seem like it’s just violence and destruction of property … and blame it on minority communities,” says Carolyn Petrosino, professor emeritus of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, where she has taught a course on hate crimes for decades. “It helps their agenda.”

Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP
Community members clean up broken glass at McDonald's on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, Sunday, June 1, 2020. Destruction of property, violence, and theft occurred in Philadelphia after protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The fragmentation of fringe and extremist groups

The extremist landscape has become increasingly fragmented over the past decade, says Professor Levin.

“General extremism is a carnival mirror reflection of debates and conflicts that are going on in the mainstream,” he explains. “But when that becomes a cracked carnival mirror, the fringe does the same thing.”

He attributes the diversification of extremist movements to tectonic shifts in politics, economics, and demographics, as the U.S. approaches the point where whites will no longer be the majority. The stoking of righteous anger across the political spectrum has exacerbated frictions, and the pandemic is an added stressor.

So far, these extremist actors appear to be just a small percentage of the people showing up to protest across the country.

“We have not seen a large-scale effort by domestic extremists to either organize or infiltrate en masse among these protests and try to exploit them,” says Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which published a round-up of such actors’ limited involvement in protests to date.

But online, he says, it’s a different story. White supremacists are gung-ho about the unrest, hoping that this will lead to the race war they’ve been waiting for. Some have suggested shooting cops amid the mayhem of the protests, and then blaming it on the crowd.

“They’re trying to stoke those racial fears, in order to spread their message and garner new recruits,” says Mr. Friedfeld, who formerly served as an intelligence research specialist for the New York City Police Department.

Russia exploiting, but not stoking protests

Then there’s speculation that Russia, which has a long history of exploiting racial injustice in America to undermine its standing on the world stage, may have a hand in the unrest.

In the 2016 election cycle, two-thirds of Russian activity on Facebook and other social media platforms seeking to influence the election was aimed at black Americans, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report. Facebook advertisements paid for by Russia sought to stir emotions after police shootings of black victims, while pages such as “Blacktivist” garnered millions of “likes,” shares, and comments. On YouTube, meanwhile, 96% of content created by a Kremlin-linked troll farm focused on race and police brutality, as the Monitor previously reported

But experts in disinformation, the spread of misleading information with the deliberate intent to deceive, say that while the current unrest gives Moscow and other adversaries great fodder for undermining U.S. credibility, there’s no evidence it’s driving the demonstrations.  

“The Russians, Chinese, and Iranians are using this to basically win a global narrative battle,” says Bret Schafer, media and digital disinformation fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington, D.C. “But there’s zero evidence they’re having any impact whatsoever on the protesters themselves.”

At a time when America has been highly critical of China’s treatment of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, Beijing has taken aim at Mr. Trump’s attitude toward demonstrators. After Minneapolis erupted in violence, the president denounced “thugs” for dishonoring George Floyd’s name and vowed to crack down, using a phrase with historical connotations of deadly police force.

“I think people need to be extremely cautious about assigning blame to a foreign adversary because I think it can often be used to delegitimize what is a legitimate movement,” says Mr. Schafer. “It directs attention to their behavior rather than shining a light internally on our own failings.”

Rioting is ‘the language of the unheard’

Back in Richmond, the sweaty crowd erupts in cheers as someone with a megaphone says: “They don’t label us as protesters, they label us as troublemakers. But I don’t mind being a troublemaker.”

Tony Davidson, an African American YMCA youth counselor in attendance, quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. as saying that a riot is “the language of the unheard.”

Even as the civil rights leader advocated for non-violence, he also said, “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.”

For far too long, racial injustice has been invisible to white people, says Professor Petrosino, who is African American. While looting is terrible, she adds, the greater harm is when people’s ability to feel safe, secure, and wanted in their own country has been “trashed.”

“This is why these kids are marching,” she says, referring to young African Americans, whom she credits with understanding that rioting will be counterproductive. “They know that destroying property is not the way – I think that lesson has been learned.”

More cheers go up from the Richmond crowd as word gets around that the mayor will put forward a new ordinance on Thursday to remove Confederate statues from the city. (Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the Robert E. Lee statue would be taken down as soon as possible.)

Ikeisha, sitting in the back of the crowd with her son, says she opposes the violence that has broken out in some cities. But she is thrilled with the extent to which protests have swept the nation, with greater numbers than have been seen since the 1960s.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says. “Martin Luther King would be doing jumping jacks in his grave right now. I’m headed to see my grandmother soon. I can’t wait to tell her about everything that’s going on.” 

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