By Danny R. Johnson
Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman fit the definition of “outside agitators.” They were white New Yorkers in their early 20s who had driven down to Mississippi, where they successfully organized a black boycott of a variety store — along with James Chaney, a local black man once suspended from high school for wearing an NAACP paper badge — and led voting registration efforts for African Americans, much to the chagrin of white supremacists.
For their trouble, the three civil rights workers were kidnapped and killed in 1964 in the infamous “Mississippi Burning” case investigated by the FBI. But even after the bodies of the three young men were recovered, the impression that they were troublemakers from the North stuck. Most of those accused of involvement in their murder were acquitted; the harshest punishment meted out at the time was a 10-year prison sentence.
The recent upheaval in some major American cities in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has caused a revival of the civil rights era label of outside agitator. The city’s mayor has used the term, and so has the governor of Minnesota, without providing evidence. On Fox News, the label was deployed over the weekend by the commentariat frequently and emphatically, but without a trace of irony. President Donald Trump jumped on the narrative and, when not hiding in the White House bunker, found time to tweet claims that anarchists were up to their old tricks again. “80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE,” he falsely wrote on Saturday. By Monday, the president was quoting “Fox & Friends” and blaming the “Radical Left” and “ANTIFA.”
It is certainly possible that there are individuals who swarm to riots like bees to honey, and it is particularly tempting to ascribe all bad behavior to them. But we are skeptical that antifa, the loosely organized militant opponents to fascism, is under every rock. That is surely not at the heart of what is happening here anymore than “outside agitators” were the chief cause of Baltimore’s post-Freddie Gray protests and violence five years ago. Police arrest records out of Minnesota so far show that the perpetrators are distinctly local, as does an early analysis of Twitter posts. Arrest records in other states that have seen protests turn violent, from California to Pennsylvania, also back this up.
Either these outsiders are really, really good at causing mischief and then running away before the police start making arrests or, more likely, what “outsiders” are showing up — including white supremacists who want to stir the pot, too — are greatly outnumbered by “insiders.”
The claim in 2020 that this is all the fault of outside agitators is made for the same reason it was in 1964: to deflect blame — blame for the violence and blame for the underlying circumstances causing it all. It’s much easier for a politician to point a finger at people from afar than admit that the unrest is rooted in deep racial division and long-standing inequities, in systemic and individual racism; in police brutality; in lack of quality education, health care, housing and job opportunities; and in the simmering anger that comes from knowing that nothing of consequence is being done about these social ills. Blaming outsiders avoids having to admit some responsibility for these maladies.
Even some who concede that Derek Chauvin and some of his former police colleagues should face criminal sanctions for George Floyd’s death are not willing to see the bigger picture, the pattern of oppression at work. Instead, they follow a narrative of one bad cop, some peaceful protests, followed by those “outside agitators” who are the real problem. How convenient for those who resist change, including a president who consistently finds himself on the wrong side on issues involving race relations. How much easier to promote conspiracy theories on Twitter than engage in meaningful and courageous reforms in real life.
Acknowledging the unrest from within your borders does not excuse the violence and criminal behavior, but it does shift the onus for ending it onto elected leaders, over law enforcement. What is needed right now is a dialogue, a sign that protesters are being heard and not ignored. It is the best way to defuse the tension that also fuels the criminal behavior. Shifting the blame for the destruction and rioting on outsiders from far away works against such an effort. It sends a message that we are still operating under the standards of Meridian, Miss., of 1964.