Activism / May 3, 2024

The Fiction of the “Outside Agitator”

With the “outside agitator” narrative, the media and politicians are puking up the worst of this country’s past.

Dave Zirin
Protester in keffiyeh waves flag from roof

A student protester waves a Palestinian flag above Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall on April 30.

(Mary Altaffer / Getty Images)

More than 2,000 people have been arrested on US college campuses for peacefully protesting Israel’s war on the people of Palestine. For the “crime” of forming tent cities, or “encampments” on campus, students have been attacked by mobs, brutalized by police, and even faced gunfire at Columbia University after occupying a building. (I occupied several administration buildings in decades past and never had to face live ammo.)

President Joe Biden gave his tacit approval to release the hounds when he said, “Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest, it is against the law.”

Current Issue

Cover of May 2024 Issue

If that’s the case, then police and violent counterprotesters should have been arrested in droves. Biden’s wink and nod is also politically derelict; it will repel the youth voters he desperately needs to defeat Donald Trump. Biden is sacrificing his election chances and perhaps any pretense of democracy for his support for Israel’s war crimes.

An incurious media in a state of bloodlust has egged on the violence. CNN’s Dana Bash’s comparison of campus protests to 1930s Germany is an insult to every victim of the Holocaust and their descendants—and I have met several descendants of Jewish Holocaust victims at the encampments. There is a Jewish presence at every one of the three dozen encampments that I have been able to research. In a sane media world, Bash would be looking for work, perhaps with a sign that reads, “Will lie for food.”

This is what the powerful do when they lose an argument. There is no moral or political justification for what Israel is doing to the people of Gaza, and students, professors, and community members are pointing that out. Being unable to argue with reason, political leaders have turned to deceit, state repression, and encouraging stochastic terrorism.

We have heard the greatest lie: that the encampments are “antisemitic”—an Orwellian falsehood told to justify state violence. But there is another dangerous narrative taking root: that those arrested are “outside agitators.” It has been striking to see the exhuming and resuscitation of that relic of an insult. One would have thought that calling citizens “outside agitators” had died of shame decades ago. It was used to slander Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, but in the mouths of politicians like NYC Mayor Eric Adams, the phrase is having a renaissance. The media and politicians are puking up the worst of this country’s past.

“Outside agitator” is a phrase with its origins in the late 1940s during the earliest days of the Black freedom struggle. It was first said by John Birchers and Jim Crow cops to denigrate and slander civil rights activists. Their argument was that Black people in the South were more than content with white supremacy until a bunch of Northern, radical, carpetbagging communists showed up to tell them that there was something wrong in the world.

Incredibly and ironically, one of the best refutations of the phrase came from Jackie Robinson in 1949, at a congressional House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. This was where Robinson—in the great regret of his life—criticized Paul Robeson for his communist sympathies. But that’s not all Robinson had to say. Little note was made of this in media reports that celebrated the Robeson takedown, but the trailblazing baseball player also said that

“…every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do. Just because it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of the charges. Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared.”

One could rewrite this for today’s moment. College students are not stirred up because an adult shows up, bullhorn in hand, telling everyone to gather in the quad with tents to risk arrest, future career prospects, and state violence. They are stirred up by mass graves in Gaza; the killings of civilians, journalists, and children; and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. They are repelled that this genocide is being underwritten with our tax dollars. That’s what pushes people into action, not some imaginary outside agitator.

What the media elites and DC warmongers cannot compute is that they believed this generation was apathetic at best. Now seeing them rise up on college campuses across the country is causing them to malfunction. When Biden proclaims, “We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent” while professors are being thrown to the ground and led away in handcuffs, it doesn’t take an “outside agitator” for students to see that something is rotten in our democracy.

The boomer elites have lost a generation, and instead of listening to the young, they search for excuses. What they cannot comprehend is that maybe they lost this generation—including many of my fellow Jews—because they have been selling a lie about Israel and the United States being forces for good, and the young are tired of pretending that it is anything other than an ugly hoax.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

More from Dave Zirin Dave Zirin Illustration

Pro-Palestine banner in soccer stands

In Ireland, “Nothing but Love” for the Palestinian Women’s Soccer Team In Ireland, “Nothing but Love” for the Palestinian Women’s Soccer Team

The Palestinian National Women’s Football Team defeated the Bohemian Football Club 2-1 in front of a sell-out crowd in Dublin. It was much more than a win for Palestine.

Dave Zirin

Harrison Butker at commencement

Harrison Butker Is a Jerk, a Bigot, and a True Representative of the NFL Harrison Butker Is a Jerk, a Bigot, and a True Representative of the NFL

In a brief commencement speech, the Kansas City kicker managed to be racist, sexist, and homophobic. The NFL’s response is revealing.

Dave Zirin

Macklemore onstage with a delightful duck-print short-sleeve shirt.

Macklemore Dares Others to Stand Up for Palestine Macklemore Dares Others to Stand Up for Palestine

With “Hind’s Hall,” the rapper is telling artists and other culture workers, “The students are risking it all. Where are you?”

Dave Zirin

Taking a shot on goal during a soccer game in Rafah

Palestinians Stand Up to Israel Through Soccer Palestinians Stand Up to Israel Through Soccer

The American Friends Service Committee staged a youth soccer tournament in Rafah, showcasing the joy that the sport can offer.

Dave Zirin

Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a map of the U.S.

How the US Media Failed to Tell the Story of the Occupation of Palestine How the US Media Failed to Tell the Story of the Occupation of Palestine

A Q&A with the creators of The Occupation of the American Mind, a documentary analyzing media coverage of the occupation of Palestine.

Dave Zirin

O.J. Simpson at his 1995 trial

O.J. Simpson Was a Rorschach Test for America O.J. Simpson Was a Rorschach Test for America

Society / May 3, 2024 The Fiction of the “Outside Agitator” Most people saw the Hall of Fame running back not as a person but as symbol for what was wrong with the country. Dav…

Dave Zirin