Stop Blaming ‘Outside Agitators’ for America’s Problems

Stop Blaming ‘Outside Agitators’ for America’s Problems

Stop Blaming ‘Outside Agitators’ for America’s Problems

Some liberals have joined Trump in scapegoating fringe individuals and movements for a deep-seated social crisis.


Donald Trump can always be trusted to increase the sting of injury with his own deranged brand of insult. While there is no shortage of videos of police brutality during the current uprising, one of the most shocking appeared on Saturday, showing two police officers in Buffalo shoving Martin Gugino, an elderly man, to the ground. As police continued to walk past his body, Gugino lay there with blood draining from his ears. He’s currently in the hospital recovering.

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”

Needless to say, Trump’s tweet was total nonsense. Far from being an antifa provocateur, Gugino is a longtime pacifist who belongs to the Catholic Workers Movement. Although known for direct action, the Catholic Workers are not provocateurs. Antifa is a frequent bogeyman Trump likes to conjure up, but it also doesn’t fit the model of agitation Trump is describing. Antifa is not a cohesive, organized group but an informal ideological network of activists engaged in anti-fascist protests. While antifa activists have on occasion scuffled with police, there’s no evidence that they are major players in the nationwide protests.

Trump has repeatedly promised to have antifa designated as a terrorist group. As The New York Times notes, Trump is having trouble achieving this goal because “the federal government can only designate foreign-based groups as terrorist entities, and anti-fascism is a political idea, like pacifism or communism, not an organization.”

Trump’s tweet is part of a larger push by his administration to revive the classic trope of the outside agitator in order to discredit the uprising against police violence. On May 31, Attorney General Bill Barr alleged that “groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.”

Like Trump’s claims about antifa, Barr’s statement is rhetorical bullshit hiding a lack of evidence. Protests are taking place all over America on a scale not seen since the 1960s. They have also inspired similar movements on every continent save Antarctica. It’s undoubtedly the case that the protests have drawn people with a range of motives. This includes white supremacists motivated by the desire to infiltrate and discredit. But there’s no reason to believe that “radicals and agitators” are the main cause of violence.

NPR observed that “U.S. Attorney General William Barr has repeatedly blamed anti-fascist activists for the violence that has erupted during demonstrations over George Floyd’s death, but federal court records show no sign of so-called antifa links so far in cases brought by the Justice Department.” As my colleague Ken Klippenstein reported, the FBI’s Washington Field Office was also quick to pour cold water on Barr’s charges, stating that the agency has “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.”

But the Trump administration isn’t the only one trying to revive the trope of the outside agitator. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, a Democrat, also invoked the trope in a press conference last week. Similar language blaming outside groups for local political violence has been used by Democratic mayors in many cities. When the uprising first started, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey claimed, again without credible evidence, that protesters “are coming in largely from outside of the city, from outside of the region, to prey on everything we have built over the last several decades.”

It’s strange to hear this language, so steeped in reactionary mythology, taken up by Democrats like Brown and Frey. The trope of the outside agitator goes back to the earliest days of slave rebellions and enjoyed a resurgence during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s.

As University of Chicago historian Thomas C. Holt told The New York Times, “The notion—or rather fiction—of the ‘outside agitator’ was a persistent trope, especially during the early years of the civil rights movement.” Holt added, “Part of the motivations for the charge was to sustain the myth that the locals were satisfied with things as they were, and if you could just crack down on the outsiders, the protests would cease. As the movement grew and spread, that myth became more difficult to sustain.”

The fact that Democratic mayors are so quick to resort to the outside agitator trope is evidence of how conservative their politics are. Squeezed between protesters who want change and powerful police unions seeking to preserve the status quo, mayors like Brown and Frey are conjuring up mythical agitators as a scapegoat. It is also a way of deflecting attention from the intensity of local anger.

Nor are violent protesters the only imaginary scapegoat. Responding to Trump comments about Martin Gugino, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, tweeted, “The story Trump is referencing was written by a Russian working for the Kremlin’s propaganda agency. Get ready—this is the next five months. Russia and the Trump campaign openly collaborating to spread lies and manipulate the election.”

If we were generous, we could say there is a bare modicum of truth to Murphy’s claims. Trump’s tweet was based on a report on the right-wing OANN network that was made by Kristian Brunovich Rouz, a Russian national who immigrated to the United States in 2015. Rouz does occasionally write, as a freelancer, for the Russian journal Sputnik.

But there is really no reason to think that this is proof that the Trump campaign is “openly collaborating” with Russia. For one thing, Rouz was relying on conspiracy theories that appeared in the blog The Conservative Treehouse. Fantasies about antifa are common in the right-wing media, including on Fox News. Rouz may have been elevating these fantasies, but he didn’t create them. Conspiracy mongering in America is not something Vladimir Putin invented.

Nor are right-wingers the only ones who believe lurid and absurd claims about antifa. On June 1, Jonathan Chait, a liberal journalist who works for New York magazine, tweeted, “One sign that liberals shouldn’t be defending antifa is that it’s literally impossible to distinguish them from white supremacist militias right now.” Like Trump and Barr, Chait’s claim is factually dubious. There is actual evidence of white supremacist violence in the protests, including a self-described member of the Ku Klux Klan driving into protesters. The antifa threat is, based on all credible evidence to date, imaginary.

Not all liberals are hawking the outside agitator threat. But to the extent they are, it is for the same reason that the Trump administration is. The uprising has made visible a massive social crisis in America. To solve this problem, sweeping change is needed. The rising chorus of “defund the police” acknowledges the depth of the problem. Those who are uncomfortable with radical reforms fall back on blaming outside agitators as a way to stalling needed change.

Accepting reality is the beginning of any solution. America needs to admit that its problems are not caused by antifa or Putin but by a deeply racist criminal justice system.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown had described activist Martin Gugino as an “agitator.” This story has been updated.

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