Many observers of the week-long protests triggered by the death of George Floyd have noted that the huge crowds of peaceful demonstrators have been remarkably mixed, racially and ethnically.
But when violence starts, the instigators are frequently young, white and often wearing all-black clothing as they smash windows and set fires, ignoring protesters’ pleas to stop the destruction.
And that inevitably diverts attention away from what’s supposed to be the point of all this: ending police killings like that of Floyd, who had been arrested last week for nothing more than reportedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.
The Washington Post noted an incident in downtown Pittsburgh, where someone was “recording mayhem.” The camera focused on “a white man, clad in all black, smashing the windows of a police vehicle.”
“It is not black people,” the camera holder shouted to a watching crowd. Then he demanded an answer from the vandal: “What are you doing?”
Yes. What are they doing? Who are these people?
The question’s easy. The answer (or answers), not so much.
“The shadowy identity of the violent agitators trashing cities across the country has muddled the national debate over racial justice,” reports The Hill, “inflaming partisan tensions, triggering finger-pointing from all sides and threatening to sap the power of those seeking reforms” following Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis.
President Trump thinks he knows who they are: members of the hard-left anti-fascist group Antifa. Those on the left are blaming the right-wingers like the Boogaloo Bois. Both groups are loose, largely leaderless, lacking clear agendas — and mostly white.
Adding to the confusion, some members of such groups are claiming to be their opposites, and calling for violence.
“There is tape – videotape of very, very suspicious looking people not a part of the protest,” Minnesota’s attorney general Keith Ellison (D) told MSNBC on Monday. “They’re not carrying signs. They’re not handing out leaflets. They’re not chanting slogans. They’re wearing all black, they’re wearing masks, and they’re breaking things and throwing incendiary devices around.”
Under the headline “White Extremists Terrorize and Loot,” BET, the black news and entertainment website, offered “13 Videos of Destruction Black People Will Be Blamed For.”
The BET videos, taken from social media, showed “unidentified white people spray painting “BLM” or Black Lives Matter on property, breaking glass and vandalizing businesses, and instigating fights with police.”
“While at heart the [protests] have been an appeal for racial justice,” reports the Post, “they also have attracted a diverse array of people with other grievances and agendas who have co-opted the moment, accelerating what has been a national unraveling as the country reels from a pandemic that has put more than 40 million people out of work.”
There’s been talk, but limited evidence, of “outside agitators” going to Minneapolis and other cities intent on starting riots. A white Illinois man is facing federal charges there after allegedly handing out bombs to protesters and encouraging them to throw them at police, Vice reports.
Politico asks: “Are outside groups with anarchistic agendas using their large internet followings to fan the flames of violence?”
Few claim to know for sure.