From Judd Legum’s Popular Information newsletter (partly because I quoted the mayor of St. Paul on this subject two days ago):
Over the weekend, … as some protests descended into violence and looting, several local and national officials blamed the uprising on “outside agitators.” This explanation is a gross oversimplification with an ugly racial history. It has been used repeatedly to marginalize real grievances and to ignore systemic racism.
While there are certainly people attempting to exploit the unrest, there is a long history of government officials using the trope of “outside agitators” to delegitimize protests of racial injustice.
“I want to be very, very clear: The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) … said Saturday. “They 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.”
“Every single person we arrested last night, I’m told, was from out of state,” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III (D) said, “What we are seeing right now is a group of people who are not from here.”
Their comments were echoed by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz (D), who said, “about 20 percent are Minnesotans, and 80 percent are outside.”
Arrest records tell a very different story. Investigative reporter Brandon Stahl reviewed 69 arrest records from Minneapolis-based police “for rioting, unlawful assembly and burglary-related crimes from Friday to Saturday.” Of those, 56 were from Minnesota, and five were “unknown.” There were just eight arrests of people from other states. In St. Paul, 12 of the 18 arrests were Minnesota residents. A city spokesman acknowledged his error and said the mayor “went with the information he had at the time.”
In 1965, for example, notoriously racist Alabama sheriff Jim Clark, whose posse tear-gassed and clubbed civil rights protesters in Selma, blamed the situation on “outsiders” like Martin Luther King Jr. He said that the “local people” would “settle down” once King and other outsiders left.
In 1963, King broke down the perniciousness of the “outside agitator” trope in a letter he wrote while jailed in Birmingham after participating in a non-violent protest…. King was responding to eight white members of the clergy who said segregation should be fought only in courts and objected to demonstrations “directed and led by outsiders”.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in”… I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
King believed in non-violence, but also warned against dismissing the underlying cause of riots. “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots,” King said in a 1967 speech, “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”
Looting, vandalism and violence have very few supporters, but, as someone pointed out, most of the looting we’ve seen lately has involved corporations taking millions of dollars in stimulus payments meant for workers and small businesses.