The shadowy identity of the violent agitators trashing cities across the country has muddled the national debate over racial justice, inflaming partisan tensions, triggering finger-pointing from all sides and threatening to sap the power of those seeking reforms after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Mass protests have erupted in scores of cities across the country since last Monday, when Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, was killed in police custody — a death captured on a grisly video that flew across the internet.
While a majority of those demonstrators have marched peacefully, violence has flared from Seattle and Santa Monica, Calif., to Atlanta and Miami, where vandals have smashed police cars, looted shops and torched vehicles and businesses with seeming indiscrimination. In Washington, D.C., on Sunday night, some sought to burn a historic church.
The violence has consumed much of the media coverage, as images of burning streets and masked demonstrators clashing fiercely with law enforcers have dominated cable news. And it’s prompted plenty of speculation that outside groups — left and right — have seized on a tragedy to push a political agenda largely divorced from the issues of racial inequality and police brutality that Floyd’s death has thrust into the national spotlight.
“If you look at these protests when they begin, they are always non-violent. Then there comes a moment ... when all of a sudden there comes a new element, which clearly could not have come from these non-violent protestors. It has to have come from somewhere else,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Monday by phone.
“I don't even know what the violent forces are after. Are they simply out to make mischief? Do they have an agenda?” she continued. “The best evidence that we're going to have is the identity of those who have been arrested. … At the moment, each side can say the other side is responsible, because we don't have enough information.”
Indeed, the violence and vandalism has prompted accusations from the right that leftist groups like antifa are stoking the flames, while some on the left have floated the idea that white supremacists are behind the escalation. Neither side has presented concrete evidence to back those claims.
President Trump has been active in the debate, tweeting regularly that the protestors are anarchist “thugs,” while accusing certain Democratic governors of going too soft in their response.
“Where are the arrests and LONG TERM jail sentences?” he tweeted Sunday.
The administration, he added, “will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”
Yet Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s Democratic attorney general, is warning against jumping to early conclusions. While suggesting there are outside forces at work, he wants to investigate before assigning affiliations or motivations.
“There is tape – videotape of very, very suspicious looking people not a part of the protest. 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,” Ellison, a former congressman, told MSNBC on Monday.
“They’ve been doing it throughout the night, and I’m saying that we need to get an investigation on the identity of these individuals,” Ellison continued. “So far, they have been very elusive, and they have operated with what I would say military precision.”
The unrest arrives at an already turbulent moment in the country, which is on edge from the public health threat of the coronavirus crisis and the shattered economy the pandemic has left in its wake — dual calamities that have affected black and other minority communities disproportionately.
Floyd’s death, one of several similar tragedies to churn headlines in recent weeks, has sparked new calls for criminal justice reforms, including tougher federal policing standards. And some advocates of those changes fear the violent demonstrators are subverting that effort.
“That violence certainly undermines the protestors,” Norton said. “They're trying to break through the violence ... in order to keep George Floyd at the center of this. But that's very difficult.”
The violent protests have sounded alarms with state and local officials across the country. In many cities, mayors have adopted strict curfews. In others, the National Guard has been activated to douse the unrest.
Rather than defusing tensions, however, those standoffs have at times exacerbated them. And encounters of law enforcers targeting protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets and even vehicles have only amplified accusations of excessive force by police — the very same charge that launched the protests to begin with.
Many of those episodes have been captured on mobile-phone videos that are going viral on social media, just like the bystander’s May 25 video of Floyd’s death.
In Brooklyn over the weekend, two New York City police cruisers drove through a crowd of protesters that were blocking the road, knocking people to the ground. That incident came after several police vehicles were attacked by molotov cocktails; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio defended police and blamed elements “who chose to commit acts of violence, who are here only unfortunately to agitate and to attack those who protect us, our police officers.”
In Minneapolis, a tanker truck was seen driving at high speeds at thousands of protesters walking along Interstate 35 West. Protesters yanked the driver, Bogdan Vechirko, out of the truck and he was later arrested.
In Birmingham, Ala., protesters defaced and tore down a Confederate statue but didn’t succeed in pulling down other monuments. Randall Woodfin, the city’s black mayor, asked the crowd to peacefully disperse and “allow me to finish the job for you.”
And on Monday, Louisville’s mayor fired the city’s police chief after a black restaurant owner was fatally shot by law enforcers clearing a crowd just after midnight.
Meanwhile, Black Entertainment Television or BET compiled more than a dozen videos from social media showing unidentified white people spray painting “BLM” or Black Lives Matter on property, breaking glass and vandalizing businesses, and instigating fights with police.
“White Extremists Terrorize and Loot: 13 Videos of Destruction Black People Will Be Blamed For,” the headline read.
“Nashville is being destroyed right now. Every brick I saw thrown without exception was thrown by white people,” tweeted Tennessee writer and author Nancy French. “This [black] man was yelling at these white people who’d just put horse excrement on a cop car and broke out their windows. He said, ‘they’ll blame us!’”
In many cases the individuals perpetrating the crimes are wearing black clothing but concealing their faces, making it difficult to determine their identity. Trump has said there is ample evidence that antifa is responsible for much of the mayhem and vowed to designate the ambiguous far-left group as a terror organization; he does not believe white supremacists have been involved.
As an 11 p.m. curfew kicked began in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, dozens of retail businesses and office buildings were vandalized and looted, and multiple fires were set near the White House, including at AFL-CIO headquarters and the parish house of the 204-year-old St. John’s Episcopal Church, where every president since James Madison has worshipped. Firefighters quickly extinguished the blazes.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said it still remained unclear who was behind the property damage and whether it was an organized group. But Newsham said that would become clearer as the department continues to make more arrests with the help from video images from community members and businesses.
“There’s federal statutes and local statutes that can address an organized continuing criminal enterprise to come in here and destroy our property,” said Newsham, flanked by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city officials. “They were largely from this region … But I don’t think we will have the whole story until we have made more arrests.”