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Both the left and the right rush to blame protest violence on outside extremists

A demonstration in Minneapolis turned violent
A demonstration in Minneapolis turned violent.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Billy Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Oregon and an appointee of President Trump, has little doubt who is behind the violence and destruction that has accompanied nationwide protests against racism by police: the ultra-left movement known as “antifa.”

“At some point during each protest in individual cities, law enforcement has noticed a more organized effort,” he said Monday during a news conference in Portland. “Protesters fan out and engage in the same kind of criminal conduct.”

Jo Ann Hardesty, who last year became the first black woman to serve on Portland’s City Council, also blames interlopers: the ultra-right hate group Proud Boys.

“We allow white nationalists and white supremacists to infiltrate our peaceful protests ... and then create the kind of chaos and damage in our community,” she said in a video recording released Tuesday. “We must make that stop.”

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As cities reel and Trump threatens to deploy the military, figures across the political spectrum have been quick to defend their own citizens as peaceful protesters while accusing outsiders of fomenting the unrest.

But they have presented little evidence to support their allegations, and like so much in the highly polarized politics of this era, most people see what they want to see.

To hear one side tell it, thuggish white men are showing up at rallies with backpacks stuffed with rocks, pipes and other projectiles, aiming to discredit the mass movement against police brutality and gain support for their own racist agenda. On the other side, the Trump administration and its supporters say the violence is being perpetrated by anarchists who seek to sow chaos and destabilize the government.

But the publicly available evidence for both perspectives remains anecdotal — such as an incident Monday night in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.

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Terrance Holt, a 27-year-old black man, was standing in the middle of a small crowd of mostly black protesters when a rock flew through the air and landed a few feet from the long line of U.S. National Guard members.

As the crowd scattered, protesters identified the rock thrower as a lone white man in dark jeans, a dark jacket, a baseball cap and a mask.

“Dude, we’re out here trying to find a better way, and you’re trying to start chaos,” Holt hollered at the man, who strolled out of the park.

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Terrance Holt, 27-year-old iron worker and boxer, confronts a white man in downtown Atlanta who he said hurled a rock as a crowd of protesters faced off with the National Guard.

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Television images of rioters smashing windows and looting groceries, clothing, bicycles and anything else they can grab suggest economic opportunism rather than political motives.

In some cases, allegations of outside interference are contradicted by records of who has been arrested in recent days.

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said Saturday that well-organized groups trained in urban warfare tactics were responsible for arson, looting and shooting at police officers and firefighters. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the perpetrators were not Minneapolis residents.

“They are coming in largely from outside of this city, from outside the region, to prey on everything that we have built over the last several decades,” he said.

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But Walz was forced to dial back his statement after it started to become clear that more locals had been arrested than he had realized.

One outsider who drew the attention of authorities was Matthew Lee Rupert, who traveled from Illinois to the Minneapolis protests and was charged Monday with civil disorder, carrying on a riot and possession of unregistered destructive devices.

According to a sworn affidavit submitted by an FBI agent, some of the evidence against Rupert comes from a two-hour live-video selfie in which he loots businesses, appears to light a building on fire and passes out explosives and encourages protesters to throw them at police officers.

“An explosion is audible in the video, and Rupert repeatedly yelled, ’Good shot, my boy,’” the agent said.

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In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said people from outside the metropolitan area ignited the violence during three nights of protest. Roughly 400 people have been arrested, predominantly for disorderly conduct and curfew violations. But according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, most of the 82 people whose names have been released are from the metro area.

In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser told a news conference Monday that the city had reached out to community activists for any information that might help stymie the violence.

“We’re working with all of our intelligence to figure out who’s coming here,” she said.

Extremist groups have a history of traveling to stir up trouble. Members of Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate organization, have traveled to Portland in recent years and clashed repeatedly with masked, black-garbed antifa activists.

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But Joe Biggs, an organizer for the far-right organization who was reached by phone Monday at his Daytona Beach, Fla., home, said the group was sitting out the current protests and denied his members had any role in the violence.

Biggs attributed looting to miscreants of no particular political stripe.

“Bad people exist,” he said. “What they really want is a new 72-inch flat-screen TV.”

Antifa is a loosely organized movement whose followers say there is no membership roster or formal leadership structure. Trump wrote in a tweet Sunday that the United States would designate antifa a terrorist organization, although it’s not clear that would be legal.

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Contacted by phone Monday, a man who speaks for the group in the Portland area but conceals his identity denied that antifa had been involved in violence during the protests there. He also said activists had not seen significant involvement of far-right groups.

Among a crowd of thousands protesting Tuesday on the steps of the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul was a 33-year-old Latina from New York who said she supports antifa and asked to be identified only by her first name, Stina.

She said antifa is not a terrorist group and that looting can serve a political purpose.

“Instead of calling it ‘looting,’ we could call it ‘reclaiming,’” she said. “Let’s talk about reparations. As soon as we realize racism is a pillar of capitalism, then we can get somewhere.”

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Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, said the idea of the outside agitator or professional protesters has long been an overblown narrative pushed by local officials and politicians to downplay the level of actual conflict within a community.

“You have right-wing people blaming it on the left and left-wing people blaming it on the right, and none of that is helpful,” he said. “It’s all divisive and harmful.”

“There are a lot of locals involved in these protests, and we need to craft our response to them. It’s a little convenient to just blame everything on outside agitators.”

Read reported from Seattle, Jarvie from Atlanta and Hennessy-Fiske from Minneapolis. Laura King in Washington and Anita Chabria in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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