The Return of the “Outside Agitator”

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

May 30,  2020.

Shortly after protests erupted in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown in August, 2014, officials in Missouri began to refer to “outside agitators” as the main instigators of the civil unrest in the city. Today, in St. Paul and Minneapolis, the governor, Tim Walz, and the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, have once again referred to “outside agitators” as the prominent players in fomenting “trouble” in the cities. Governor Walz estimated that 80% of the protestors were from outside the state, while Mayor Frey asserted that “the people doing this are not Minneapolis residents.”[1]

While there may be truth in the claim that white supremacists and others with no direct investment in the struggles are part of the protests, it is important to ask why the assertion about “outsiders” is the predominant story today. Why aren’t we talking about the implications of militarizing our streets with the deployment of the full force of the National Guard or the threat to call out the army against the citizens of this state? We might also ask why this concern about “outside agitators” never came up during the anti-lockdown protests at the Governor’s mansion or at the state Capitol.[2]

Is the rush to assign blame for the unrest to outsiders simply about the need to turn our eyes away from the structural violence that has led to these protests, or are there more significant issues to consider as this language of “outside agitators” resurfaces? As I mentioned in a piece on this topic at the time of Michael Brown’s killing, there are historical reasons to be wary of this phrase, since it serves at leasta two-fold purpose: one, to disavow the fact that there could be enough residual, actually existing outrage in our communities that would find expression in such a demonstration; and two, to ignore the reality that bonds of solidarity exist across the nation, that acts of police violence are immediately recognizable to millions of people whether they are in Chicago, Minneapolis, Oakland, or San Antonio, that indeed there is no “outside” for communities of color, for they are inside the totality of systemic oppression.[3]

And, in this moment, surely the rage we see in the streets comes not just from the anger at the death of George Floyd, but from an awareness of this totality, an awareness which has been sharpened over the last two months by witnessing the callous disregard for black lives, for black people who have continued to work in low wage, dangerous jobs; to line up at food banks; to struggle to pay rent, all while having limited access to health care in the midst of a pandemic. Quite simply, if black people had died of Covid-19 at the same rate as white people, then about 13,000 black Americans would still have been alive on May 27th.[4] What is the outside for those who, every day, are subjected to such racial violence and systematic exploitation?

Much has been made of the destruction of businesses in the Cities, and several local, mom-and-pop shops that have served the community for years were destroyed—a great loss to their neighborhoods and to the local residents who relied on their goods and services.However, destruction of businesses has dominated mainstream media coverage, with much less coverage of multiracial peaceful protests, and much less coverage of African Americans’ and other community members’ contributions to their neighborhoods. Also, when considering the destruction of businesses, it is no coincidence that several of the sites that have been attacked are precisely a part of the nation-wide structures that have enabled these exploitative cycles to exist or venues where the dignity of African Americans has been violated over and over again. Consider the Wells Fargo bank, an institution that has discriminated against minority borrowers[5]; or large retailers, such as CVS, Target, and Walgreens, which have often been accused of treating black customers as potential criminals, with security guards surveilling their every move;[6] or the CNN Center in Atlanta, part of the media apparatus that continues to marginalize the stories of minority communities and present them disproportionately as criminals; or the police precinct in Minneapolis, which, of course, is a daily reminder of the policed lives in these communities, a visible colonial presence in occupied territory. Where is the “outside” when these national institutions pervade everyday life in a city, presenting innumerable barriers to real equality?

Perhaps the resurgence of the “outside” in Minnesota is particularly necessary to officials at a time like this. After all, those on the inside, they imply, are decent, hard-working, conscientious, “nice” citizens, while the “outsider” is clearly an agitator who does not share “our” values. Yet Minnesota has one of the highest disparities in the nation in income and poverty rates between black and white people, coming in at the second worst in median income gap and 49th in the poverty rate gap.[7] Surely the “insiders” in Minnesota have enough to be aggrieved about. Is the real disquiet about outsiders an attempt to make sure that our leaders’ sanctimonious declarations about diversity and inclusion remain the prevailing narrative? Can we only enact the call for justice if we expel the demon outsider?

Many have been quoting Martin Luther King’s words in the last few days to call on protestors to protest in the “right way,” and it’s obvious that actions that destroy community resources, endanger lives, and undermine potential allies’ support are unhelpful. However, protesters seeking justice and fundamental change are already protesting in multiple ways, and it may behoove those in power to remember a few lines from another King speech—the one he gave at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. These lines speak to us as clearly now as they did over 50 years back: “We must rapidly begin—we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Rather than placing their predominant emphasis on “outside agitators,” those in power should heed King’s admonition, working with community activists to enact transformative change. Only then can we tackle seriously the “giant triplets” that diminish our humanity.

Post-script (May 31, 2020): As the sun rises in the Cities on a Sunday morning, it becomes evident that one purpose of the “outsider” narrative has been fulfilled. Soon after yesterday’s curfew began, Governor Walz made the following statement: “Tonight will be different. If you are on the street tonight, it is very clear: You are not with us. You do not share our values. And we will use the full strength of goodness and righteousness to make sure that this ends” (my emphasis). [8] Then, later that evening, the full force of the state came down on peaceful protestors, including journalists. Clearly, it is much easier to justify the “goodness and righteousness” of state action when it is directed primarily against “outside agitators.”

Kanishka Chowdhury is a teacher who has lived in the Twin Cities for 27 years. He has recently published Human Rights Discourse in the Post-9/11 Age (2019).