Whenever a protest boils up, it's a safe bet that soon after, some public official will blame any violence, disruption or looting on "outside agitators" — mysterious outsiders who swoop in from out of town to stir up trouble.
It's a phrase that's familiar to us. We're hearing it to describe the protests against police brutality that are happening today. In 2014, we heard folks talk about the "outside agitators" who sparked turmoil in Ferguson. And it's been used throughout America's history of protest; notably, it was used to dismiss civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. But what does it really mean?
To help us understand why we're hearing so much about outside agitators, we talked to Professor Peniel Joseph from the University of Texas at Austin. Here are snippets of that conversation, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.
What does it mean to be an "outside agitator"? What are public officials really saying when they use that terminology, or other phrases like it?
The whole trope of outside agitator has a long history in American history, and it's been used by everybody from plantation owners in the South during antebellum slavery to big corporate industry magnates.
We're thinking about the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts and Andrew Carnegie. It's also been used by the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, when talking about everybody from radicals of the early 1920s and 30s, to civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and certainly black power activists, including the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael.
So in our contemporary context—especially since the Black Lives Matter movement erupted around 2013 and 2014—it's been utilized against activists who are trying to transform the criminal justice system in the United States. Basically, what it's meant is that whatever conflict, political rebellion or demonstration is happening, it's not organically home grown, it's not authentic. That none of these troubles would happen if not for outside agitators.
How effective is that terminology in depressing political uprisings?
There's been an evolution. When we think about the 19th century during antebellum slavery, there was this idea that those who were abolitionists and pushing for the eradication of slavery were outside agitators. And for a time, labeling people that way works. It even sparks new, more repressive legislation.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, labor struggles and labor strife was a big moment for the use of "outside agitator." It allowed really morally reprehensible acts of violence against labor activists. We're talking about Haymarket in Chicago. In Homestead, Pennsylvania, in the late 19th century, workers who were on strike were literally murdered by a combination of law enforcement and private security firms hired by the great industrialists of the times.
The high point of the idea being an effective tool of repression was during the start of the Cold War. In the early 1950s, there was this idea that if you were a civil rights activist, and if you were pushing for an end to racial segregation, you were a communist. You were somebody who wasn't authentically American. You were trying to do something that was subversive and anti-American and anti-patriotic.
Has the term "outside agitator" typically been used by the government?
It's always used by those in power, but not necessarily by the federal government. In the South, those in power were the plantocracy and slave owners. So they absolutely did use the trope of that term to describe abolitionists, to describe Frederick Douglass, to describe those folks who were anti-slavery.
In 2014, we were both in Ferguson reporting on the protests that were happening. Nearly every white person we spoke to blamed people who lived outside of Ferguson for what was happening in their town. The outside agitator trope became one of the major storylines of those protests.
Whether it's to denounce the left wing or anti-racist forces, or to even denounce culpability, it's historically been something that has been utilized as a trope to defend white supremacy. It's pleading either white innocence by saying, these black folks who are protesting are not authentic black folks. And that has a very, very long history of white Southerners saying in the South, we treat our colored people good and our Negroes love us and we love them. Trouble only happens when you have Northerners who come in and tell us that there's something wrong with our traditional folk ways.
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