LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Depending on who you ask, you'll hear that the unrest over George Floyd's death is being fueled by undercover cops, white nationalists, antifascists, even drug cartels. The Trump administration, citing no evidence, says far-left extremists are to blame. Here's Attorney General William Barr.
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WILLIAM BARR: Unfortunately, with the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent, radical elements.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump reiterated that message in a tweet. He blamed, quote, "antifa and the radical left." NPR's Hannah Allam covers extremism, and she is with us today.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi, there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we have the president and the attorney general, Barr, blaming the unrest on the radical left. We've heard some activists and state politicians saying the situation is being inflamed by the far-right. What's going on?
ALLAM: It's a lot to unpack. I mean, let's start with Barr's statement. I've covered protests and unrest in several U.S. cities after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and in many others. And there's almost always this tension between the core protesters and the more militant bloc that wants to break stuff, throw stuff and take the fight to the cops. And yes, I have seen some armed leftist groups and anarchists among them at previous protest.
But we have to be really careful here. Barr offers no evidence for this claim. He doesn't say what he means by antifa tactics, a reference to the antifascist movement, which is by no means a single group or monolith. And you hear other concerns from activists, like, number one, is this a way for the government to smear them so that they can then go in with more heavy-handed tactics to break up the unrest? And two, they wonder, where was this alarm from the administration when right-wing armed groups, you know, flooded into state Capitols in violation of state orders just a few weeks ago?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: During the pandemic. And let's talk about the right-wing elements. There have been numerous posts on social media suggesting that far-right extremists are playing a role, too. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, who is a Democrat, has suggested white nationalist involvement, among other groups. What do we know about those claims?
ALLAM: Well, we know that a lot of people are buying into that idea. We don't know how much of this is rooted in actual evidence. Again, even the governor was quick to say that these are his, quote, "suspicions."
For sure, we see right-wing extremists of all sorts - anti-government, white nationalists - trying to find a toehold in the protests, whether portraying themselves as allies to try to attach their own causes to the outrage or to act violently and undermine the protests - sort of the provocateur role. But they haven't shown up in significant numbers, based on what I've seen and what our correspondents on the ground are saying. And typically, those guys get spotted and driven out by the protesters themselves. But it's definitely something to watch.
But we're also knee-deep in conspiracy theories and misinformation and fear. And we have to remember these events draw a big cross-section of people. And in this big mix, all kinds of actors could be contributing to the property damage and the fires and the rock-throwing. And that's why I'm skeptical of anyone professing to know exactly who's who in protests that are so fluid and changing really all the time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about something you just mentioned. We saw heavily armed men just a few weeks ago looking and acting like paramilitary groups, massing at state Capitols in open defiance of stay-at-home orders. At the time, President Trump tweeted his support for them. This week, President Trump struck - let's face it - a far different tone for the unrest in Minneapolis. He called those protesters thugs. What does that say about what the president and the country sees as legitimate versus illegitimate protest?
ALLAM: Well, I think this gets right to the heart of it. It's the question that we're going to be wrestling with as our country's political polarization deepens. Who's an extremist? What behavior is considered extreme? And, perhaps more importantly, who gets to decide? And caught in the middle, at least in this case, are black communities who are not only fighting a pattern of police-involved deaths but who are also fighting now to make sure their cause isn't exploited or distorted by elements of either the far-right or the far-left.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Hannah Allam.
Thank you so much.
ALLAM: Thank you.
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