The Complicated Myth Of 'Outside Agitators' At Protests : Code Switch Whenever a protest boils up, it's a safe bet that public officials will quickly blame any violence or disruption on "outside agitators." But what, exactly, does it mean to be an agitator? And can these mysterious outsiders be a force for good?
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Unmasking The 'Outside Agitator'

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Unmasking The 'Outside Agitator'

Unmasking The 'Outside Agitator'

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Just a heads up, this episode contains language that some of you may find offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And this is CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: From NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Prosecute the police.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace.

DEMBY: Protesters have taken to the streets across the country - in Minneapolis, Chicago, Miami, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, LA - where you are, Shereen - D.C., where I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace. Take it to the streets. Defund the police. No justice, no peace.

MERAJI: Seven-hundred-plus cities, Gene. Naming all of them would take the entire episode. And as we all know by now, the protests erupted after three recent high-profile killings made headlines. Three black people were killed by former or current police officers.

DEMBY: Those people killed were Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga. He was 25 years old, loved football and basketball. And he was studying to be an electrician.

MERAJI: Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. The 26-year-old worked as an EMT. She loved singing along - badly, according to friends and family - to music from the '80s and '90s. And George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. He was a 46-year-old father, truck driver and bouncer. Friends say his smile lit up a room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: When the protests first started, we talked on the podcast about this feeling that we have been here before. You and I have been covering race together for the past seven years. And so the George Floyd video and the first couple days of protesting, it all felt like deja vu.

MERAJI: As did so much of the official response to the unrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

WILLIAM BARR: Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: These agitators, we know they come in from the outside. Many come from outside the state even...

DANIEL LINSKEY: We've got groups traveling from outside of cities, outside of states, to come and be part of protests and engage in looting...

TIM WALZ: I think our best estimate right now that I heard is about 20% is what we think our Minnesotans. And about 80% are outside.

DEMBY: Outside agitators, those mysterious wrongdoers who come in from out of town to stir up trouble.

MERAJI: But the long lens of history brings into focus a very different view of those labeled as outside agitators.

PENIEL JOSEPH: They're speaking truth to power and trying to upend the status quo in various ways.

MERAJI: That's Peniel Joseph. He's the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

JOSEPH: And professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

DEMBY: For those of y'all that just started rocking with us at CODE SWITCH, we occasionally have a feature called word watch in which we examine words that pop up in the culture that have some kind of racial connotation to them. On this episode, we're digging deep into this notion of the outside agitator because, as Peniel told us, it's as old as America's original sin. And while slavers may not have used that exact outside agitator terminology...

JOSEPH: They absolutely did use the trope of that term to describe abolitionists...

MERAJI: Harriet Tubman. John Brown.

JOSEPH: ...Frederick Douglass - to describe those folks who were anti-slavery and pushing for an end to racial slavery.

MERAJI: Peniel Joseph says the most famous and recognizable use of outside agitator happened later in the 20th century during the Red Scare.

JOSEPH: Probably the high point of the idea of an outside agitator working as an effective tool of repression is going to be during the start of the Cold War. So we think about the era of McCarthyism, the early 1950s, the idea that if you are a civil rights activist and if you are pushing for interracial democracy and an end to racial segregation, you're a communist. You're a Marxist. You're somebody who wasn't authentically American. And you are trying to do something that was subversive and anti-American and anti-patriotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: This category of outsider is politically useful. It expands and it shrinks to grant legitimacy to some people or take it away from others. And the anti-communist sentiment of the early 20th century, it made outsider status doubly effective against black folks, who were already a pariah class.

MERAJI: And that even included people like Paul Robeson, the entertainer of the 1940s who went from super famous to infamous after his extensive anti-capitalist and civil rights organizing garnered him the label outside agitator.

JOSEPH: Paul Robeson's passport is revoked for almost a decade. He loses his livelihood. But white people lost a lot, too, who were on the left. And this is the whole idea of people naming names at the House Un-American Activities Committee.

MERAJI: In the 1950s, the height of the Red Scare overlapped with the civil rights movement. These days, we hear public officials quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while, at the same time, condemning outside agitators for burning things or looting. But back then, Dr. King was the outside agitator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PATTERSON: Now, the best thing for King to do is to get out of Alabama as quickly as he can because he's a menace to the peace of this city. He is the greatest of all the agitators - or the worst of all the agitators in this country.

JOSEPH: He's from Atlanta. Why are you causing up trouble in Birmingham? Why are you coming to Mississippi?

DEMBY: Basically, all negroes were fun and happy until you came through and stirred everything up.

JOSEPH: But King is able to repudiate the notion of being an outside agitator through his Christian faith. When we think about how black civil rights activists tried to get away from this slur or smear of being called an outside agitator, that's when we see the church movement - the civil rights movements' heroic period from 1954 to 1965. One of the reasons why Martin Luther King Jr. is so effective is that up until the mid-'60s, he pushes back against overtly talking about economic justice in part to not be smeared as a communist, as a Marxist, as an outside agitator.

MERAJI: But Dr. King can't escape the outside agitator label. Peniel says it's back to haunt him in 1967.

DEMBY: When he speaks out against the Vietnam War and starts organizing for economic justice, fair housing and jobs with black welfare rights activists.

JOSEPH: He wants to go for broke, to get a guaranteed income and to march on Washington, occupy Washington, because King is the organizer of the first occupy movement. It was Washington, D.C, and not Wall Street, in the spring of 1968. And he's saying, we are going to stay in Washington, Resurrection City - multiracial, multicultural, revolutionary democracy - and shame this nation into doing the right thing. And they ask him, when are they going to leave? And he says, never.

MERAJI: Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated two months before the Poor People's March on Washington.

DEMBY: And exactly a year to the day after he gave that speech denouncing the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Calling people outside agitators has been an effective tool used by those in power to undermine political uprisings for a long time.

DEMBY: But does this label that we're talking about have the same power today? Peniel says, it's complicated.

JOSEPH: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

DAVID GREENE: We're going to hear voices now from Ferguson, Mo., a community still in distress over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot and killed last Saturday by a Ferguson police officer.

MELISSA BLOCK: We know he was walking down the street in the middle of the day and passed a police car. We know he was shot and killed by an officer.

DAVID SCHAPER: The late-afternoon protest march through the neighborhood in which Michael Brown was shot began peacefully under the watchful eyes of a heavy police presence.

RASHAWN PETERSON: Our people are tired. Our people are upset. Our people are so done with this mess. And we're not going to tolerate this anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Don't shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID PROOST: Seventy-six years in Ferguson. It's a lovely town without all those intruders.

MERAJI: Gene and I were both in Ferguson six years ago reporting on the protests that were happening then. Gene was doing a lot of reporting in the black community. I was assigned to talk to white people in Ferguson. And nearly every person I spoke to blamed people who lived outside of Ferguson for what was happening in their town - you know, the nightly protests, the destruction of property. And that outside agitator trope, it became one of the major storylines in 2014. It was everywhere.

JOSEPH: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the outside agitator trope - whether it's to denounce left-wing or anti-racist forces, or to even denounce culpability with right-wing or alt-right, white nationalist causes - is something that's utilized as a trope to, really, defend white supremacy through pleas of either white innocence or pleas of saying that these black folks who are protesting are not all authentic black folks. And that's...

MERAJI: Right.

JOSEPH: ...That has a very, very long history, the idea that in the South, we treat our colored people good.

DEMBY: What we heard when we were in Ferguson - and after Ferguson, especially - a lot of organizers were saying that they were frustrated that people from other places had come to their city and had become the faces of Ferguson in some cases. They had very different goals from the organizers on the ground in St. Louis County.

JOSEPH: Historically, those tensions are very real. And there's sort of no way to stop those tensions. SNCC probably tried the best, because what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did during the 1960s was organize African Americans who were in Arkansas, the southwest of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and organized them for civil rights, voting rights. But they tried to ask local communities what they needed and assist in cultivating local leadership who would then lead the local movements. So that's really unprecedented.

But other organizations did something different. So the best person here to look at is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC was an organization of political mobilizers led by the greatest of all time in the 20th-century - political mobilizer is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes he received permission to assist a local movement; sometimes he did not. And local people were left very, very upset about the dissonance between what Martin Luther King Jr. might be trying to negotiate and what they felt was the authentic measure of their own local needs.

So what happened in Ferguson has a very, very long history, where certain activists who were not from Ferguson absolutely came into Ferguson, were perceived as the symbolic faces of the local movement, and local people got so upset with these activists, some of whom became media stars, that those same figures can no longer visit Ferguson.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: But we're having this conversation about the outside agitator trope. Is this the same type of thing? I mean, can we compare this type of pointing the finger at, you're not from here, in the same way as we are when we talk about, you know, public officials or those who are in power and have power, who call other people outside agitators?

JOSEPH: No, I don't think we're comparing the same thing. Those are apples and oranges. So the outside agitator trope is really designed to undermine, to disrupt social protest movements and, at times, as we see with Charlottesville, to undermine an exposure of white supremacy, by trying to say that you are innocent from these racist forces that are in your backyard. So you say, I didn't know about this. So that's sort of the difference between the Klan and the White Citizens' Councils during the 1950s and '60s.

The Klan is who everyone repudiates. The more powerful expression of white supremacy was the White Citizens' Councils, who were the business leaders, the civic leaders, the faith leaders, who made sure that massive resistance worked and that racial integration did not succeed in public schools or neighborhoods in the South.

MERAJI: And, you know, we were talking about Ferguson. I'd love to fast-forward six years because this outside agitator trope, it's back. It's very similar in a lot of ways. But one thing that jumped out to me this time around that I didn't see during Ferguson is this whole white boys with skateboards as outside agitators. It definitely feels like there is more left-leaning officials saying things like, white boys are making you do this; don't fall for this.

JOSEPH: Yeah. I mean, I think that's very, very interesting because, on some levels, it's that trope of saying, my Negroes are happy. My black people are fine, and I can talk to my black people. The only reason I'm having trouble is that either a new inauthentic set of black people have come and brainwashed my Negroes. Or this trope of, you know, don't listen to the white skateboarders or the anarchists who are trying to fool you into pipe dreams that'll never become a political reality.

MERAJI: To that point, I would love to just read you this Facebook post I came across while I was prepping for this. It was written by Jalil Mustaffa Bishop on May 30. Here we go.

(Reading) I know y'all want to believe it's all just white people burning and breaking shit. Just protested in Philly for five hours...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JALIL MUSTAFFA BISHOP: Black people intentionally said, we are not taking this to the hood, turned the whole entire march around and took it downtown. Black people smashed windows. Black people broke into stores. Black people flipped cars. Black people threw aisles from said stores at cops. And black people fought back. And guess what? None of this was even close to the scale of violence that white people and their police force inflict on us every day. White anarchists did start those damn fires, though. But we cheered them on. Stop taking away black people's agency. We are destroying sh** because we are done with the bullsh**.

And I posted this because I wanted to capture this moment where everyone was trying to erase what I saw as black people's intentionality and strategy around violating white property and black people's willingness to be directly confrontational with police and, really, the state and the local governments. And what - this erasure was happening through constantly trying to portray this image of white people co-opting black people's movements, black people's marches.

MERAJI: What does this do to take away the agency of black protesters and organizers?

JOSEPH: Well, I think that when you shift the focus and the conversation to anarchists or white young men causing havoc in a way that is seemingly disconnected to the core roots of the protests, which are protests for not just black lives mattering, but to end white supremacy, to end institutional racism, to institutionalize black dignity and citizenship, it does take away from black agency in that sense. What are the roots behind these massive disruptive protests that are mostly peaceful? Why are people taking to the streets in these unprecedented numbers? Why has the NFL suddenly changed course after players say, look; I could've been George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery? Why are we seeing this sea change just even rhetorically, when a few years ago, even amidst Black Lives Matter, when Kaepernick took the knee, people were punishing him for taking the knee?

So we've transformed that in a matter of two weeks. But when you focus on saying it's the skateboarders or it's the white boys or these white folks are crashing windows and you don't focus on the, you know, infinite number of whites who are actually peacefully demonstrating and protesting from New York City all the way to London and Berlin and around the world in these sympathy demonstrations, you're robbing black folks of their agency.

DEMBY: One thing, just thinking about, like, what Shereen was just saying and this moment we're in, it's like, OK, what does it even mean in 2020 to be an outsider in these movements, right? Because one of the...

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: Part of the story of all this stuff we've been seeing, this sort of metastory that we call Black Lives Matter, is all of these what used to be local catastrophes - right? - of black people being killed by the police are national. It's national news now, right? It's global news in some cases, right?

JOSEPH: You know, this reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. again in terms of King talking about the world house and making this argument that we are all mutually linked in a single garment of destiny, as he put it. So this idea that there is no more inside, outsider status, I think, in a lot of ways, is very true. And I think you're seeing this with so many different people responding to the murder and public execution of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and saying that they can find their own stories in the stories of those black lives that were taken prematurely because of state-sanctioned violence, racism, white supremacy. So we are at a tipping point. And I do think this is an inflection point, and we can all feel it and see it, that we're at one of those crossroads in American and global history where we can choose a different direction.

MERAJI: Peniel, am I hearing you say that this outside agitator trope, even though it's being thrown at, quote-unquote, "violent protesters" or, quote-unquote, "looters," am I hearing you say it just doesn't have teeth anymore?

JOSEPH: Yes, it doesn't have teeth anymore for a few reasons. You know, it's about the political divide, but also, the demographics of the country changed. It's the same reason why Barack Obama, no matter how eloquent he was, he could not have been president of the United States in 1968 or 1988 or 1996. The first time he could be president was in 2008 and 2012 because he could knit together a coalition that only needed, at its high point, 43% of white voters to become president of the United States.

So they - the time - it has run out of gas, simply. It's run out of gas. So you can say that, but you're only preaching to your own choir, and that's ineffective. The reason why the outside agitator used to be so effective was that you could preach to people who are not part of your choir, and they were believing it, and you were smearing these social movements. Right now, we are so divided, no one is even going to the other person's church to visit (laughter) to hear that message. So this is very much - very similar to America right before the Civil War, the kind of partisanship we're experiencing today.

DEMBY: So you just said that this is reminiscent of the time just before the Civil War. That's how divided we are right now. So we know how that turned out. So what happens next for us?

JOSEPH: So what happens next all depends on several different things - the next election, the rule of law. Right now, the president of the United States has been really largely irrelevant to these mass demonstrations and protests. It's bigger than the president of the United States. So what happens next really depends on if this global moment for American citizens is signaling an inflection point that will lead to dramatic electoral change. What happens next is how does the other side respond to this moment? Does it respond quietly and take this new transformation as just part of a democratic process and sort of live to fight politically another day, or does it reply? Does it respond violently? In the case of the pre-Civil War, what happened next was certain states started to secede, starting with South Carolina. And we went into a four-year conflict where over 700,000 Americans lost their lives. I think right now - and we've seen it even with the protests, where we've seen men who had chainsaws trying to run protesters out of a public space in Texas. We've seen cars try to slam violently into protesters, trucks try to slam into protesters. One man was killed in Bakersfield, Calif., a black man. So we're already seeing these violent skirmishes.

The police are probably among the most well-armed critics of the protesters, and we've seen police violence really strip away the illusion that police are just good guys and women who are just trying to help (laughter) American citizens. The police have never been based on that for black folks. And the last 52 years of empowering and amplifying their resources, their standing in America, we have really reaped what we have sown. And like Malcolm X said in 1963, the chickens have come home to roost.

MERAJI: If things go the way you said, where it's a democratic process, and people quietly accept that this is part of the democratic process, I mean, this could be an opportunity to make Reconstruction stick. This could be a second chance to make that whole, make that happen.

JOSEPH: This would be our third chance, technically. We...

MERAJI: Oh, our third chance.

JOSEPH: Yeah. The 1960s were absolutely a second chance. We failed. I think it's important that we all acknowledge that. Social movements are not just about victory laps, and I think we live in a society that wants us to tell successful stories and how we won and how we overcame. Sometimes we don't. You know, there was a great song by Naughty by Nature, "Everything Will Be Alright" (ph). And one of the lines to that song, in the chorus, is - it's a young man talking about all the hardship he's going through growing up in inner city America. And he rhetorically asks, how will I make it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S GONNA BE ALRIGHT")

NAUGHTY BY NATURE: (Singing) How will I make it? I won't. That's how.

JOSEPH: And he answers. He says, I won't; that's how. So sometimes we lose. Sometimes we lose. And so we lost those struggles to make Reconstruction come true. We lost a struggle for black dignity and citizenship. If we hadn't, Sandra Bland would still be alive. Breonna Taylor would still be alive. George Floyd would still be alive. So their deaths are evidence of our loss. But do we have a chance to make good on that promise, the promise of, really, black American democracy, which is a democracy expansive enough to include all people - immigrants, LBGTQ (ph), trans, just the whole works? Yeah.

We have a generational opportunity because right now that black American democratic tradition has hit the streets of our global world, what King call the world house, and people are quaking in their boots. People who are not advocates of social justice, people don't have any kind of love or empathy for poor people, for black people, for the nonable-bodied, for the gay, the queer - those people are quaking in their boots.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Peniel Joseph is a history professor at UT Austin. His most recent book is "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr."

DEMBY: And that's our show. You can follow us on Twitter at @nprcodeswitch or email us at codeswitch@npr.org. To subscribe to our newsletter, go to npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch (ph).

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry, Jess Kung and Leah Donnella. It was edited by me and Leah, with editorial assistance from Natalie Escobar.

DEMBY: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH mass of Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson.

MERAJI: Our phenomenal interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario. They fact-checked this episode. They fact-check so many of our episodes. They write our newsletter. They are wonderful. And it is their last week here as interns, which really - I don't know how we're going to keep doing this without them, honestly.

DEMBY: Seriously.

MERAJI: So follow them. Look them up. Please, please hire them. I hope we hire them before you do.

DEMBY: Yup.

MERAJI: But definitely look out for them.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Big - same. By the way, if you didn't get enough protest content today, later this week, we're going to be sharing an episode from our play cousins at It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders. Sam got deep on what these protests mean to different generations of people. So be sure to holler at that.

MERAJI: And, you know, be safe out there. Don't forget to wear masks. Don't forget to wash your hands. I know I've been forgetting to wash my hands lately. There's just a lot of different pandemics we're facing down right now. But, hopefully, we're doing that with faces covered and a lot of hand sanitizer.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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