This spring, protests against police brutality and systemic racism erupted in thousands of towns and cities across all fifty states, sparked by the on-camera murder by Minneapolis police of George Floyd. Of the first wave of these protests, the vast majority were entirely peaceful, but several devolved into mayhem—looting, arson, smashed windows, gunshots, scuffles between protesters and the police, random acts of violence. To listen to public officials in many jurisdictions, the worst of the chaos was the intentional work of shifty, shady agitators who traveled from near and far to menace communities in which they did not themselves live. The rage over Floyd’s death was their pretext for destabilizing the whole social order.
On Saturday May 30, the day after street protests first got out of control, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told reporters that “every single person” arrested came from out of state, and “about 80 percent” of rioters had done so. His Twin Cities counterpart, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, pinned the blame on “out-of-state-instigators, and possibly even foreign actors,” who had set out to “destroy and decimate our city and region.” Within hours, the president of the United States repeated Frey’s unsubstantiated claim in a tweet sent to his eighty-three million followers. It was thereafter echoed in press coverage.
The statistic could not stand barest scrutiny. But that didn’t stop other officials around the country from saying the same thing. Marco Rubio claimed that some of those arrested in Miami were outsiders “from as far away as New York and Minnesota.” Why, one might have asked, would New Yorkers travel a thousand miles when they could have stoked flames closer to home? Perhaps to make room for other roving rabble-rousers to descend on Brooklyn and the Bronx, for a top police official there soon passionately complained about all the Californians; meanwhile, three thousand miles away, California officials blamed outsiders, too. An Antifa exchange program, perhaps subsidized by George Soros?
The absurdity reached a nadir in Columbus, Ohio. Police impounded a psychedelically painted school bus and detained its owners on “suspicion of supplying riot equipment to rioters,” including “bats, rocks, meat cleavers, clubs, & other projectiles.” Senator Marco Rubio tweeted vindication: “But I guess still ‘no evidence’ of an organized effort to inject violence & anarchy into the protests, right?” It soon emerged that the bus in Columbus that had authorities trembling—baptized “Buttercup” by its owners, a troupe of traveling circus-style performers—involved an effort by local residents to feed protesters and help with first aid. The “rocks” were fossil specimens; the axes were for chopping firewood; the meat cleavers were for… cleaving meat. Thousands of tweeters nonetheless homed in on the word “MURDER” painted plain as day on Buttercup’s side—ignoring those that preceded it: “STOP LEGAL.”
Everything would have been fine but for the outside agitators: the hoary cliché has been deployed by those in power to insulate themselves from accountability at least since the scribes who wrote the Book of Chronicles described the archangel who came down from the heavens to make mischief: “And Satan stood up against Israel…”
Why do those in positions of authority blame disorder on outside agitators? Consider a useful case study from 1741, in New York City, a town of about ten thousand residents, at least two thousand of whom were enslaved Africans. A greater number of fires than usual were breaking out, including one that destroyed the governor’s mansion. A rumor spread that a black man had been heard to cackle, “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A LITTLE, Damn it, BY-AND-BY,” beside some hot coals secreted beneath a haystack. Three days later, the City Council announced the existence of a “villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us,” enacting a wicked plot “to burn the King’s House and this Town, and to kill and destroy the Inhabitants.” A witch hunt ensued. Both the nature of the alleged crime and the number of alleged conspirators waxed daily until it became, according to the Crown’s indictment of the alleged ringleader, a “Negro Plot to burn the City of New York.” This supposed ringleader, however, was a white Englishman.
But not just any Englishman. According to the testimony of a single witness, John Ury was a Catholic priest sent by Rome to evangelize in New York, as part of a scheme “to extirpate all other Religions whatsoever, but especially the Protestant Religion.” In other words, an outside agitator, aiming to tear down public order itself. Outside agitators always do. Study well the language of those who accuse them: like an X-ray, they reveal the subdermal anxieties of the social body itself.
White colonists were terrified of the Africans they had enslaved. Two years earlier, a rebellion in South Carolina had ended with twenty-five English dead, so haunting authorities in that colony that its legislature passed a ten-year moratorium on importing human beings. The white New Yorkers were also, unsurprisingly, terrified of the surrounding Native population whose land they had expropriated—and that was where the anti-Catholic panic came in. For they were, in addition, surrounded by rival French colonists, who, more rustic than the English, were far more comfortable living among the indigenous population. These French settlers, according to the indictment of the supposed priest, fiendishly deployed the “pomp and pageantry of the Romish church,” which “powerfully appealed to the senses of the rude savage, who could not so easily comprehend the abstract truths of the protestant religion.” Thus would they induce Indians to join Africans as shock troops to overwhelm the English altogether.
This sounds like some emanation from a time before reason. Except in its uncanny similarity to the fears adduced some two hundred and seventy years later, in Occupy Unmasked, a 2012 film by Stephen Bannon, who would go on to serve as Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist. It explains the protests against Wall Street that erupted the previous year as the culmination of a plan hatched in 2005 by a cabal of eco-terrorists, Code Pink activists, and Black Panthers, who descended upon New Orleans, supposedly to help with the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, but actually “as a means to work together, finally, for the revolution.” A supposed movement insider explained the absence of African Americans in Occupy encampments: “Because they’re being readied for part two: and that is race warfare.”
Then, late this June, after two wealthy St. Louis attorneys pulled guns on activists who were passing peacefully by the couple’s mansion en route to a protest, the two lawyers had their attorney release a statement contending, according to The Washington Post, that “white ‘agitators’ were responsible for provoking the white couple.” Video of the incident clearly established that this was not the case.
The trope is deathless, working everywhere and always in similar ways. In 1741, those held as property hardly needed “outsiders” to tell them they’d been done wrong; nor, in 2011, did those fleeced by the unchecked greed of Wall Street; nor again, in 2020, did a black community suffering a spate of murders at the hands of police. What does all this astonishing psychic energy that the powerful expend to convince themselves otherwise signify? What political work does it do?
First, it protects a self-image of innocence. If a grievance were genuine, the powerful like to convince themselves, they would have addressed it already. For instance, striking coal miners in Pennsylvania in 1869, in the words of the local newspaper, had been “led by the nose by a few strong willed, determined outsiders”—who were these workers’ true exploiters.
Outside agitators are never wilier, their victims never more contented before their arrival, than in the antebellum American South. While earlier generations of slaveowners had admitted mass bondage to be inherently unstable and insecure, slavery’s spread to new western territories and the emergence of a robust global market for slave-picked cotton necessitated an ideological defense of that system’s merits. Not merely the political utility but the existential necessity, for the privileged and powerful, of blaming external forces for domestic unrest became especially clear. That was when slaveholders began, perversely, to defend their system on the grounds of Christian beneficence. Slaves were deprived of their freedom for their own good, the doctrine went; the alternative was savagery followed by eternal damnation. And, so it was maintained, slaves themselves disdained the prospect of being turned out into a cold, unfriendly world, left to fend for themselves. The only trouble came when wild-eyed zealots traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line to turn slaves against their masters.
Such logic maintained its hold when slavery ended. In July 1866, a Louisiana state constitutional convention gathered at the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans. Because the forty white delegates were debating a proposal for universal male suffrage, hundreds of black Louisianans marched to the hall with drums and banners and American flags to observe the proceedings. As many as one hundred of them were massacred in cold blood by uniformed members of the municipal fire brigade and police force, summoned by the city’s state-of-the-art system of electric fire bells in an operation coordinated by the city’s mayor and the county sheriff. Months later, the Times–Picayune blamed the bloodshed on “outside agitators.”
A Southern tradition ossified. In On the Courthouse Lawn, her 2007 book about the history of lynchings, Sherrilyn Ifill notes that after the killings, locals would invariably insist that members of the mobs seen in commemorative photographs were “‘outsiders’ who could not be recognized,” or, later, big-city “Communists.”
But for those mischievous outsiders, the blessed Southern way of life, supposedly beloved by black and white alike, would have lasted forever: the same self-serving claim followed Brown v. Board of Education. One high schooler told a reporter: “our colored maid at home says that her children are quite happy to be equal and separate.” A Tennessee judge gave a campaign speech during his run for governor, “Not ten percent of the Negro population wanted desegregation… But now, outside agitators have moved into their midst, and the cry is swelling to admit Negro children to white schools.”
And that could only end in violence—for which those agitators, of course, would bear responsibility. The Selma Times–Journal said “white retaliation” was “inevitable as a matter of self-protection” now that “outside agitators of the extremist National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” had come in to enforce the Court’s dictate.” Within a year, the head of the NAACP’s chapter in Belzoni, Mississippi, the Rev. George W. Lee, was murdered. At a mass meeting two weeks before his death on May 7, 1955, the Rev. Lee had said, “Pray not for your mom and pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.”
Three weeks after that, the Supreme Court handed down Brown II, ordering school desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” The most famous victim of the white panic that followed was a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago. Emmett Till was murdered by J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in Money, Mississippi, on August 28, 1955. At the trial of the alleged perpetrators, held in September, the defense argument the jury found most persuasive in acquitting them was that “it must be considered a probability” that Till was not dead at all—that his murder was a hoax dreamed up by outsiders to make Mississippi look bad. The lawyers cited “an incident thirty-five years ago when three embalmed Negro bodies were thrown into Mississippi near Greenville at a time when the reborn Ku Klux Klan was being fought.” (One of us spent an entire day searching online newspaper databases, and could find no such incident.) The Associated Press summarized defense lawyer John C. Whitten Jr.’s closing argument: “‘Agitators’ who could try such a tactic thirty-five years ago could be reasonably thought to be attempting the same thing in the present racial tension.”
The jury agreed, despite the fact that Till’s mother had related on the witness stand how she had identified her son from her late husband’s signet ring found on the bloated, distended corpse. She had given it to Emmett as a gift when he packed for the trip to visit family in Mississippi, because as a child he had liked to try it on, and he was finally big enough for it to fit. That, too, left the jurors cold. “If she had tried a little harder,” one said, “she might have got out a tear.”
It was all an act. Outside agitators are that cunning.
Here an important caveat must be noted: it is not just the most hardcore reactionaries who deploy the “outside agitator” trope. Consider, for example, the district attorney in the Emmett Till trial, a relative moderate by the standards of midcentury Mississippi whose job was to put Milam and Brant in jail. Gerald Chatham took pains in his summation to reassure the jury: “I was born and bred in the South. I’ll live and die in the South.” He sympathized with the right of the accused to avenge Till’s alleged crime of whistling at a white woman. He only complained that they took vigilance too far. “The very worst punishment that… should have occurred, if they had any idea in their minds this boy did anything, would have been to take a razor strop, turn him over a barrel and give him a little beating,” the prosecutor offered. “I’ve whipped my boy, you’ve whipped yours. A man deals with a child accordingly as a child, not as a man to man.” Turning the defendants loose would please “those people” from outside the South who wanted to disrupt its “way of life,” the prosecutor contended. “If they’re convicted, those people are silenced.”
A similar message—that a bare minimum of human rights must be provided Southern blacks lest outside agitators gain a toehold—was echoed after Brown by a liberal senator, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Appealing to “the common sense of the local groups to work out the problem of segregation agreeably to both races,” Kefauver insisted that “we must not have outside agitators coming to the states, trying to work out this problem.” Two years later, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson picked Kefauver as his vice-presidential running-mate.
“Moderates” often wield outside agitation panic to keep reform within polite bounds. In 1965, following the brutal attacks of Sheriff Jim Clark’s men on the marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Martin Luther King, Jr. called for an economic boycott of Alabama. That sent The New York Times into a huff: King had “won a measure of national acclaim for his role in the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott of 1956,” but had now “brought down an avalanche of criticism, much of it from those who have constantly supported his campaigns against racial discrimination… the spirit of the Selma movement has been to bypass the moderates and bring about a change by increasing the tensions and appealing to outside forces.” This was especially unfortunate, the paper sighed, given that federal officials were “said to be encouraged by the number of moderate whites in Alabama who have expressed the desire to end discrimination.”
An extraordinary thing, blaming the escalation in Alabama on civil rights activists instead of agents of the state who beat them within an inch of their lives, even murdering one of them (Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Baptist church deacon, who was shot to death while participating in an earlier voting rights march, in February 1965, by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler). As usual, invoking outside agitators betokened deeper, more existential establishment fears—in this case, of an enemy no less fearsome than Catholics to eighteenth-century English colonists. Reactionaries had long blamed the Soviet Union for funding and directing the civil rights movement—as Jerry Falwell put it in a 1958 sermon, “we see the hand of Moscow in the background.”
By the time of Selma, the fear had gone mainstream. The first urban uprising in the North enveloped Harlem in the summer of 1964. “American Red Splinter Group Backed by China and Cuba Seeks to Organize Harlem Rioting,” the St. Louis Post–Dispatch averred within days. (The outside agitator who single-handedly persuaded Harlem that the NYPD was oppressing them was the pioneering Black Power activist Robert F. Williams, whose radio broadcasts from Havana were monitored by the CIA.) Down South, the following year, the outside agitator charges centered on the youthful radicals of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), fast surpassing Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as the movement’s vanguard. All of a sudden, the establishment was desperate to signal its preference for King in order to maintain the always-implausibly-tidy division between “reasonable” and “extremist” demonstrations. King himself, of course, had been viewed as too extreme, back in 1963 when he was the outside agitator stirring up a city (Birmingham, Alabama) that was already supposedly working things out peacefully on its own.
“The anxiety about SNCC… is fed by criticism of two kinds,” Newsweek now explained; “that disciplined Communists have wormed their way into the group’s operations, and that—whatever its ideological base—SNCC’s far-out radicalism is at best irresponsible, and at worst somewhat sinister.” Fear of American Communists in 1965, in the Deep South of all places, was about as rational as fear of priestly arsonists in New York in 1741. By the mid-1950s, the Party had an estimated active base of 5,000 members, which included an estimated 1,500 FBI informants—and in Mississippi, in 1951, according to Jessica Mitford’s 1977 memoir, just one. In 1958, The Daily Worker suspended publication for lack of interest. Four months before Selma, an organizer of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley had been asked by a reporter whether the student activists had received behind-the-scenes direction from Communists. He responded, “We have a saying in the movement that we don’t trust anybody over thirty”—a now-famous line whose forgotten contextual significance was that it was quite impossible to imagine activists under thirty (including SNCC members) having anything to do with an institution so old-fashioned and sclerotic as the CPUSA. And yet a marquee voice of the American establishment could hardly explain “SNCC’s far out radicalism” in any other way—even as, meanwhile, Americans were being beaten and murdered merely for requesting the right to vote.
But, suddenly, somehow, Moscow’s agents were everywhere.
In 1967, federal officials claimed that rifles found in different Northern cities in the fourth straight summer of riots—Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Detroit, dozens more—were all of the same make and model. Lyndon Johnson, infuriated both by riots and antiwar demonstrations—“Look at these people in the streets; we can’t imagine good Americans doing this”—ordered CIA Director Richard Helms to identify the foreigners behind it all. Helms came up empty-handed. (But the bureaucracy he created to investigate the American left, the Special Operations Group, expanded rapidly, “attaining a staff of [REDACTED],” according to the CIA’s in-house biography on Helms, until its files contained the names of 300,000 citizens in folders on some 6,000 political organizations.) Even J. Edgar Hoover, no stickler for truth, was forced to admit while testifying before Illinois Governor Otto Kerner’s commission investigating the civil disturbances that he had found “no evidence of a relationship between one riot and another.”
Then came Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, followed by uprisings in at least eleven cities. A civil rights act meant to reform racist housing practices that had been on its deathbed suddenly sprang back to life—but probably only passed thanks to an amendment that had been earlier introduced by that noted civil rights champion, Senator Strom Thurmond, to add a Title X to the nine-title law. Popularly known as the H. Rap Brown Amendment after the Black Power activist who, Garry Wills joked at the time, “must have the most scrutinized itinerary of any American except the President,” it banned interstate travel or use of any communications medium “to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot,” and was passed overwhelmingly, even before the King disturbances. Conspiracy theories have consequences—especially when the febrile conspiracy theorists possess state power.
The absurdity of the outside agitator charge becomes most apparent when two opposing sides pin it on each other. During “Bleeding Kansas,” the 1850s proxy war between the North and South over whether slavery would expand to the territory newly carved out by Congress and robbed from indigenous nations, both sides sprayed around outside agitator allegations like buckshot. Next door, slaveholding Missourians watched nervously as New Englanders, keen to keep slavery out of the territory, arrived in Kansas by the hundreds; if Kansas became free soil, Missouri slaves could more easily flee their tortures. So Missouri’s rabidly pro-slavery senator, David Atchison, pledged to secure it “with the bayonet and with blood,” even if it meant killing “every God-damned abolitionist in the district.” He personally led a “self-defense” organization across the state line to bully the Northern settlers. Defeated in fraudulent territorial elections, indicted on charges of high treason, free-state emigrants in Kansas felt they had no choice but to set up a government of their own and take up arms in self-defense against “outsiders,” too.
In the rest of the country, politicians, newspapers, and voters hurled invective according to their preferences—with no apparent awareness of the irony. “Let the people shut their ears and turn their backs upon the outside agitators and demagogues who, having no interest in the country, desire to make [Kansas] the arena in which to fight their party battles,” as one party-battling Democratic paper in Cincinnati put it. And in this case, both sides were right: if either admitted that their partisans were outsiders, they wouldn’t be able to bathe themselves in innocence. What neither side saw reason to point out, however, was that, absent outside agitators, there would be no whites—and thus no bloodshed—in Kansas at all.
Fingering outside agitators is dubious no matter who’s doing the fingering—and that is so even when the accusations bear a grain of truth. Following the violent opening weekend of this spring’s uprisings, the president tweeted, “the United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” and Attorney General William Barr announced an investigation into the “violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting,” which amounted, he declared, to “domestic terrorism.” Never mind that the FBI field office in Washington, D.C., had already circulated an internal report concluding that it “has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.”
That same report, according to The Nation reporter who obtained it, indicated that far-right provocateurs on social media had called for attacks on federal agents and protestors. Soon after, Politico reported a warning to law enforcement from the Department of Homeland Security, citing the FBI, that within two days of Floyd’s death, users of the encrypted messaging app Telegram “incited followers to engage in violence and start the ‘boogaloo’”—to instigate, that is to say, a second American civil war.
Events soon appeared to bear out those warnings. Three so-called “Boogaloo Bois” were charged in Las Vegas for possession of gasoline-filled Calypso lemonade bottles to use as Molotov cocktails. These were “violent instigators,” the US attorney announced, who had “hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, including Nevada, exploiting the real and legitimate outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death for their own radical agendas.” Thereupon, images circulated on left-wing social media feeds of burly men, usually armed, in Hawaiian shirts—a Boogaloo signifier—at the edge of protest crowds; a video went viral of a genuinely horrifying incident in which several hundred counter-protesters, including members of right-wing motorcycle gangs, set upon a small-town Black Lives Matter vigil in Ohio, harassing and menacing the participants. Aha, the message ran: there are “outside agitators”—only, they’re on the other side!
Simply inverting the trope, however, does not serve progressive ends. In Nevada, as often is the case with FBI arrests for alleged terrorist intent, the federal agents appeared more opportunistic than the arrested would-be agitators. The FBI informant, it emerged, first heard about attacks planned for April by these suspects, who only later “discussed causing an incident to incite chaos and possibly a riot” in response to the disturbances over the death of George Floyd. In broad outline, this resembles any number of cases in which federal informants have used entrapment techniques to maneuver targets into illegal activity in order to chalk up flashy arrests. And more usually, the poor unfortunates so entrapped either hail from the political left (or have suspect Islamist leanings).
It’s unseemly when powerful reactionaries blame outside agitators in order to evade responsibility for their failures. But it’s also problematic when progressives deploy the same psychic alibi to render the world in convenient categories of good v. evil. Another revealing example emerged early this June, when an extraordinary document was leaked: the audio recording of an emergency conference call between Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and all fifty city aldermen, as fires were still burning and broken glass littered the streets. The recording offered a rare glimpse of the heartbreak of public officials who’d moved heaven and earth to persuade businesses to open up in their impoverished neighborhoods, only now to see them in ruins.
Yet even the progressive Lightfoot described the disorder as the work of “anarchists” moving “from neighborhood to neighborhood” to “incite… looting and violence.” A socialist alderman accused suburbanites of bringing the trouble into the city. “This is being controlled someplace,” another declared to broad agreement and affirmation from others on the call. Black, white, and Hispanic, reactionary and radical, all joined in communion: outsiders were to blame. Nothing brings public officials together like the opportunity to collectively absolve themselves of responsibility for the state of the city they’ve pledged to serve. This temptation to wish away inconvenient ugliness is neither progressive nor productive.
“This is a movement,” Donald Trump told the nation’s fifty governors in a conference call on May 31. “We found out they’re delivering supplies to various places in various states… It’s like Occupy Wall Street… these are the same people.” He then told them how they were to respond. “The word is dominate. If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re gonna walk away with you.” Then he called his shot for the next morning’s vicious, militaristic raid that cleared Lafayette Park for his notorious church-side photo op: “We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before. We’re going to have total domination.”
The president introduced Attorney General Barr, who explained, in tactical detail, precisely how that domination should proceed: “In many places, if not in most places, you have this ingredient of extremists, anarchist types, agitators who are driving the violence… Law enforcement response is not going to work unless we dominate the streets, as the president said.” (In his first stint as attorney general, Barr himself crafted the legal justification for armed federal intervention in urban disorder during the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.) So it was that governors should call out the National Guard in numbers of at least 1,000, to free up the cops “to be more dynamic and go after the troublemakers to go after the guys who are pounding the bricks and the Molotov cocktails. They have to be taken off the street and arrested and processed.”
Thereupon, he promised, the feds would take over: “The structure we’re going to use is the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which I know most of you are familiar with. It’s a tried and true system. It’s worked for domestic and homegrown terrorists. And we’re going to apply that model. That already integrates your state and local people and it’s intelligence-driven, and it will go operational. That’s when we want to lean forward and charge federally anyone who violates a federal law in connection with this rioting.” One of those federal laws, presumably, would be Title X of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, the H. Rap Brown Amendment. When Secretary of Defense Mark Esper took the floor, he reported the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s accord: “the sooner that you mass and dominate the battle space, the quicker this dissipates.”
The man in charge of the Pentagon, a former Raytheon executive, then said, “And we get back to a…”—he paused, then offered an even more pregnant formulation—“the right normal.” This was the lens through which the institutions of the American security state began thinking about protests that had assembled to protect and preserve black lives: by constructing an entire model of military engagement, with the outside agitator trope as its foundation. Evidence suggests they still are thinking that way. At the end of June, with any violence in demonstrations associated with the George Floyd protests at least three weeks in the past, Barr formed a task force to monitor “anti-government extremists” engaging in “indefensible acts of violence designed to undermine public order,” possibly even “fortified by foreign entities seeking to sow chaos and disorder in our country.”
Then came the outrages of July, in Portland, Oregon, when armed agents of the state, in menacing camo uniforms and wearing actual masks (and not of the anti-coronavirus variety), began randomly herding “enemies of the people” into vans—a logical terminus of the Trump–Barr–Esper battle plan: citizens outraged enough to put their bodies on the line for social justice are not us, and can be treated as enemy combatants. As the Special Operations Group of Richard Helms’s CIA once did, this work is building new infrastructures of repression, to make the outside agitator accusation a pretext for using overwhelming force to better build the right normal. Indeed, this work seems so important to the Trump administration that once the Portland gambit failed in the court of public opinion, the forces of reaction immediately came back with another. The White House shut down China’s consulate in Houston; then, Fox News began reporting, “There are stories that this consulate had links with protest groups in the US providing financial and logistical support. That’s unconfirmed…”
One goal of the 1741 criminal proceedings in New York City, the prosecutor told the grand jury, was to contain “all the mean ale-houses and tippling-houses within this city; and to mark out all such to this court, who make it a practice (and a most wicked and pernicious one it is) of entertaining negroes, and the scum and dregs of white people in conjunction.” It was an opportunity, that is to say, to shut down spaces of actual human equality, the better to shore up the boundaries of whiteness itself. And one consequence of the proceedings—after over a hundred people were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake—was the passage of a new law not just banning Catholic priests but declaring that they be automatically “deemed and accounted an incendiary and disturber of the public peace and safety.” Again, the right normal. The crisis was the opportunity.
Wielding the outside agitator trope has always, at bottom, been a way of putting dissidents in their place. The allegation is not even necessarily meant to be believed. It is simply a cover story, intended to shield from responsibility not only the authorities implicated in crimes or abuses of power, but also society as a whole. It is a strategy of shock-doctrine reaction. But now the side of social justice has its opportunity.
The swiftness with which the self-exonerating claims of the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, blaming the riots in their cities on menacing strangers, were disproven and debunked suggests this once-dependable method of paving over necessary pressure for change might finally be on its way out—that the Barr–Trump strategy to sustain it might not succeed. In an age of widely available information and rapid-fire fact-checking, the evasion no longer works, even for merely buying the authorities time to divert attention and defuse the public uproar. Certainly, it need never be taken even half-seriously again.
We must also dispense with the underlying ideology reflected, often unconsciously, in the ritualistic trotting-out of that exhausted cliché. When authorities try to deflect attention harnessed by mass protests and more rambunctious crowd actions by alleging that the problem, invariably exaggerated, was brought in by interlopers with their own agendas, there is something going on that is both more complicated and more dangerous than an attempt to delegitimize protest. From colonial times to today, the label “outside agitator” has served as a denial and repudiation of American nationhood, for it suggests that what goes on in one part of the country is of no rightful interest or concern to residents in other cities, states, and regions. What the outside agitator allegation ultimately implies is that the authorities leveling it belong to, and speak for, a given polity more fully than those whose radical demands and disorderly actions they oppose. Defenders of the status quo are defined as the only rightful inhabitants of a place and the only ones who get to have any say in its workings.
We shouldn’t judge protesters based on whether they’re “outsiders,” or even “agitators.” Agitation on the side of right should be welcomed, from wherever it arrives. In fact we ought to reconsider whether there should be “insiders” and “outsiders” in America at all.
Consider American history’s most notorious outside agitator: John Brown. Although his 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, failed to spark a larger revolt of the enslaved, Brown succeeded in accelerating the conflict over slavery and hastening abolition. A Connecticut-born radical and a veteran of “Bleeding Kansas,” that yearslong agitator-palooza, Brown didn’t care about the hackneyed antebellum nostrum—the core of American political culture—that Northerners should leave white Southerners alone, even if that meant allowing the slaver power to survive and expand indefinitely. His Harpers Ferry attack exploded in an instant the nearly century-long, elite-enforced consensus that condemned any criticism of slavery from outside the South as ipso facto illegitimate. Still today sometimes depicted as a treacherous terrorist, Brown was instead arguably America’s quintessential unionist and patriot: he thought Americans in one part of the country were responsible for what went on in every other part, and he acted on that belief without hesitation.
This is how American identity is supposed to work. It rarely does. But in the country we need and deserve—and must today build—the concept of the outside agitator will be nonsensical. The work of agitation, from wherever it comes, is simply another name for citizenship.