5 reasons why experts say we should be wary of the 'outside agitator' narrative

A person in Minneapolis, Minnesota watches vehicles burn during a May 29 protest sparked by the death of George Floyd.

(CNN)As protests over police brutality and systemic racism sweep the nation, authorities have partly blamed incidents of property destruction and violence on people they deem 'outside agitators.'

  • Federal law enforcement officials pointed to groups including anarchists, white supremacists and far-left extremists, while President Donald Trump has focused just on Antifa and the far left.
  • Other authorities have leveled allegations about foreign influences. Local officials have also used the term to refer to those who join protests from out of town.
  • This week, federal prosecutors in Nevada charged three men who allegedly identify with the Boogaloo movement -- a group often associated with far-right extremist ideology that wants to initiate a civil war.
While officials are still trying to quantify just how significant a role outside groups are playing in the unrest, it's clear that the label 'outside agitators' has been used broadly to describe a number of different groups.
And that's something experts and scholars say we should be careful of.
The narrative of the 'outside agitator' has long been used to undermine protest movements in the United States. Even Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. -- often invoked in conversations today about how people should demonstrate -- was referred to by Southern white people as an outside agitator.
Here's why experts say we should be wary of that narrative.

It's been used to discredit protests

Framing the unrest as caused solely by outside agitators suggests that the protesters involved in social change movements are carrying out someone else's nefarious agenda, rather than mobilizing over legitimate concerns of their own, said Aldon Morris, professor of sociology and African American history at Northwestern University.
"It suggests that they don't have the wherewithal, the agency, to organize and to mobilize and to lead protest movements," Morris told CNN. "In that sense then, if they are incapable of doing that, then surely it must be the work of others outside the protest community."
During the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when a white mob attacked black residents and burned black-owned businesses in Tulsa's Greenwood District, Oklahoma leaders and white Tulsans blamed outside agitators for inciting black residents to seek racial equality.
That included scholar, teacher and activist W.E.B. DuBois, who was described by Oklahoma's governor at the time as "an agitator of the worst type."
DuBois had visited Oklahoma a few months earlier and likely raised consciousness about injustices against black people, wrote Alfred Brophy in the book "Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921." And though it was a white mob that attacked the city's black community, officials and police suggested that DuBois and the black press provoked it.
An image shows the aftermath of the white mobs that attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Morris, who has studied social movements for decades, said that data has shown claims about outsiders playing a significant role in demonstrations are unproven. In reality, most of the people leading and participating in demonstrations are from oppressed communities.
In Minnesota, evidence of outside involvement has so far been thin.
The Star Tribune reported last week that data from Hennepin County showed more Minnesotans were arrested during protests than people from out of state. An analysis conducted by the local TV station KARE found similar results.
The data is inconclusive, and at least one report alleged that a man from out of state encouraged violence against law enforcement. But such actors are likely not the norm, Morris said.
"I am not then saying that there aren't agent provocateurs operating in the current uprisings," he said. "But there can be little doubt that this is a major movement by people with legitimate grievances and their allies."

It distracts from the underlying causes

Emphasizing the destruction of property and the role of outsiders in demonstrations distracts from the issues that prompted people to take to the streets, Morris said.
Though demonstrations in cities across the US were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the anger and frustration goes beyond that. Many protesters are also driven to demonstrate because of systemic racism, wealth and income disparities and the disproportionate impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on people of color.
Attributing the unrest to outsiders implies that the majority of oppressed people are content with the status quo, said Morris. It's also an attitude that was often displayed by white Southerners during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
"Southern white segregationists believed that 'their Negroes' were content with the social conditions under which they lived, that they did not have any legitimate grievances and that there's no way that they would rebel under the Jim Crow system," he said.
This dynamic played out during the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, said Kathleen Fitzgerald, a teaching assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina.