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.
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.