MINNEAPOLIS — Drifting out of the shadows in small groups, dressed in black, carrying shields and wearing knee pads, they head toward the front lines of the protest. Helmets and gas masks protect and obscure their faces, and they carry bottles of milk to counteract tear gas and pepper spray.
Most of them appear to be white. They carry no signs and don’t want to speak to reporters. Trailed by designated “medics” with red crosses taped to their clothes, these groups head straight for the front lines of the conflict.
Night after night in this ravaged city, these small groups do battle with police and the National Guard, kicking away tear gas canisters and throwing back foam-rubber projects fired at them. Around them, fires break out. Windows are smashed. Parked cars destroyed. USA TODAY reporters have witnessed the groups on multiple nights, in multiple locations. Sometimes they threaten those journalists who photograph them destroying property.
The mayor and governor say outside agitators are hijacking peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd and literally fanning the flames of destruction. And experts say things will likely get worse in Minneapolis and in other cities seeing similar peaceful protests that turn violent like Los Angeles, Louisville, Des Moines, Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
“The real hard-core guys, this is their job: They’re involved in this struggle,” said Adam Leggat, a former British Army counterterrorism officer who now works as a security consultant specializing in crowd management for the Densus Group. “They need protests on the street to give them cover to move in.”
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Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said protests in the city Tuesday were largely peaceful and organized by local residents, but that the “dynamic has changed over the last several days.”
“I want to be very, very clear: The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents,” Frey said Saturday.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, without providing specifics, said he believes 80% of the people now taking part in the overnight rioting are from outside Minnesota.
“There are detractors. There are white supremacists. There are anarchists,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said Saturday afternoon.
Leggat, the security consultant, said intelligence reports from his colleagues indicate most of the hard-core protesters in Minneapolis are far-left or anarchists, and that far-right groups have not yet made a significant appearance. He said looting is typically done by locals – usually people with no criminal record who just get caught up in the moment.
But direct conflicts with authorities come from a mix of both locals and outside groups who see these conflicts as a core part of their mission. Many of the anarchists, he said, target banks, chain-type businesses and even luxury cars as symbols of corrupt institutions. He said even a peaceful protest can turn violent if outside agitators decide to participate, hijacking the message.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.
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“The difficulty is that you have no control over who turns up,” he said. “If this was to continue to go on, more people will come. And potentially you could have people on the right turning up, which would make things far more complicated. If those guys turn up, they will claim to be there to protect business. But it means the police will have two groups to keep apart. And that uses up a lot of police resources.”
Many protesters interviewed by USA TODAY reporters decried the violence, although some said it was a predicable result of generations of anger and suffering. Speaking to a large crowd on Friday afternoon, Minneapolis activist Kon Johnson, 45, said people who have subjugated for so long are finally lashing out. He said the violence has at least gotten the world’s attention.
“What is it going to take to get people to listen?” Johnson said. “They say, ‘don’t incite violence,’ but no one is listening. What does it take to get them to listen? I mean, do we have to take this to the suburbs? To the capital? What’s it going to take to get them to listen? We can’t keep burning stuff down.”
Johnson, an activist and performer, said the arrest of Derek Chauvin, the police officer seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, is a good first step. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. But he said it’s only the first step toward delivering justice to the community.
“I don’t want to burn down sh– either. I don’t. But guess what? It’s gonna happen if this fool does not get life in jail.”
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Pamela Oliver, a sociology expert from the University of Wisconsin-Madison specializing in protests, said politicians sometimes blame outsiders for causing trouble as a way of pretending there’s no real problem within a community. That’s not what’s happening here, she said: Political leaders acknowledge Floyd’s death focused sharp attention on longstanding problems.
Instead, she said, many Minneapolis residents may see rioting and destruction as a legitimate way to push back on police repression.
“When the police aggressively punish peaceful protest by firing rubber bullets and tear gas, the protesters often escalate their tactics. In contexts in which the police or other authorities have been acting in repressive ways towards communities, there can be a celebratory air when rebellion occurs in what is called a riot,” she said. “I have definitely read claims by Minneapolis residents that the police have been so bad that a rebellious response is appropriate.”
But many Minneapolis residents appear to be growing weary of the violence and destruction, while still supporting peaceful protests. Clearing rubble from a burned-out Walgreens on Saturday, Daniel Braun, 34, said he was sad to see the damage to his neighborhood.
“There’s civil rights and then there’s burning things down,” said Braun, an attorney. “During the day, everything is peaceful. It’s only at night when things happen. Once night falls, please, go home. When it’s dark out and you’re there, you’re not making anything better.”
A protester who has been outside some of the most intense scenes this week – the Minnehaha Mall on the south side on Thursday and Uptown on Friday – said his experiences with riots and protests leads him to believe most violence demonstrators are not from Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Arsonists and people breaking into buildings are “definitely” not from the neighborhoods they are damaging, said Augustine Zion Livingstone.
“Ain’t no black person burning down no damn barbershops in their hood,” Livingstone, 23, said. “We’re not doing that.”
Some locals are participating in looting once buildings have been breached, but he said they’re in the minority when compared to peaceful protesters.
“We’re not destroying buildings, we’re not burning buildings,” said Livingston, who also was a main speaker during Friday’s marches and protests at the Hennepin County Government Center.