It is too early to know what is actually happening inside the protests and riots happening in cities across the country, especially Minneapolis, after the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin there on Monday. That is, we know there are protests and looting and violence, but who is doing what remains unclear, and will stay unclear for a while. There are plenty of videos and tweets, but they can only give us windows into events, not a full picture.
That being said, there do seem to be some patterns emerging.
The protests began as Black Americans and allies protested Floyd’s murder, coming, as it did, after a number of similar murders—such as Breonna Taylor’s, shot in her own home during a botched police raid—that illuminated police brutality against Black Americans. Quickly, though, the protests appeared to turn into something else, as more people—possibly (and I would guess probably) from outside the cities—rushed in to create chaos.
It is not clear who these people are. This morning, Trump tweeted that the protesters at the White House were “professionally organized,” and midday, Attorney General Barr gave a hasty press conference in which he claimed that “outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.” He said, “in many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far-left extremist groups, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence.”
There is currently no evidence that what Barr said is true.
He went on to say “It is a federal crime to cross state lines or to use interstate facilities to incite or participate in violent rioting, and we will enforce those laws.” After Barr spoke, Trump tweeted: “80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE. They are harming businesses (especially African American small businesses), homes, and the community of good, hardworking Minneapolis residents who want peace, equality, and to provide for their families.” He added: “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!”
About the same time Barr was speaking, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told reporters that “Every single person we arrested last night, I’m told, was from out of state,” and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz estimated that 80% of those destroying property were from out of state. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey added: “We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out-of-state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region.” The Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said they had begun tracing those they arrested to see if they were part of larger networks.
A preliminary study today by local network KARE found that, in fact, 86% of those arrested were from Minnesota. Of the others, at least one was associated with a white supremacist group.
While we cannot know yet what’s going on now, it is of note that the president has encouraged violence lately in his tweets, retweeting a video in which a supporter says “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” and a famous line from segregationist politician George Wallace “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
In some places, police are deescalating protests and things are calming. In others, they seem to be deliberately escalating riots and violence.
In the places the police are escalating the riots, they seem to be targeting journalists and photographers, as well as people of color—there are harrowing videos of young men dragged from cars or from the street and mobbed by officers. Multiple stories tonight tell of journalists arrested or shot with rubber bullets, even after identifying themselves as press. One has lost an eye.
This recalls the president’s constant attacks on the press. He has tweeted the phrases “Fake News” and “Enemy of the People” 796 times, and suggested in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he, Trump, should “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia [where Putin has journalists killed], but we do.”
If we cannot yet fully know the dynamics of the protests, there are a few things we do know.
First, the protests have wiped from public discussion all the major stories that were distressing Trump: the deadly toll of the coronavirus and his administration’s abysmal response to the pandemic, the skyrocketing unemployment as the economy falters, and Friday’s revelations about his 2016 campaign team’s collaboration with Russian spies.
Second, the president has gone missing in the midst of this crisis. While presidents traditionally speak to the nation to try to reassure Americans in such times, neither he nor Republican leaders are trying to calm the nation.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden late tonight stepped into the breach, issuing a statement. “Protesting such brutality is right and necessary. It’s an utterly American response. But burning down communities and needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. Violence that guts and shutters businesses that serve the community is not. The act of protesting should never be allowed to overshadow the reason we protest. It should not drive people away from the just cause that protest is meant to advance.”