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George Floyd protests: Focus on violence, looters detracting from real issue, expert says

Death toll grows, violence continues to plague U.S. cities
WATCH: Death toll grows, violence continues to plague U.S. cities

As the protests over the death of George Floyd continue across the U.S., officials have been seeking to assign blame for violence and looting on “infiltrators” and “outside agitators.”

But experts say it isn’t clear who is responsible, and that such conversations distract from the issues at the heart of the protests.

The protests began in Minneapolis, Minn., where Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after a white officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest.

Floyd’s death acted as a catalyst, igniting protests which have now spread across the U.S. and abroad, including into Canada.

READ MORE: U.S. sees calmest streets in days as George Floyd protests largely peaceful

Some of the protests have turned chaotic in a number of cities, with violence and looting reported.

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Yohuru Williams, dean of the College of Art and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a professor of African-American history, said the violence and looting is likely being done by a combination of many individuals and groups.

“So you do have activists clearly who are defying the curfews — at least in the initial days after the killing of George Floyd — that were engaging in arson and other activities,” he explained.

“And then you have other opportunistic people, individuals and groups who are trying to take advantage of the situation for their own purposes.”

Black Canadians react to unrest in the U.S.
Black Canadians react to unrest in the U.S.

But, not everyone agrees.

Since the protests began, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed — without evidence — that the violence has been instigated by Antifa, a term used to describe a broad range of people with far-left leaning ideologies.

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“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” he wrote in a tweet on Saturday, “Don’t lay the blame on others!”

In a statement released on Sunday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr echoed Trump’s remarks, saying the protests had been “hijacked by violent radical elements.”

“The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly,” the statement reads.

READ MORE: Want to support Black people? Stop talking, start listening

In a previous interview with Global News, however, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who studies fascism, said it is not clear who is responsible for the violence and looting.

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“We don’t have enough information yet to know if the looters are part of Antifa [or] if they’re people who are opportunistic looters,” she said.
George Floyd death: Curfews extended in wake of escalating protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul
George Floyd death: Curfews extended in wake of escalating protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul

In some cases, though, Ben-Ghiat said there is evidence to suggest the looters were members of far-right groups who were infiltrating.

On Saturday, after a night of violent protests that saw multiple arrests by police, officials in Minnesota announced they would be investigating whether any of the demonstrators had ties to white supremacy groups.

According to Ben-Ghiat, infiltrating protests is a tactic that is used by both far-right and far-left groups.

“You infiltrate a protest and then you try and get your enemy blamed for it,” she explained.

Ben-Ghiat said this strategy has been employed by both sides since the 1920s.

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READ MORE: ‘We’re not stopping’: Thousands break NYC’s curfew to protest George Floyd death

Williams, too, said historically, extremist groups on both the far-left and far-right have “talked about a race war as the penultimate goal to plunge the United States into chaos.”

So, you know, it’s not beyond the pale for anyone to believe that those organizations exist and would love to exploit this moment toward that end,” he said.

But Williams said it is not clear right now to what extent those extremist groups are responsible for the violence that has occurred, saying access to data has been limited.

“Law enforcement hasn’t been incredibly transparent about what they have,” he explained.

Are “outside agitators” responsible?

At a press conference on Saturday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said officials’ “best estimate” was that 20 per cent of those who had been arrested during the city’s protests on Friday were from Minnesota with around 80 per cent being from outside of the area.

George Floyd death: Minnesota Governor calls for return to calm following violent protests
George Floyd death: Minnesota Governor calls for return to calm following violent protests

In a tweet, Trump echoed the governor’s assessment.

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“80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE,” he wrote. “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.”

However, this statement was later walked back by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who said the numbers were incorrect.

READ MORE: George Floyd protests in America’s top 25 coronavirus hotspots ignite outbreak fears

“A deflection”

Ultimately, Williams said, the conversation about whether the violence was instigated by “outside agitators” or not detracts from the actual purpose of the protests.

By Saturday, for example, as we descended into this conversation about whether outside agitators were responsible, a lot of attention was deflected from what happened to George Floyd,” he said.

“It was a deflection away from the demands that were being made by some organizers here in the Twin Cities about the types of changes they wanted to see enacted.”

Williams said this ends up “diluting the conversation,” and shifts the focus to hunting down the violent actors, rather than “recognizing and tackling the issues presented by protesters.”

Death toll grows, violence continues to plague U.S. cities
Death toll grows, violence continues to plague U.S. cities

“The focal point becomes the arson, the looting and the rioting,” he explained. “Not the police brutality, the health disparities, the racial inequality that helped to produce the situation to begin with.”

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And this has long been a problem with these types of protests, Williams said, adding that the “historical impulse” of elected officials and law enforcement is to blame the violence on outside agitators.

READ MORE: George Floyd: Trump blames Antifa for ‘violence,’ but experts raise doubts

He said this is harmful because it ends up “fomenting dissent” among those who gather together to protest, making people question the intentions of others.

Anyone that studies social movements will tell you that’s detrimental to the movement itself,” Williams said.

“There are different expressions of frustration, of anger, of levels of engagement that you have to take into account when considering a movement or a response to an event as a whole.”

George Floyd death: Rev. Al Sharpton, Eric Garner’s mother call for ban on police chokeholds
George Floyd death: Rev. Al Sharpton, Eric Garner’s mother call for ban on police chokeholds

He said this also “reinforces the narrative” that those in power get to decide whose voices are considered legitimate, and whose are not.

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What’s more, Williams, said we need to be careful when classifying groups as coming from the “outside,” because legitimate organizations will often attend protests in different cities to help the locals.

This is not uncommon,” he explained. “And during the civil rights movement, it was extremely common for representatives from national organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference the NAACP, the Urban League to head into communities that were impacted by civil disorder to join with local entities and local branches of those organizations to help organize.”

In Minnesota, Williams said representatives from the national Black Lives Matter organization and the National Action Network attended the protests.