Officials blame 'out-of-state' agitators but those at the heart of protests are homegrown

Brett Murphy, Josh Salman and Dak Le, USA TODAY

Rioters broke into the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct just after 10 p.m. Thursday night and set the building on fire. They tossed fireworks into the blaze. Chants of "George Floyd" and "I can't breathe" echoed from below the smoke and bright explosions while hundreds gathered to record the moment on their cellphones. 

Gov. Tim Walz responded by calling in the largest national National Guard deployment in state history, the first of dozens of police escalations around the country responding to eruptions of outrage over the weekend after Floyd, an unarmed black man, died during an arrest by white police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. 

By Saturday, local politicians were casting the chaos as the handiwork of outside agitators. Walz estimated that about 80% of those being destructive do not live in the state. The mayor of St. Paul, Melvin Carter, said every person arrested in the city Friday night was not a Minnesotan, a sentiment parroted by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

“I want to be very, very clear: The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents,” Frey added. “They are coming in largely from outside of the city, from outside of the region, to prey on everything we have built over the last several decades.”

The narrative offers a simple, tidy explanation for violence that allows politicians to simultaneously support the ethos of the movement and the police officers trying to keep the peace.

But it’s not true. The overwhelming majority of people who posted on social media from the precinct fire and those arrested Friday night at the protests in the Twin Cities live in the area, according to USA TODAY's review of police jail records and almost 100,000 tweets. 

In an analysis of more than 1,800 Twitter users who posted from within a 3-mile radius of the precinct fire on Thursday, 85% had a history of posting inside the greater Minneapolis area before George Floyd’s death. The data – which represent only a fraction of protesters and could include some people who were not directly involved – indicate most live or work nearby, not out of state.

A protester dumps heating fuel on the fire at the Minneapolis Police 3rd precinct Thursday, May 28, 2020. Protests continued around the city following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody.

“The 3rd precinct fell today,” one user tweeted just after midnight Friday morning. "All power to the youth. All power to the people. Justice for George Floyd and all victims of police murder and brutality.” 

Another posted a picture of the blaze with the caption: “Chants of #BlackLivesMatter as the minneapolis police precinct burns down.”

USA TODAY’s social media analysis, supported by arrest records, offers a window into where protesters at the epicenter of the movement actually came from, dispelling many of the claims and talking points. 

St. Paul police logs show two-thirds of those arrested for looting and property destruction connected to the protests are from Minnesota. And the Minneapolis logs show 93 of the 109 people arrested in the city between Thursday night and Saturday morning reside in-state.

Across the country, where peaceful protests devolved into looting, vandalism and arson — as well as violent displays of police aggression — USA TODAY found the same pattern. 

For instance, all but three of the 144 people arrested Friday and Saturday in Detroit were from Michigan. On Saturday, 28 people were arrested in Nashville. Most were from the city and all but three were from Tennessee. Five of the six people arrested at Friday night's downtown protests in Louisville, Kentucky, live in Louisville. The other did not immediately give police her address. 

Protesters and Metro Nashville Police scuffle on top of a police car outside Central Precinct in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, May 30, 2020 during the “I Will Breathe” rally to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day. (Via OlyDrop)

In Los Angeles, where a stunning 533 people were arrested during Friday’s protests, police spokeswoman Capt. Gisselle Espinoza said her department has no reason to believe they came from far away. The city did not provide a roster of those arrested or a breakdown of their home addresses.   

Officials begin changing their stories

In response to the public records collected by USA TODAY and local news reports, Minnesota officials have begun walking back their statements. 

"The Mayor went with the information he had at the time and learned after the media conference more than half are from Minnesota," Carter's communications director, Peter Leggett, said in a statement to USA TODAY.

At a press conference Sunday, Walz backpedaled and said he "certainly wanted to believe" the majority of agitators are from out of town but because it is hard to get data from arrests, the state is relying on what he called human intelligence.

"We cannot provide more intelligence on an ongoing law enforcement matter," Walz's spokesman, Sebastian Kitchen, told USA TODAY. 

Frey’s office did not immediately respond to questions about evidence to support the claims or how they are contradicted by the social media data and police records. 

But by then, the narrative had caught national steam, spreading to local officials in other cities and the White House. 

"80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE," President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon. "They are harming businesses (especially African American small businesses), homes and the community."

Viral social media posts and local leaders, as well as pundits in both conservative and progressive camps, blamed a conspiracy of outsiders infiltrating the protests to escalate violence. 

Experts said the “outside agitator” trope, which also appeared in past Black Lives Matter movements, can unite local politicians looking to assign blame without taking a side. 

“There is this very common idea in policing to attribute the violence to professional protestors who come from other places for the purposes of causing chaos,” said Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University. “There are some people who do travel to protest and to some extent that does happen, but the idea is dramatically overblown.” 

Police can then leverage the distinction as a pretense for a heavier response, some critics said.

Amber Hamilton, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, wrote that Minnesotans seem quick to accept the state’s narrative of outside destruction without real evidence that it’s true. “I’m afraid that that’ll lead people to accept uses of forces that they may not otherwise.” 

Protesters block traffic on the Second Street Bridge on Saturday, May 30, 2020, in downtown Louisville.

Without evidence, city officials in Louisville on Saturday attributed a trail of vandalism to out-of-towners. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced he'd send the National Guard to the city. 

At least 19 cities have followed suit and deployed military support since Friday. And more than 1,600 people have been arrested around the country since Thursday, according to the Associated Press. 

“What we have seen, especially last night, and what our intelligence says is going to happen tonight are outside groups moving in, trying to create violence to harm everybody who is on those streets," Beshear said Saturday afternoon. Neither the mayor nor the governor immediately responded to questions about the evidence supporting those claims. 

The definition of outsiders evolves

Emo Ismail, 17, was among those at the head of the crowd in Minneapolis Friday night as it faced off with police near the police precinct in flames. Ismail lives in Richfield, on the Minneapolis border, and said he often has run into young men he knew during the protests, including from neighborhood basketball games.

“I do believe there were some people who came in to cause trouble and not to honor his (Lloyd’s) legacy,” he said. “Frankly, it’s disrespectful. But I can’t blame them – some of us channel our anger in different ways.”

Emo Ismail, 17, watches a protest in honor of George Floyd on Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis.

Mat Davis, a volunteer with Black Lives Matter in Indianapolis, said no outside people were invited to Saturday’s protest. He said the media is often quick to take the word from local and police officials instead of protest organizers. 

“Then we are left with not only the damage control but a full-on smear campaign,” Davis said. 

Some peaceful protesters say the violent actors meet a different definition of “outsider” that extends beyond where they live: They are often white and associated with anarchist, anti-facists – also known as antifa – or far-right extremist groups.

“When you break it down it’s, antifa messing things up,” Daniel Diaz, a Rochester resident protesting in the city, said Saturday. “It's people from these suburbs. They’re coming over and they’re messing things up.” 

In Detroit, USA TODAY Network video recorded a protester in a Hawaiian shirt, a rifle strapped to his back. An anti-government group that calls itself Boogaloo Bois has made plans online to show up at protests wearing Hawaiian shirts. 

An outsized proportion of Detroit protesters appeared to be white in a predominantly black city. Local officials there rallied around protecting the city from those seeking to destroy it from the outside.

The violence, they say, comes from the suburbs. 

"These outsiders put our community in harm's way," said Rev. Charles Williams, president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Action Network, speaking of suburbanites who joined Detroiters late Friday during a downtown stand-off with police.

During a press conference Saturday, the Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington once again raised the specter of outside influence. He said the state has begun tracing those who were arrested Friday night to unravel the larger “network” of criminals. 

"Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for?" Harrington said. "Is this organized crime?” 

Brett Murphy, Josh Salman and Dak Le are reporters on the USA TODAY investigations desk. Contact Brett at brett.murphy@usatoday.com or Josh at jsalman@gatehousemedia.com.

Contributing: M.L. Elrick, Holly V. Hays, Trevor Hughes, David Lindquist, Amelia Pak-Harvey and Meredith Spelbring.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd protest agitators are mostly homegrown, not out of state