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The trope of “outside agitators” at protests, explained

Howard Law professor Justin Hansford breaks down how the term has been used to delegitimize protests across the country.

A demonstrator raises his fist at the Lincoln Memorial during a peaceful protest against police brutality on June 2.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

To hear some people — including public officials — tell it, “outside agitators” have been playing an active role in protests over police brutality.

“Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda,” Attorney General Bill Barr said in a statement. “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,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey noted. (Minnesota officials later walked back claims about out-of-state arrests.)

It’s a statement that activists have heard before, used throughout history to undermine the legitimacy of protests. By framing protests as the result of “outside” influence, lawmakers are able to undercut the validity of the protest itself and question activists’ capacity for organizing such a large-scale movement. At the same time, they’re able to maintain that they actually support activists’ broader cause of combatting police violence, while cracking down on protesters.

“The idea [behind the outside agitator] is that anything that’s formidable really couldn’t be pulled off by local black activists or protesters,” Howard University law professor Justin Hansford told Vox.

The term is one that he is very familiar with: Hansford was an activist during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in 2014 and now he runs the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard.

“In Ferguson,” he said, “it was the same situation: it’s an effective tool because not only do you delegitimize the protest itself, but you also delegitimize the activists as not being skillful enough, or clever enough, to do this on their own. You play on racial tropes as well.”

It can be complicated, Hansford notes, as there are some groups and individuals who are trying to capitalize on these protests to sow chaos of their own. There have been reports, for example, of white supremacist groups taking advantage of these protests to try to impair the cause.

But Hansford characterizes these organizations as “infiltrators,” not “outside agitators,” and says there’s a key distinction: “Infiltrators” are organizations he describes as working to undermine the protest, while “outside agitators” are (in theory) given credit for amplifying it.

Other actors who’ve been a disruptive presence at the protest, like individuals who’ve taken advantage of this moment to loot stores, and YouTube influencers who’ve been among crowds damaging property, would not be considered “outside agitators.”

Hansford broke down the long history of the term “outside agitator” — which was used during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and as far back as the 1800s — in an interview with Vox. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Li Zhou

Could you start by talking about what the term “outside agitator” means, when it’s used in the context of the current protests?

Justin Hansford

Outside agitator is a racial term. The term means that protests are somehow less legitimate and really run by people who are, not black, usually white people, who are not local — people who are from different parts of the country or different parts of the world.

You may have seen people talk about Russian influence recently, fomenting this discussion. There’s another group they mention, which is seen as a predominately white organization. All these groups are, whether it’s Russia, whether it’s antifa, the idea is that anything that’s formidable really couldn’t be pulled off by local black activists or protesters. That’s actually the bottom line.

So, back in Ferguson, the outside agitator [that was raised] was George Soros. There’s an idea that these were paid protesters, it’s not legitimate, they are being paid to protest. Fox News was involved in promulgating that misnomer. I used to tell people — back then, if people were getting paid checks, I was wondering where my check was, because I never got a check. Nobody I know received a check.

In Ferguson, it was the same situation: It’s an effective tool because not only do you delegitimize the protest itself, but you also delegitimize the activists as not being skillful enough, or clever enough, to do this on their own. You play on racial tropes as well.

Hostility toward the protesting can be justified easier. Legitimate protesting based on a legitimate problem: Being hostile toward it would make you seem like a racist. This gives you grounds for being hostile toward the protest in a way you can justify it.

In the history, most people will first think about Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr]. He was said to have been influenced by communists: In the aftermath of the ’50s, the McCarthy hearings, being a communist was a really harsh character assassination. Sheriffs and segregationists throughout the South said that Dr. King was being influenced by, again, white, foreign, outside agitators, who were the ones behind the fomenting. So if it wasn’t for those outside agitators, black people could not pull off such a formidable protest. That was the other big parallel in history.

It goes back before that. It does go back to even during the [anti-slavery] movement: If there was ever any disruptions, or even rebellions, it was the same thing. The trope was just more explicit at that point: “Black people couldn’t pull this off themselves, it must be some people from the North.”

So even then, from slavery up through segregation, the outside agitator could be in the communist concepts in the ’50s, ’60s, could be Russia, and back then in the 1800s, early 1900s, Jim Crow, slavery, the outsiders were the people from the North, white people from the North, the abolitionist from the North. Those were the outside agitators, so that’s the line: From the white people in the North to people who are communists in other countries, to George Soros ... to antifa and Russia.

It’s the same process that’s been handed down over generations. That’s why it resonates so much and is such an easy thing to believe for folks who think that way, because there are so many precursors.

In law, we think about precedent. If you have a bunch of cases in the past that you can build on, then you have a stronger case to make.

It’s the same image in people’s minds, the outside agitator image: You saw Donald Trump playing on that, talking about trying to identify antifa as a terrorist organization.

Li Zhou

How have you seen the use of the term “outside agitator” undercut the validity of protests?

Justin Hansford

It’s very effective in that it allows for more a harsh response. Also, if the idea of outside agitator is providing funding or support, questions emerge about how come this is going to some or not others? People who are actually protesters may believe it and wonder why they’re being left out of the conversation.

Li Zhou

Were you surprised to see public officials using this term again?

Justin Hansford

I was not surprised. In Charlottesville, Trump was trying to equalize the two sides and he [elevated] this idea of antifa, that was a moral, radical equivalent to the Nazi side and so I specifically wasn’t surprised when he cited antifa and the radical left, because that is his outside agitator. He’s not going to use Russia, because we all know his relationship with Russia.

Li Zhou

How do you advise people to evaluate reports of groups taking advantage of the protests?

Justin Hansford

I have seen reports also of white supremacist organizations, who wanted to use this opportunity to create some sort of mayhem, specifically something called Boogaloo. I saw that report, so remember those are two different things: The outside agitator is trying to support, at least in the trope of it. When you think about white nationalists, now you’re talking about infiltrators.

The outside agitation trope versus the infiltration idea: It’s a subtle difference, but it is very true that there have been infiltrating groups in Ferguson, and I would not be surprised if there were infiltrators in the current protests. The infiltrator idea is a group that’s trying to harm the protest by doing things that are going to hurt the protesters’ cause.

The infiltrator thing is a real thing, I think that’s a legitimate issue. We had uncovered people in Ferguson, in the southern region of the Black Panther Party, Brown Berets, Native American groups, the American Indian movement.

There’s an issue of infiltration in those movements where folks would join the movement who were actually undercover local police officers, those people would encourage other activists to be violent, try to shame the other activists. They would pressure the other folks to be violent and they were undercover the entire time, that’s a real thing that happened.

Li Zhou

How can people simultaneously call out infiltrators and not buy into outside agitator stereotypes, when public officials are using them?

Justin Hansford

It’s hard to do that outside of organizations. The reason that people are at a disadvantage here is in the past, if it were the Black Panthers, or Black Lives Matter, there were relationships people had when you knew who was who. Because you have relationships when you join an organization, or you go out and register and communicate with people, and build a community with folks, you can build a sense of trust and know who’s who.

It’s very hard to do it if it’s all random people who just show up at the same place. It’s actually a problem because if you get paranoid, there are legitimate people who are trying to help who you may alienate. On the other hand, if you’re too lax, somebody can infiltrate and may do something really negative that can [be associated with] you.

The only real thing I can say to people is to try to build relationships with people who are there, so you know each other. Almost all of these protests do have organizers, so be in contact with the organizer and try to build community.

Li Zhou

When officials like the governor of Minnesota call protesters outsiders, do you think people should take those statements with a grain of salt?

Justin Hansford

Always take a statement from a politician with a grain of salt.