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The Racist Myth of Outside Agitators

This week, we’re checking facts on the podcast. We can all agree the truth is what keeps democracy alive, but sometimes ascertaining what it is poses difficulties. To better understand our political system’s relationship with the truth, and how professional fact-checking works, we turned to Jon Z. Greenberg. He’s a Senior Correspondent at PolitiFact—one of the premier organizations keeping our lawmakers honest.

Check out his talk with Mila here!

As you can probably tell, our episodes are recorded well in advance. Doing this lets us provide you with the best version of our interviews possible, but we don’t know the future. When we spoke to Jon, we couldn’t say protests erupting around America would dominate the news. These protests are critical to our democracy, and ensuring equal justice under the law is the most pressing issue in our society today. So, we’re doing some fact-checking of our own, protest-style.

The Outside Agitator

In recent weeks lawmakers and lawmen nationwide offered a false narrative about protesters, who turn out to be overwhelmingly local residents of where protests take place. They trotted out a horse they’d beaten many times in the past—the trope of the outside agitator. Attorney General William Barr blamed the unrest in Minnesota on coordinated extremists. The Mayor of Minneapolis and the governor of Minnesota (both Democrats) echoed the idea. The NYPD claimed non-native extremists were responsible for unrest in the Bronx—giving them the justification for brutal suppression tactics.

These claims aren’t new. Supremely terrible human Gov. George Wallace used “continued agitation and demonstrations led and directed by outsiders” to order increased police presence in Alabama, leading to the infamous Bloody Sunday in Selma.

The most famous civil rights crusader of the 20th century found himself labeled as an outside agitator by unsavory characters like Strom Thurman. “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea,” Dr. King stated in his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

The idea persists because it provides a convenient cover for several different suppression tactics. Saying outsiders caused protests discredits the local (often black) organizers, implying they couldn’t have pulled off a successful demonstration themselves. The racism behind this ploy is evident and intentional, playing into the idea that minorities or low income citizens are somehow less able to organize and fight for their rights.

Blaming unrest on outsiders, or activists who fall under the large and diverse umbrella of ANTIFA, give law enforcement cover to act violently against protesters. Once the pubic believes non-residents are responsible for rallies in their community, they are less opposed to the use of overwhelming force, which, as we’ve seen, is something the police are very excited to use.

Pinning social movements on extremist groups and angry outsiders also provide politicians with a spineless way out. They claim to “support the movement” but not the protests because they’re illegitimate and organized by agents of chaos. Once delegitimized, their demands are similarly discounted and easily ignored.

Currently, the police data doesn’t even support the “outside agitator” theory. Arrest data in Seattle show almost all the protesters arrested were Washington natives. This data demonstrates the deflection tactic authorities are using around the country. As much as the Trump administration plays up the role of ANTIFA in these protests, the evidence simply isn’t there.

If we were Jon Greenberg or any of his hard-working colleagues, we’d rate the claim of outside agitators as “Pants On Fire.”


 Neil MacFarquhar, Alan Feuer and Adam Goldman. “Federal Arrests Show No Sign That Antifa Plotted Protests.” The New York Times, The New York Times,

Kroman, David, and Lilly Fowler. “‘Outside Agitator’ Narrative Not Supported by Seattle Arrest Data.” Crosscut, Crosscut, 3 June 2020,

Gabbatt, Adam. “Protests about Police Brutality Are Met with Wave of Police Brutality across US.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 June 2020,

“The Antifa Myth.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 11 June 2020,

Zhou, Li. “The Trope of ‘Outside Agitators’ at Protests, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 3 June 2020,

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail .” Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.],

Glass, Andrew. “Civil Rights March Ends as ‘Bloody Sunday,’ March 7, 1965.” POLITICO, 7 Mar. 2018,

Chapman, Ben, and Katie Honan. “NYPD Commissioner Says Agitators Sow Violence at Protests.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 3 June 2020,

Beggin, Riley. “Minnesota Governor and Mayors Blame out-of-State Agitators for Violence and Destruction.” Vox, Vox, 30 May 2020,

Macfarquhar, Neil. “Many Claim Extremists Are Sparking Protest Violence. But Which Extremists?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 May 2020,

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