Unmasking The ‘Outside Agitator’

Illustration of a rally where "peaceful protesters" march alongside "violent looters."
LA Johnson/NPR
Illustration of a rally where "peaceful protesters" march alongside "violent looters."

LA Johnson/NPR

Whenever a protest boils up, it is a secure wager that quickly after, some public official will blame any violence, disruption or looting on “outside agitators” — mysterious outsiders who swoop in from out of city to fire up hassle.

It’s a phrase that is acquainted to us. We’re listening to it to explain the protests in opposition to police brutality which might be taking place in the present day. In 2014, we heard of us discuss in regards to the “outside agitators” who sparked turmoil in Ferguson. And it has been used all through America’s historical past of protest; notably, it was used to dismiss civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. But what does it actually imply?

To assist us perceive why we’re listening to a lot about exterior agitators, we talked to Professor Peniel Joseph from the University of Texas at Austin. Here are snippets of that dialog, which have been edited and condensed for readability.

What does it imply to be an “outside agitator”? What are public officers actually saying after they use that terminology, or different phrases prefer it?

The complete trope of outdoor agitator has an extended historical past in American historical past, and it has been utilized by everyone from plantation homeowners within the South throughout antebellum slavery to huge company trade magnates.

We’re eager about the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts and Andrew Carnegie. It’s additionally been utilized by the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, when speaking about everyone from radicals of the early 1920s and 30s, to civil rights activists comparable to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and positively black energy activists, together with the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael.

So in our modern context—particularly because the Black Lives Matter motion erupted round 2013 and 2014—it has been utilized in opposition to activists who’re making an attempt to rework the felony justice system within the United States. Basically, what it is meant is that no matter battle, political revolt or demonstration is occurring, it is not organically residence grown, it is not genuine. That none of those troubles would occur if not for out of doors agitators.

How efficient is that terminology in miserable political uprisings?

There’s been an evolution. When we take into consideration the 19th century throughout antebellum slavery, there was this concept that those that had been abolitionists and pushing for the eradication of slavery had been exterior agitators. And for a time, labeling people who method works. It even sparks new, extra repressive laws.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, labor struggles and labor strife was an enormous second for the usage of “outside agitator.” It allowed actually morally reprehensible acts of violence in opposition to labor activists. We’re speaking about Haymarket in Chicago. In Homestead, Pennsylvania, within the late 19th century, employees who had been on strike had been literally murdered by a combination of law enforcement and private security firms employed by the nice industrialists of the occasions.

The excessive level of the concept being an efficient device of repression was through the begin of the Cold War. In the early 1950s, there was this concept that in case you had been a civil rights activist, and in case you had been pushing for an finish to racial segregation, you had been a communist. You had been anyone who wasn’t authentically American. You had been making an attempt to do one thing that was subversive and anti-American and anti-patriotic.

Has the time period “outside agitator” sometimes been utilized by the federal government?

It’s all the time utilized by these in energy, however not essentially by the federal authorities. In the South, these in energy had been the plantocracy and slave homeowners. So they completely did use the trope of that time period to explain abolitionists, to explain Frederick Douglass, to explain these of us who had been anti-slavery.

In 2014, we had been each in Ferguson reporting on the protests that had been taking place. Nearly each white individual we spoke to blamed individuals who lived exterior of Ferguson for what was taking place of their city. The exterior agitator trope turned one of many main storylines of these protests.

Whether it is to denounce the left wing or anti-racist forces, or to even denounce culpability, it is traditionally been one thing that has been utilized as a trope to defend white supremacy. It’s pleading both white innocence by saying, these black of us who’re protesting usually are not genuine black of us. And that has a really, very lengthy historical past of white Southerners saying within the South, we deal with our coloured folks good and our Negroes love us and we love them. Trouble solely occurs when you have got Northerners who are available and inform us that there is one thing improper with our conventional people methods.

To be taught extra, take heed to this week’s episode wherever you get your podcasts, together with NPR One, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and RSS.

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