Politicians blame ‘outsiders’ for US riots

The internet has christened him “Umbrella Man”. A video shows him wearing a gas mask, strolling along the windows of an auto supply store in Minneapolis and knocking them out with a hammer.

Some speculated the white man was a member of a far-left group, others that he was a cop, a rumour the Saint Paul Police Department has denied.

Like Umbrella Man’s identity, attendance at the civil rights protests and riots that have swept the US is a matter of increasing scrutiny. The types reportedly appearing in Minneapolis — beyond the thousands outraged at the police killing of another black American — includes anarchists, Antifa (anti-fascist) activists, white supremacists and agents provocateurs.

The labels came from the political right and left. William Barr, US attorney-general, said he planned to prosecute “far-left extremist groups” involved in the unrest, while President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Sunday saying: “These people are ANARCHISTS”.

The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Saturday decried “white supremacists co-opting this tragedy”, while the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the community was “under attack from outside instigators”.

On Sunday morning Tim Walz, the Democratic governor of Minnesota, justified extending the curfew another night by saying “bad actors continue to infiltrate the rightful protests of George Floyd’s murder”. Yet local reporting by the Star Tribune found that of the 57 arrests on Saturday related to protests and rioting, 47 were for Minnesotans.

When asked about the discrepancy at a press conference on Sunday evening, Mr Walz said it changed nothing. “We’re not trying to set a narrative,” he added.

The protests began after a video was posted online of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Floyd for more than eight minutes while he pleaded for air. On Thursday night, people set multiple fires and looted stores, leading Mr Walz to mobilise the National Guard. Protests and rioting spread to cities throughout the US.

The question of who is at the protests, or riots, is a critical one, because it affects public perception of any resulting damage, said Danielle Kilgo, a journalism professor at University of Minnesota.

“If we don’t have a clear party to blame for something that is so negatively thought of, like a riot, then we blame everyone to some degree,” she said. “We have a legitimate grievance, we have a terrible tragedy . . . and it gets lost if other people join that cause for any other reason.”

One known member of the Boogaloo Bois along with 15 associates was in Minneapolis, said Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right who has watched footage of the protests. The Boogaloo is an anti-government group that advocates for civil war in the US. While claiming to be antiracist, it exists within the racist ecosystem of the far-right fringe.

Neo-Nazis and fascists turned up at protests in New York, Portland, Dallas and Toronto, Mr Ross said. Nick Fuentes, a celebrity within the far-right who lost his YouTube channel in February for hate speech, was spotted at a protest in Tampa, Florida.

“They’re cropping up,” Mr Ross said. “It very much looks like people who are part of the Boogaloo movement are joining these protests in order to incite violence and accelerate the tensions of US political society.”

There also has been tension between protesters over who will bear the consequences for vandalism and arson. A video that went viral on Sunday shows a young black woman confronting two white protesters dressed in black spray-painting the acronym for Black Lives Matter on a Starbucks in an unnamed city.

“They going to blame black people for this, when black people didn’t do it,” the woman said. “Stuff like this ain’t right.”

At a peaceful rally in Manhattan on Sunday afternoon, where Asians, Hispanics and whites outnumbered African-Americans, the protesters’ concerns were not confined to a single issue.

Joseph Martinez, a 20-year-old from Queens who helped organise the protest, said people were “tired of seeing the disenfranchised in this country being taken advantage of, in all facets of infrastructure, whether it comes to just police brutality, whether it comes to voters’ rights, whether it comes to our political system in general.”

Additional reporting by Laura Noonan in New York

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