The creeping marauders who don't exist

Trump and Barr plan a crackdown on non-existent forces behind nationwide protests.

It’s a terrifying vision. Shadowy groups of left-wing extremists and anarchists, raising money and sending their foot soldiers all over the country to bring havoc to peaceful, law-abiding communities. 

Except it isn’t happening. With the full investigative power of the federal government behind them, President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr have yet to identify a single incident of this kind — even as they baselessly speculate that this invisible network is roaming the nation to foment unrest and commit violence. In some cases, it’s come down to local law enforcement to convince citizens and right-wing vigilantes that this fantasy is not occurring. These are the same law enforcement agencies Trump and Barr claim to be protecting with what will likely be deemed an unconstitutional order to strip federal funding from what Barr’s Justice Department has now called “anarchist jurisdictions” of New York City, Portland and Seattle.

This is not how any of this works. But you can’t really blame Trump, Barr, their fellow Republicans, the GOP’s media allies and average Americans on Facebook for believing that things do work this way. None of them can really be blamed because the people who believe these things have ever been to a protest themselves, let alone actually protested. 

They’ve never been to a protest or protested because they come from the parts of our society that control it. Simply put, they’ve never had anything to protest against because their interests have always been aligned with the current subjects of nationwide outrage — law enforcement and the structures that uphold systemic racism. So it makes sense that they would have to concoct a reason why people would travel to take part in a protest — entirely their right, regardless of political affiliation — which some people most certainly do. 

But not in the way Trump, Barr and Americans consuming a toxic stew of misinformation from right-wing media helpfully provided to them in heaping quantities by Facebook’s mind-warping algorithms.

Yes, protesters and activists travel, even across the country, to take part in actions. Yes, some of them identify as Antifa and anarchists. But besides the fact that there is no proof they are doing this in large numbers and in highly-organized fashion, there is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about travelling to take part in a protest. It most certainly is not sedition, as Barr would like to charge. Any illegal action would only come at the protest itself. 

Ironically, it’s largely right-wing groups who act in the fashion Barr and Trump claim is rampant on the left. The Proud Boys are regularly seen at events nationwide alongside more militant groups like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers. In all my travels covering unrest in the last six years, the only somewhat-organized left-wing groups I’ve seen in American cities experiencing unrest are the Revolutionary Communist Party of Chicago, who I first came into contact with in Ferguson, and, far less frequently, the New Black Panther Party and its affiliated splinter groups.

Protesters and activists — or the nebulous Antifa, which Barr and Trump would have you believe is a paramilitary organization and not simply a loose connection of like-minded individuals — aren’t flying around the country for several, very logistical reasons. First, it’s very expensive to do so. My rule of thumb for covering unrest is that it takes a minimum of $1,000, per man, per week to be able to properly function in that environment. (And I do it on the cheap. Television news reporters, with their camera crews and extensive gear, rack up even higher bills.) To parachute in as reporters like myself do — and as Trump and Barr insist Antifa does — requires one to immediately drop upwards of $2,000 on flights, hotels and car rental. Most Americans, especially those on the left, don’t have that kind of scratch just lying around. Secondly, most people simply don’t have the time to drop everything and catch a flight across the country just to join in on protests. Reporters have that luxury because it’s our job. 

Instead, what often happens is that protesters and activists will travel within their region. Situated in between Chicago and Milwaukee, Kenosha surely would have seen more than its fair share of outsiders coming into town following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. But that’s really no different than other cities and towns outside major metropolises. In the wake of George Floyd, Minneapolis would have drawn in protesters from St. Paul, Duluth, Milwaukee and Chicago. (I briefly saw a protester from Chicago that I used to be in regular contact with back in the Ferguson days at the George Floyd memorial.) But any protest in any city now draws right-wing agitators and pro-police types as well — a change from the two years following Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson to the election of Trump, when national media abandoned stories of police killings and the Black Lives Matter movement in favor of his historically fascist presidential campaign.

In Minneapolis, there were all kinds of rumors about white supremacists embedding themselves with protesters to stir unrest — rumors I tried, and largely failed, for days to confirm or deny. (The closest anyone got was police saying a man holding an umbrella who was caught on camera casually smashing the windows of an Auto Zone just prior to a particularly violent night of rioting was a white supremacist intent on stirring the pot. Police have issued a warrant for “the Umbrella Man.”) In Kenosha, the only outsider proven to have caused violence was a white, Trump-supporting teen and wannabe cop who killed two protesters and injured a third with his assault rifle. 

The myth of the professional rioter is an especially powerful one, particularly for those Americans who have never attended a protest, seen a riot in person, or protested themselves. 

Many Americans are primed to believe that outside agitators are sowing destruction because it’s easier than dealing with the fact that so many people are so genuinely enraged. To do that, to understand that society can break down so quickly into chaos, is to confront an uncomfortable truth that terrifies many. It would also require those people, including Trump, Barr, and much of the Republican Party, to confront the reasons that have caused the rage.

The photo in this post came from that particularly violent night in Minneapolis, when much of the neighborhood around a Minneapolis police precinct burned. Thanks to everyone who continues to read these increasingly-sporadic posts. Since covering the Rayshard Brooks killing in Atlanta, I’ve been buried in my private research work which has left little time for new, original reporting. There have also been the not-so-small matters of getting married and buying a home, which have taken up quite a bit of time. I may get out to Portland before the election to cover the ongoing events there for a book I’m pitching about the events of this summer and the months approaching the election. Until then, onward.