WASHINGTON - The series of nationwide protests the past nine days over the death of African American George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police have drawn a hodgepodge of outside agitators.
They range from anarchists to anti-fascists, radical environmentalists, white supremacists, anti-government militiamen and just straight-up opportunists.
All have been seen in numbers small and large at mass gatherings across the country. But sorting out their precise involvement in the demonstrations — and the related violence, burning and looting — has presented a challenge to law enforcement officials and researchers.
Muddying the picture, politicians, officials and activists have played up the presence of one group over another.
While some Democrats have blamed white supremacists for exploiting the protests, President Donald Trump has laid the blame squarely on what he terms radical-left anarchists and the militant anti-fascist movement known as antifa.
"It's ANTIFA and the Radical Left," Trump tweeted on Saturday before vowing the next day to designate the movement as a terrorist organization, despite legal barriers to that.
The reality is more complicated. While antifa members have been arrested at protests throughout the country, eyewitness accounts, social media posts, court documents, official statements, and research by independent investigators all suggest that radical elements of all stripes — and not always affiliated with any one group — have sought to take advantage of the unrest for ideological ends.
"I think all hate groups on both sides — left, right, middle — any group whose intent is to drive hate and to further separation in our communities all try and use these situations to their own advantage and try to exacerbate things," said former Boston Police Chief Daniel Linskey, who is now a managing director at Kroll, a global risk consulting service.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, said the protests have sparked more online chatter among extremists than action on the ground.
"Even that action is not always violent and not always easy to confirm until we get the arrest data, which is filtering," Levin said. "Let's see what the arrest logs look like as police departments across the country do a reverse investigation."
Blame for violence
With the violence grabbing news headlines, protest organizers are increasingly worried that crime committed in their name will discredit their movement. Taking matters into their own hands, peaceful demonstrators have been seen in online video footage stopping acts of vandalism and destruction.
In an emotional speech to protesters in Minneapolis on Monday, Floyd's brother, Terrence Floyd, pleaded for an end to the violence.
A video that went viral last week showed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on top of 46-year-old George Floyd, pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck until Floyd could no longer plead for breath. That video touched off protests and violence throughout the U.S. and overseas.
"That's not going to bring my brother back," Terrence Floyd said.
Current and former law enforcement officials sympathetic to the protesters' grievances are equally concerned that the violence could undermine their cause.
"There is legitimate outrage and people who legitimately need to be heard are making their voices heard in peaceful protests," Linskey said. "Unfortunately, there are groups that decide they're going to target the protests and use the crowds as human shields. They engage in criminal activity."
In Boston this week, rioters armed with leaf blowers and crowbars, organized "looting raids" to plunder high-end stores, Linskey said, recounting a conversation with Boston officials.
The instigators, he said, were "anarchists" from outside the city who often show up at protests in Boston, he said.
"I also think that they might have started the process of the looting and others who went there with good intentions saw opportunities and decided to take advantage of them as well," Linskey said. "There are people that are planning and thinking and trying to utilize a tragic situation for their personal advantage and agenda."
In recent days, local law enforcement officials elsewhere in the country have claimed that much of the violence was planned and organized.
NY police investigation
In New York, a police department investigation of more than 700 arrest records over the past week found that "certain anarchist groups" began raising bail money and recruiting medical teams in anticipation of violent confrontations with police, John Miller, the department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, said.
“They prepared to commit property damage and directed people who were following them that this should be done selectively and only in wealthier areas or at high-end stores run by corporate entities," Miller said in a press call.
In Texas, an antifa online group organized the recent looting of a Target retail store in Austin, the state capital, Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.
"The protest and looting of Target in Austin that was done and organized by an antifa web page and of course, the surveillance that was provided over the internet identifying where law enforcement resources were staged, was done over antifa accounts," McCraw said a news conference on Tuesday.
There are no reliable figures on antifa membership and the precise extent of their participation in the ongoing protests remains uncertain. However, antifa members, masked and clad in their signature head-to-toe black "bloc," have been spotted at rallies around the country, from Seattle and Portland to San Francisco and Dallas.
Andy Ngo, a conservative journalist and social media personality who frequently attends antifa rallies and writes about the movement, said he's seen video footage and photographs showing anarchist symbols and the letters "ACAB" — short for "All Cops Are Bastards" — spray-painted by antifa members in the wake of "their violence and destruction."
"These are dog whistles for their slogan," Ngo said.
In Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, small groups of a dozen to 100 antifa members have managed to turn an otherwise peaceful protest into violent mayhem, Ngo said.
Like Trump, administration officials, including Attorney General William Barr, have blamed antifa for much of the violence, threatening legal action against rioters, vandals and other criminals. Making good on those threats, federal prosecutors this week charged at least six individuals in four states in connection with committing violence or making threats at protests. None appears to have any known links to antifa.
Yet far-right groups have not been entirely absent from the protests. However, their number has been relatively small and they have not been involved in any major acts of violence.
Among right-wing extremists, the Boogaloo Boys, an online community of anti-government militiamen, have had the most visible presence at protests. While claiming solidarity with the protesters, they have been filmed standing guard outside businesses.
"They're just operating on the base assumption that it is black people who are doing the rioting," Howard Graves, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said.
Dozens of members belonging to the Oath Keepers, the largest paramilitary organization in the United States, have shown up at protests in Minneapolis, Dallas and Washington, among other cities, Graves said.
"They frequently tweet out pictures of their members guarding businesses during protests or guarding up on rooftops," Graves said.
Less visible, though not entirely absent, have been members of League of the South, a neo-confederate group; Proud Boys, a neo-fascist organization, and the Groyper Army, a network of far-right activists.
Graves said he has seen no evidence that right-wing groups have directed their members to show up at the protests.
“I do believe that some members or some individuals who are affiliated with extremist online right-wing subcultures and groups will likely be implicated in violence at these protests,” Graves said.
On Sunday, Jeffrey Alan Long, an alleged member of a neo-Confederate biker group, was arrested along with a friend after the pair fired their weapons near two groups of protesters in Salisbury, North Carolina.
The government's focus on antifa notwithstanding, federal prosecutors say they remain just as concerned about far-right extremists seeking to exploit the protests.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors in Nevada charged three alleged members of the Boogaloo movement with conspiracy to cause destruction during protests in Las Vegas and possession of a Molotov cocktail.
“Violent instigators have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, including Nevada, exploiting the real and legitimate outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death for their own radical agendas,” U.S. Attorney Nichola Trutanich said in a statement announcing the charges.