Authorities trying to make sense of the wanton destruction in Minneapolis and St. Paul for the past three nights are struggling with a burning question: Who are these people?
Few answers emerged Saturday after Gov. Tim Walz and top law enforcement leaders suggested early in the day that as many as 80% of the looters and vandals who have decimated city streets in the name of George Floyd — an unarmed black man who died in police custody — actually came from out of town, maybe even out of the state. But they offered little evidence to back that up.
In some instances, such as the case of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, they had to correct assertions that all of the suspects arrested in St. Paul had come from elsewhere.
State officials also gave conflicting accounts of whether the suspected agitators came from the ranks of white supremacists exploiting the rage over Floyd’s death, or left wing anarchists bent on turning the anger toward their ends of discrediting the police.
To Walz, only one thing was certain: Outside agitators were making “an organized attempt to destabilize civil society.”
Minnesotans have made up the majority of arrests so far in the unrest that has shocked the cities, but people from all corners of the country representing a patchwork of ideologies — some extreme — have increasingly turned up as the protests have grown in size and level of violence.
Hennepin County jail logs showed arrests of people coming from Michigan, Missouri, Illinois and Florida. One suspect from Alaska had bragged online of coming to the protest with Molotov cocktails.
“They were not demonstrating for a cause, they were not protesting for injustice, they were simply bent on destruction of property and they were bent on trying to hurt people,” state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington told reporters Saturday.
Harrington said the state’s 2,500 public safety personnel deployed on Friday were quickly outnumbered by “tens of thousands” of rioters. But while Walz, Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey all steadfastly maintained that people outside the cities were responsible for the majority of the mayhem, reports from St. Paul police and Hennepin County jail logs suggested the opposite.
Meanwhile, Harrington and some elected officials hinted at possible white supremacist involvement. Law enforcement officials scrambled to investigate online ties between known extremist groups and out-of-staters detained in the riots.
The Minnesota Fusion Center, part of the state’s Public Safety Department, reported at one point that up to 75,000 “agitators” could be traveling Saturday from Kansas City, Chicago, Ohio and elsewhere, according to a letter sent from Hudson, Wis., Mayor Rich O’Connor requesting National Guard assistance from Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
But Walz said later that that number was most likely attributable to a national peaceful daytime protest that did not materialize. Asked about the Fusion Center estimate, Walz said, “I can’t speak directly to that.”
Still, as an added safety measure, the Minnesota Department of Transportation closed a number of major highways around the Twin Cities, including portions of I-94 and I-35W, starting at 7 p.m. Saturday.
A close look at social media posts and scenes from Minneapolis and St. Paul reveals a convergence of ideologies with no clear trendline — from pro-gun, anti-cop rioters to militia, anti-fascists and anarchists.
Followers of a new group of armed, anti-government extremists dubbed the “Boogaloo Bois” have reportedly emerged at protests or have shared their intentions of traveling to the state.
J. J. MacNab, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, has tracked more than 100 Facebook groups affiliated with the “Boogaloo movement.” She described the demonstrators she has seen in the Twin Cities as part of a younger segment that is generally pro-gun but not racist, convinced that violence is the only way to bring about change.
“The younger portion of the Boogaloo world hates cops, and they watched a cop kill a man,” said MacNab. “And they’re angry. Very, very, very angry, and they don’t think change is going to occur unless there’s violence.”
While most of those arrested so far are local protesters, more than a dozen witnesses to the fires and destruction in the Twin Cities told Star Tribune reporters that they had seen numerous vehicles with out-of-state license plates parked near their homes or at nearby hotels. Others have reported seeing vehicles bearing no plates in their neighborhoods, and one resident reported seeing an unmarked truck drive off after striking a cyclist in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood.
Mike Griffin, a 34-year-old organizer from Community Change Action from southeast Minneapolis, said that as the weekend approached he could detect a creeping presence of people less interested in protesting Floyd’s death than they were in seeking to foment unrest.
While Griffin and other peaceful demonstrators sought out symbolic places like the Third Precinct police station to protest, he said he noticed others seeming to target buildings and businesses at random.
“You want to go out there and destroy Minneapolis? Do that on your own time,” Griffin said. “I have no idea what your point is in this. I use that light post. I go to this store. This is my barbershop you burned down. My barber lives above my barber shop I go to every week. What the hell are you doing?”
Much of the destruction has been tied to so-called white anarchists, who often tag buildings with ACAB, an acronym for “All cops are bastards.”
Many of the businesses ravaged by fire this week bear that telltale symbol. Locally based anarchists also contributed to unrest at the 2008 RNC convention, according to police accounts.
Law enforcement and community organizers alike were wary of what Saturday had in store. Still, Griffin planned to be back out there late Saturday in defiance of the curfew.
Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.