The George Floyd protests have swept the country in a spontaneous explosion of rage. Their scope and intensity have equaled the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, which inspired nationwide actions.
But some widespread theories on the right are circulating about the protests that are attempting to undermine the work of Black-led organizing efforts. The right widely claims that anti-fascists (antifa) or “anarchists” are behind the violence, while some liberal officials initially claimed white supremacists were acting widely as agent provocateurs, bearing primary responsibility for certain aspects of the protests, such as property destruction. The situation is extremely chaotic and all the facts can’t be known in their full detail, but both theories tell us something important: Neither the conservative commentators nor the liberal politicians will admit this is a decentralized and spontaneous rebellion.
Conspiracy theories work by falsely claiming that a secretive group is behind a real social problem. They distract people from understanding the real social problems facing a society — and thereby prevent them from addressing the underlying issues. In this case, people from a range of different positions on the political spectrum are desperate to avoid the question of racist police brutality and murder, especially as it targets Black folks. The uprisings also illustrate the failure of more moderate political channels to address this.
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In several tweets and in his speech Monday night, President Trump blamed “professional anarchists” for the protests and claimed he would declare antifa a “terrorist organization.” (Antifa is not a single organization, and there is no such designation for domestic groups.) Attorney General William Barr released a statement saying, “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” Meanwhile, some activists arrested at the demonstrations say they’ve been questioned about their relationship to antifa groups.
A vast wash of right-wing voices are also proclaiming that George Soros is masterminding the uprising: this includes 34,000 tweets linking the billionaire to the protests, as of June 1. Soros is commonly accused by the right of all of the traditional things that in the past anti-Semites accused “the Jews” of. Scapegoating individual Jews allows the right to harness the emotional power of the old anti-Semitic framework while avoiding moral responsibility for their actions.
Reality is quite different though. First, anarchists and antifa, while overlapping movements, are not the same. Anarchism is an ideologically based movement, primarily positioned on the radical left, while antifa is a smaller movement which seeks specifically to confront fascists and the far right. Many anarchists support the antifa movement, but only some of them are involved in it; and many antifa activists are anarchists, but there are other political views in the movement, too.
“Antifa” has become a kind of boogeyman for the U.S. right since 2017, and we are now in the fourth wave of what I call “antifa panic.” As cities burn and police brutally enforce curfews, it’s bizarre to see progressives regurgitating their old talking points about whether or not they support the anti-fascist movement. This is just a distraction from the protests over racist police murder.
In fact, for Trump and his sycophants, “antifa” is just an updated version of the old claims that Communists are hiding under every bed, which Sen. Joe McCarthy spouted in the 1950s. This accusation was leveled in particular at Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. These conspiracy theories, in turn, were largely adopted from earlier anti-Semitic conspiracies about a “Judeo-Bolshevik” plot.
There is also a racist element underlying these conspiracy theories of past decades. They assume that Black folks are not sophisticated enough to form and lead movements for their own liberation, and so, there had to be white Communists — or Jews — behind them. Today, we see the same propaganda recycled, only with antifa and anarchists replacing the Communist boogeyman. The game is the same; only the names have changed.
Anarchists and anti-fascists themselves openly scoff at the administration’s accusations. The anarchist website It’s Going Down tweeted, “Neither ‘ANTIFA,’ anarchists, or any activist group for that matter – are behind or ‘directing’ the uprising that is taking place across the US following the murder of #GeorgeFloyd. Young people of color are the driving force – and this is exactly who the State fears the most.” The New York City anarchist organization Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC) supports the protests but tweeted, “It’s a popular uprising – beyond us.”
Compounding the confusion is the fact that prominent Democratic politicians in Minnesota initially claimed that white supremacists were behind the protest. Like most conspiracy theories, this one has a grain of truth. Different factions of the far right have shown up, though their relationship to the protests is complicated. It is a very chaotic situation, and no one has all the information.
However, Democratic officials, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, identified white supremacist “outside agitators” as the primary culprits behind property destruction in the area. This rumor was promoted by the Minneapolis officials claiming that, on Saturday, May 30, arrested looters were linked to “white supremacists” and “organized crime.” But they have not produced any evidence of these assertions, and officials have already retracted other statements they made about the arrests.
In contrast, there have been a noticeable number of the more “moderate” far right groups, including the Proud Boys, militias and — especially — the Boogaloo movement present at the protests, but usually as counterprotesters. Sometimes they are also there claiming that they are guarding stores from damage, and sometimes the Boogaloo activists specifically are joining the protests.
Part of what has allowed large-scale unevidenced theories about white supremacists to blossom is confusion about the Boogaloo movement. This movement seeks to start an armed conflict in the form of a civil war, and generally, adherents back a libertarian-style vision of unlimited gun ownership and property rights. Many members wear Hawaiian shirts (a reference to “the big luau” — itself a pun on “boogaloo”). A minority of the movement has a crossover with white supremacists, but most of it does not.
At the beginning of the protests, Boogaloo-linked social media accounts talked about intervening to stoke conflict. It is apparently the assumption that the white supremacist elements of the Boogaloo movement (part of the “accelerationist” tendency, which seeks total social breakdown) are participating in the violent protests that have become the basis of the unevidenced theory that white supremacists are widely behind property destruction at the protests.
Since these rumors arose and spread, there have been at least two confirmed instances of far right violence. In one case, a man with links to neo-Confederate politics shot a gun near a protest, and there are other reports that counterprotests have assaulted progressive activists. In another case, three Boogaloo activists were apprehended heading to a protest with Molotov cocktails.
According to a report released June 1 by the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, some of the Boogaloo activists who are participating see themselves as anti-racists who are siding with the protesters. The report’s authors, Alex Newhouse and Nate Gunesch, also found that, at this time, there was no evidence of property destruction specifically being instigated by those participating. “While Boogaloo Facebook pages were active in their discussion of violence against police, few members attended the protest and none seem to have attacked law enforcement officers,” Newhouse and Gunesch said (emphasis added). Furthermore, the idea that Boogaloo activists are behind the uprisings is, of course, baseless.
While the conspiracy theories about white supremacists are more confusing than harmful, the ones about the left are a justification for repression. As of Sunday night, the counterrevolution arrived. Curfews descended on the country, protesters were being murdered by both police and civilians, a right-wing mob patrolled a Philadelphia neighborhood, and police and the National Guard are brutally cracking down on protesters. All of this has been justified with Trump invoking his dual boogeyman of anarchists and antifa.
But it is unlikely brute force can quell this rebellion easily. The civil rights movement was an unfinished revolution, and morphed into the more radical Black Power movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. More recently, in 2014 and beyond, the Black Lives Matter movement further pursued the goal of smashing white supremacy in the U.S. The failure of leaders to heed these movements’ basic demands is, in part, leading to more forceful forms of protest emerging.
Trump will blame radical left social movements for this outpouring of anger over the police murder of Black people, and try to suppress its manifestations, but in doing so, he does nothing more than ignore the root problems of structural anti-Blackness and oppression. Just as his segregationist forbearers did in the 1950s and ‘60s when they blamed Jews and Communists for the civil rights movement, Trump and his conservative followers misrepresent their actual opponent.
Demonizing antifa will not stop the movement that George Floyd’s murder has sparked. While anarchists and antifa activists are supporting the protests, they are not running them, and their absence would not collapse the uprisings. In fact, the protests would look fundamentally the same if they were removed. Martin Luther King Jr. said that a riot was the “language of the unheard,” and Trump and other officials refuse to listen to the voices of those who are actually leading these protests: Black organizers making clear demands for the end of white supremacy.