As protests over the police killing of George Floyd rock Minnesota and the nation, authorities in the state and around the country have speculated about potential ties to extremist groups among pockets of rioters.
Particularly where Floyd was killed, in Minneapolis — but also in isolated cases elsewhere around the country — peaceful protests have regressed into destruction of property, looting and arson.
But aside from anecdotal information, there’s been little substantive evidence presented to conclusively tie the destruction to an organized ideological or criminal effort.
Nationally, President Donald Trump and his administration and reelection campaign have assigned blamed predictably: “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!” Trump exclaimed on Twitter. “Antifa,” his campaign spokesperson agreed a few hours later.
Attorney General Bill Barr, in brief remarks to press Saturday, was a little wordier, but still presented no evidence.
“In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups– far-left extremist groups using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence,” Barr said.
Officials in Minnesota described rioters who appeared organized and prepared. Authorities have been shot at, they say, and face improvised explosive devices. Attorney General Keith Ellison at one point described “evil elements” that had blended with demonstrators “to destroy and cause arson.”
At a press conference in the early morning hours Saturday, Minnesota’s Gov. Tim Walz (D) was asked whether there were white supremacists causing destruction in the state.
“The unconfirmed reports, and again we’re trying to get that, but we’ve got intel from all the different agencies. Of course, this is where the federal government helps us with some of this. I certainly can’t confirm personally on this. My suspicions and what I’ve seen on this? Yes.”
Walz added that he’d heard reports of drug cartels “trying to take advantage of the chaos that’s there, too.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey offered a similar take later Saturday.
We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out of state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region.
— Mayor Jacob Frey (@MayorFrey) May 30, 2020
John Harrington, the state’s Department of Public Safety commissioner, said that while “we’ve got intel reports that have been confirmed, I cannot say that we have confirmed observations” of white supremacist activity.
Harrington separately compared the effort to trace arrested rioters’ affiliations to “contact tracing,” the practice used by public health officials to trace COVID-19 through interpersonal contacts. But he offered no conclusions about what had been determined.
“It’s contact tracing,” Harrington said. “Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for? And we have seen things like white supremacist organizers who have posted things on platforms about coming to Minnesota. We are checking to see, do the folks that we have made arrests on, and that we have made information — are they connected to those platforms?”
The intelligence effort — for which state officials said they were receiving federal help, including from the military and the National Security Agency — comes as the state has mobilized its largest civilian law enforcement response in history.
“Over the last 72 hours, these people have brought more destruction and more terror to Minnesota than anybody in our history,” Waltz said Saturday.
Minnesota officials also asserted Saturday that many of the arrests made in recent days have been of residents of other states, who presumably traveled to participate in the unrest. However, jail data to support that point has been lacking.
Based on a few dozen jail intake records from Friday and Saturday, local station KARE 11 reported that the vast majority of those detained were from Minnesota.
The outlet cautioned that the data was not conclusive and that the sample size was small. Also, a police spokesperson said he believed some who were arrested gave false addresses.
On top of all that uncertainty, KARE noted, “many of those responsible for the worst destruction escaped apprehension.”