MINNEAPOLIS—Mahado Ali stood outside a convenience store just across the street from the Minneapolis Police Department’s first precinct headquarters, confronting looters who had pried open the business and were ransacking it.
Out of the store ran two young white women, among others of all races, carrying a case of Bud Light and marijuana paraphernalia, laughing. Behind them came a young white man with a handful of cigarette lighters. He walked past Ali and she began filming.
“Why would you give them a lighter?” she asked the man, who had passed out several to a group of other young protesters. “You gave a lighter to a bunch of people and told them to burn this place down. You literally are part of the problem. You are here to fuck shit up. You’re not here for the right reasons.”
As protests spread to more than 30 cities on Friday, a disturbing trend emerged: masked protesters, many of them white, were hijacking protests and stoking violence.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz claimed more than 80 percent of core protesters appeared to be from out-of-state, and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said online intelligence suggested involvement by white supremacists and “organized cells of terror.” Soon after, President Trump and Attorney General William Barr fingered Antifa and “far left extremists” as the main instigators. “Don’t lay the blame on others!” Trump tweeted, setting up a blame-game that threatens to devolve into another election-year culture war.
But in several cities, African-American organizers pleaded with white protesters and, in some cases, physically intervened to deescalate tense situations that led to police cracking down with their own violence.
In Oakland, protesters filmed a group of white men smashing their way into businesses. In Detroit, black activists described attempts to “purposely infiltrate” peaceful protests. Videos circulated on Saturday, appearing to show white protesters being asked to stop defacing statues in Denver, and African-American organizers in Minneapolis putting out fires started by white protesters and asking white allies to calm down.
“I’m upset, enraged, because once again, white people are co-opting a movement that’s built by black folks,” Mike Griffin, a senior organizer for Community Change Action in Minneapolis, told The Daily Beast.
At a press conference in Minneapolis on Saturday afternoon, activists and leaders from across the city’s diverse community—a black pastor, a rabbi, a Latina activist, among others—spoke about the people who have been arrested over the past four nights of looting and fire.
“We don’t recognize these people,” said the Latina activist, Emilia Gonzalez Avalos. “What I saw were small business owners—black and brown, indigenous, Somali, Mexican, Salvadorians—taking care of the little legacies of their little businesses that are the lifeline of our community.”
Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter initially claimed that every person arrested in the city on Friday was an outsider. “As I talk to my friends who have been in this movement for a very long time... I hear them say ‘we don’t know these folks,’” he said.
But Carter was mistaken, he later admitted to reporters. A spokesman for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office told the Washington Post that 47 of the 57 people arrested through Saturday morning had a Minnesota address.
Asia Cruz, 24, attended the protest in Oakland on Friday night with her fiancé and a friend, and said it began as a peaceful march through the streets. Then she noticed “a group of maybe 12-15 white men” dressed in black, carrying hammers and crowbars.
They ripped down boards covering a Chase Bank, smashed the windows and set off a firework inside. They then moved to a Walgreens across the street and did the same before moving towards Oakland City Hall, she said.
“I noticed each time, once they were in and protesters began to move in, the men dressed in black left almost immediately [and] did the same thing.”
In Denver, activist and Denver School Board member Tay Anderson said white men were “purposely there trying to infiltrate and destroy things that we did not ask for.” He said he’d seen white protesters spray painting, handing out golf balls to throw and breaking windows.
“We don't want to get blamed, as black people, for their actions,” he told The Daily Beast. “We do not claim these people.”
He said he feared “white extremists” were coming in “to start a race war” and detract from the message of the protests: police brutality and the "unjust killings of African Americans."
“That will not be our legacy,” he said.
Mayor Bill De Blasio on New York City said he had been on a text thread with his fellow mayors. “They’re all experiencing the exact same thing... people coming in from outside, a lot of them are purporting to speak about issues pertaining to communities of color, but they’re not from communities of color,” he said.
“I was in [the predominantly African-American neighborhood of] Flatbush, Brooklyn, and a lot of folks were expressing their resentment that these folks outside their community were creating danger and violence in the community and they didn’t want them there,” he added.
In Minneapolis, Ali was incensed that so many white people—apparent outsiders in neighborhoods comprised largely of minorities, she said—that she began filming them as they carried out their destruction. She suspected some of them weren’t simply anarchists or young men jacked up on adrenaline, as many white protesters appear, but something more nefarious.
“We have white people setting fires and they’re blaming us. I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” she told The Daily Beast. “They’re making us seem like a bunch of animals with no control, but it’s them.”
There was plenty of burning and looting to go around in many cities. Just behind the convenience store where Ali was filming, a large crowd of black men worked for more than an hour to break into a Wells Fargo ATM. (Protesters tried to break into ATMs elsewhere in the city as well.)
In the smoky chaos of Friday night—with the faces of many protesters concealed by face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus or gas masks to protect against tear gas—it was sometimes hard to tell who was causing the most damage. In a strip mall across from the fifth precinct, protesters tossed bottles of pickles and olives, making a paste on the floor as more and more people trampled inside. Black and white protesters looted side-by-side, but it was two white men who decided to start the first fire, which eventually almost burned to the ground.
A few doors down, black and white protesters shattered windows of another business and tried to light it on fire. But a black man who called himself Noah Crow-Saba was there with a fire extinguisher and a message as he screamed at protesters to disperse and leave the property alone.
“Y’all are making it so a bunch of people sittin’ in their houses with their Trump hats can say, ‘Look at those dumb niggers,’” he told a small crowd before they gave up and dispersed. “It’s people that look like me that are dying, not these white anarchist people fucking shit up just so they can fuck shit up.”
Griffin, the Minneapolis organizer, filmed a group of white protesters trying to destroy buildings on Friday night during what was supposed to be a peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters. When Griffin and his friends tried to intervene, the men started abusing them.
“They called us names, they clearly did not support Black Lives Matter,” Griffin told The Daily Beast. “We’re peacefully protesting and [the public] is going to think this is the protest that caused damage to buildings.”
The prospect of outside agitators began early in the unrest in Minneapolis when a white man in a mask and holding an umbrella was seen casually busting out the windows of an Auto Zone with a hammer. That building was one of the first to be completely consumed by fire in the immediate aftermath of the release of a video showing former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling in Floyd’s neck until he went limp. A black protester approached the man and asked who he was. The man—whose identity is still unknown—initially threatened to fight the black protester before walking away.
Word immediately spread on social media that the masked white man was a police officer from neighboring Saint Paul but the city’s police department denied it. Now, Walz has accused everyone from drug cartels to white supremacists of causing the violence and carnage in Minneapolis.
“The situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd,” Walz said on Saturday as he called in state’s entire National Guard. “It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great cities.”
Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza said the focus on who was hijacking protests was pulling attention away from the circumstances of Floyd’s death.
“The reality is we can’t get caught in this trope of good protester versus bad protester,” she told MSNBC on Saturday. “Somehow we have gotten away from this conversation of how we got here.”
As a police-free Minneapolis descended into anarchy on Friday night, buildings across the city burned freely, without any chance of being saved by firefighters. Finally, after midnight, with the National Guard supporting them, police took back the area around the fifth precinct, where much of the night’s destruction occurred.
On Saturday, with the promise of more National Guard troops and a warning from leaders across the state and country that the 8 p.m. curfew will be heavily enforced, the prospect of heightened clashes with police returned, and there were even a few buildings left to burn down.