Civil Liberties

No, 'Outside Agitators' Were Not Responsible for Saturday's Violence in Baltimore

Contrary to the authorities' claims


When some violence and vandalism broke out at Baltimore's protest against police brutality Saturday, the local authorities laid the blame on "isolated pockets of people from out of town." Two claims were built into that phrase. The first is that the protest was mostly peaceful, with only "pockets" of disorder. The second is that the disorder was imported from someplace outside Baltimore.

The first assertion is true. The second is not.

As far as the first claim goes, hundreds of people—by some tellings more than 2,000—marched Saturday afternoon without serious incident. By all accounts, the number involved with the confrontations that evening was far smaller. Many of the other demonstrators tried to rein in the rowdies. (One memorable moment in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's press conference Saturday night came when she thanked the Nation of Islam for its help keeping the peace.) Some of the phrases floating around social media that evening—"Baltimore in flames" and so forth—may have suggested a citywide inferno, but the clashes were localized, flaring up at a few spots downtown and, later, in part of West Baltimore. There was definite damage, including some looting. But as rioting goes, this wasn't on the scale of, say, L.A. in 1992 or the urban uprisings of the '60s. The nonviolent marchers outnumbered the hotheads.

But the second claim? I should note that a lot of the police do not live in town, a longstanding bone of contention for local activists. As far as the protesters involved in the clashes go, though, Baltimore Brew reported last night that the city had

released the names of 35 people arrested in connection with the unrest.

Nearly all of them are from Baltimore City. Thirty-one were adults, mostly males in their late 20s and early 30s but ranging up to age 47. Four were juveniles.

Six police officers suffered minor injuries.

In a statement to the media, police acknowledge that "the vast majority of arrests reflect local residency," but added, without elaboration, that "the Baltimore Police Department believes that outside agitators continue to be the instigators behind acts of violence and destruction."

Those wily Outside Agitators! Always instigating trouble, then fading away like ghosts when the cops come. How do they do it?

There were, of course, protesters in Baltimore on Saturday who do not live in the city. Police violence of the kind that killed Freddie Gray is not limited to one town, and a national movement against it has emerged; it's no surprise that activists from elsewhere have come to Maryland for the marches. There may well be some overlap between the outsiders and the people pushing for a more confrontational approach. But there is no reason to believe the activists adopting militant tactics are being led from afar.

Authorities facing unrest at home have a long history of blaming conspiracies of outsiders for their troubles. In this case, as in so many cases before, they're wrong. Baltimore has plenty of homegrown radicals, and Baltimore police have done plenty of things to radicalize people. The radicals in turn have plenty of disagreements among themselves about which tactics are appropropriate and which are wrong.

And the looters? In the words of one local activist, Flint Arthur: "People don't travel to different cities to steal snacks from a 7-11. That's not how petty crime works."