When the protests in Baltimore first turned violent on Saturday, the local government rushed to blame "outside agitators" for the trouble. When that narrative fell apart—almost all the people arrested in connection with the unrest that night turned out to be locals—official circles shifted without pause into another story. Now the Bloods, the Crips, and the Black Guerrilla Family, three gangs that had called a truce to march against police brutality, were supposedly secretly plotting to "take out" cops. Such supergang stories usually turn out to be false, and we've seen no good reason to believe this one is an exception. (The gangs themselves insist that they've been trying to maintain order, not disrupt it. Tuesday night they were out in force, trying to keep the crowds calm.)
These weren't merely dubious stories blessed with an official endorsement. They were the latest tales in a long tradition. Riots almost always spark conspiracy theories, and not just out on the fringes of society. Elites have frequently feared that a covert force—perhaps agitating from outside their community's walls, perhaps lurking in some subterranean place at home—is instigating unrest.
When slave revolts broke out in antebellum America (and, much more often, when they were rumored to be on the way but failed to materialize) anxious whites often imagined alliances between outsiders and the rebels. Since blacks were widely presumed to be stupid, whites found it useful to portray them as the puppets of wily northern abolitionists or some other alien force; since blacks were widely presumed to be content with their lot, whites found it useful to accuse those aliens of transforming happy workers into a bestial mob. The archetypal figure was John Brown, an abolitionist who really did attempt to lead a slave rebellion; after Brown raided Harpers Ferry in 1859, the revolt panics that ensued often included a hunt for subversive outsiders. (In Jefferson County, Virginia, the government announced that any "strangers" who could not "give a satisfactory account of themselves" would be arrested.) But abolitionists had been playing the devil role long before Brown came around. By 1859, they had already been blamed for everything from the Haitian Revolution to the fact that plantation slaves sometimes ran away.
Long after slavery was abolished, the outside agitator stirring up rebellions would be a key villain in southern—and often northern—white demonology. In 1919, The New York Times blamed race riots in Chicago and Washington on an organized campaign of "Bolshevist agitation…among the negroes," even though the violence in both cities had been launched by whites against blacks, not the other way around. In 1943, Rep. Martin Dies (D-Texas) reacted to a race riot in Detroit by suggesting that Japanese Americans released from internment camps had made their way to Michigan and fomented the disorder. Meanwhile, across the South, blacks were rumored to be covertly aligned with the Japanese, perhaps via a secret organization called the Black Dragon Society, or with the Germans, perhaps via a secret organization called the Swastika Club. "Hitler has told the Negroes he will give them the South for their help," one informant told the sociologist Howard Odum, who collected rumors in the southern states during World War II. "Hitler will make the white people slaves and the Negroes the leaders," declared another. One person claimed that black churches were "receiving Nazi propaganda. They can arise and attack the whites whenever they want."
By the 1960s, the Axis powers were no longer in a position to be charged with kindling racial violence. But the Communists were still available.
On August 11, 1965, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, the California Highway Patrol pulled over a young black man named Marquette Frye on suspicion of drunk driving. A brawl broke out between the cops and some of the locals, and the fighting grew worse when a rumor radiated through the crowd that the police had beaten a pregnant woman. Soon Watts was engulfed in a full-scale, five-day riot. Residents burned entire blocks, fired guns, hurled bricks, looted stores. It was the first of many riots that would shake America's cities in the '60s.
While Watts burned, rumors circulated that the violence had been planned by street gangs, Communists, the Nation of Islam, or some other ghetto menace. In December the governor's commission on the riot rejected the idea that there had been "outside leadership or pre-established plans for the rioting." Two years later, nonetheless, a widely distributed tract described Watts as a subversive "Plan to Burn Los Angeles."
The pamphlet, which had originally appeared as an article in the John Birch Society journal American Opinion, claimed that the riot had been "a rehearsal for a nationwide revolution." According to the author, Gary Allen, the
board of revolutionary strategy which planned, engineered, and instigated the Watts Rebellion was composed of some forty to fifty Negroes sent by the Communists in the Los Angeles area from all over the United States. Included in the group were Black Muslims, Black Nationalists, representatives from the paramilitary Deacons of Defense, the Communist Revolutionary Action Movement (R.A.M.), and professionals from other such militant and Marxist groups. These men are not hoodlums or criminals in the ordinary sense, but are drawn from among an intellectual elite of the Negro community….This small revolutionary group, which is referred to in Watts and by the Intelligence Division of the Los Angeles Police Department simply as "The Organization," has three common denominators among its members: high intelligence, hatred of "The Man" (Caucasians), and a disciplined commitment to the interests of the International Communist Conspiracy.
This curious coalition of Muslims and Marxists had picked Watts, Allen wrote, because blacks were actually rather well off there: "if Watts could be exploded they could do it anywhere else in America." So they had flooded the area with propaganda, most notably a "publicity campaign rivaling the Advertising Council's promotion of Smokey the Bear" aimed at "the construction of the myth of police brutality." With that meme installed, Allen argued, the conspiracy's agents had been able to spread the rumors that had set off the riot, which the mesmerized locals embraced uncritically: "The denizens of the area had been conditioned by the years of prior propaganda to accept such fairy tales without question."
The Organization had incited teenagers to throw bottles and burn cars, Allen continued, and over the next few days had been seen "directing the chaos [while] wearing red armbands and using electric megaphones." They had made a special effort to loot and burn liquor stores ("keeping the mob intoxicated so it could be more easily led"), supermarkets (so residents would "suffer a lack of food" and blame the authorities), pawnshops ("to acquire large supplies of firearms"), and department stores (so the Organization could get more "guns, ammunition, merchandise, and money"). Gullible outsiders might have assumed the looting was unorganized, but Allen assured us that "as much as 90 percent" of the stolen guns and money found its way to the Organization, with Organization snipers covering Organization looters as they stole the goods, which they would use "NEXT TIME."
When NEXT TIME comes, Allen warned, the Organization will begin with a mass assassination of police officers. Then it'll launch the campaign it calls "Burn Los Angeles, Burn." It'll start fires in the oil fields near the harbor and the foothills that surround the city; then it'll set the Civic Center ablaze and put a torch to the Wilshire neighborhood. After that, "'The Organization' hopes to herd its 'ghetto' mobs into Beverly Hills." As simultaneous riots break out in San Diego, Long Beach, Compton, Pasadena, Bakersfield, Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Sacramento, the National Guard will be unable to contain all the revolts at once. The plotters hope that whites will be roused to "invade Negro neighborhoods in retaliation," thus forcing "the ninety percent of the Negroes who want no part of the revolution" to join the fighting in self-defense.
The mode of thinking that Allen's article represented wasn't confined to the outer circles of politics. In 1967, when the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence surveyed several northern cities, 77 percent of the whites interviewed believed that outside agitators were at least partly responsible for the riots. Some officials believed the same thing. LAPD Chief William Parker spouted some of the same theories as Gary Allen (attributing them, as Allen did, to the force's red squad). And the mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty—a man with more direct authority over Watts than anyone involved with the governor's commission on the riots—shared Parker's take on the era's urban violence.
Testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on November 28, 1967, Yorty warned that "subversive elements" liked to "plan incidents that they would hope would spark a riot." Even when a disturbance was apparently unplanned, he added, the radicals' "broad propaganda campaign" had created "an atmosphere where a riot may break out spontaneously, in appearance, but actually where there has been a great groundwork laid for it." For Yorty, as for Allen, the chief aim of the propaganda was to spread the idea of police brutality, a social problem that by Yorty's account barely existed at all.
Yorty and Parker were not the only influential figures who embraced such stories. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, one of the country's biggest law enforcement lobbies, released a film denouncing a pair of black politicians as "the two leading Communists in the state and the instigators of the Watts riot." The popular evangelist Billy Graham declared that "a small hard core of leftists" were using the fires as "a dress rehearsal for a revolution." When riots hit San Francisco in 1966, Mayor John Shelley told the press that he suspected "outside agitators" might have been responsible. (According to one of Shelley's aides, the agitators were rumored to have come from—where else?—Watts.)
And in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson asked his cabinet if the Communists were behind the country's riots. Attorney General Ramsey Clark replied that there wasn't any evidence of that, but Johnson wasn't convinced. "I have a very deep feeling that there is more to that than we see at the moment," the president commented. He pushed the FBI for evidence that the Reds were behind the turbulence, and when the Bureau came up empty-handed, he just pushed harder.
Now that we're seeing another wave of urban unrest, we're seeing some of the same stories return. Once again, the black underclass is imagined as a threat guided by a hidden hand. The chief difference in Baltimore is that the mayor, the police commissioner, and other voices spreading the stories are black themselves. The social context has changed, but evidently it hasn't changed enough.