By Benjamin Stumpf
Popular resistance to Atlanta’s “Cop City” is growing. The proposed 85-acre police militarization compound, whose construction would destroy the city’s valued Weelaunee/South River Forest, has been consistently challenged through creative protest, education, and community organizing since local activists became aware of the city’s plans in 2020. Stop Cop City and Defend Atlanta Forest activists have deftly argued that the battle over the future of one of the nation’s largest urban forests “is not a local issue,” not only because the destruction of the Weelaunee Forest would set precedent for the destruction of other valued natural spaces in gentrifying cities across the United States, but also because Cop City would train police departments across the country (and possibly security forces around the world) in protest suppression and urban warfare techniques. This is no doubt concerning for many across the country, especially Black and Brown communities subjected to police brutality, as well as those moved to action by the Movement for Black Lives’ critique of the carceral status quo.
Facing increased repression following the state’s assassination of Forest Defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, Atlanta activists called for a “week of action” and mass convergence in the city and forest from March 4 – March 11, 2023, which would kick off with a music festival in the forest’s public park. But as activists, journalists, music lovers, and concerned citizens left for Georgia, the political and economic elites backing Cop City sought to discredit this resistance by returning to an old and familiar trope of counterinsurgent propaganda: the outside agitator.
The figure of the outside agitator haunts state stories about militant anti-racist protest. When we examine the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the 2020 George Floyd Uprising, or the current fight against Cop City, we see an effort to paint radical protest and dissent as driven by outsiders who come from out-of-town to stir up trouble. When protests have exceeded whatever bounds governing authorities have deemed acceptable, blame is often placed on an outsider figure in order to delegitimize and discredit protest as inauthentic and non-local. This is the outside agitator, a figure conjured and shaped by counterinsurgency and the racial regimes of US power.
The sun had begun to set on Sunday, March 5, 2023, when multiple heavily armed police agencies descended upon the family-friendly South River Music Festival and began to make arrests. In the ensuing chaos, 34 festival goers were detained, but 11 were released: all Atlanta locals. The remaining 23—21 of which were from out of state—were charged with domestic terrorism, supposedly in relation to acts of property destruction that occurred over a mile away from the festival where they were arrested. The attempted framing was clear: it is not authentic Atlantans who oppose Cop City, but troublesome outsiders who came here to be destructive. Indeed, “for months,” Madeline Thigpen writes, “politicians including Mayor Andre Dickens and Gov. Brian Kemp have characterized the Stop Cop City movement as being composed of ‘outside agitators.’”
Such framing recalls the criticisms leveraged against Civil Rights activists who traveled across the United States and crossed state lines to combat racial oppression in the struggle against Jim Crow apartheid. Consider Martin Luther King Jr., who during the 1950s and 1960s, traveled around the South to organize nonviolent, often illegal, demonstrations against segregation, inciting the ire of local authorities, who branded his disruption as outside agitation.
The representation of King as an outside agitator was a deeply racialized construction. It was meant to drive a wedge between militant Black activists like King and local Black residents—who were implicitly constructed as apolitical until King’s appearance. For example, in an open letter to King signed by eight Alabama religious leaders titled “A Call for Unity,” the authors denounced the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign as “a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens directed and led in part by outsiders.” They claimed instead to agree with unnamed “certain local Negro leadership” who felt that a “facing of issues” should occur only among “citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro” and through the “proper channels,” rather than through collaboration with outsiders like King. King’s actions, they claimed, “incite to hate and violence” and ought to be rejected by “our own Negro community.”
Outside agitator narratives also addressed white liberals who might be sympathetic to Civil Rights. By painting King as an unruly outsider whose radicalism was foreign to the local Black communities he arrived in, white liberals could dismiss militant anti-racist protest while still believing they supported Black people. Indeed, the letter closed with an “appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
In his well-known “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King took the opportunity to respond to his characterization as an “outside agitator,” saying, “I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of ‘outsiders coming in.’” He continued:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.
In his response, King powerfully condemned the outside agitator trope’s logic and its reliance on a falsely restrictive notion of community, which disavowed a broader understanding of human relationality.
Decades later, the figure of the outside agitator remains a favorite in the repertoire of repression. For instance, in 2014, much of the militancy of the Ferguson Uprising was blamed on out-of-towners. On August 19th, 2014, Christian Science Monitor reported that:
Over the past 10 days, the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., has turned from a local protest by a black community against its overwhelmingly white police force to an international symbol of the racial tensions that still plague urban America.
Along the way, outside protesters have begun to flood into the suburb, inciting violence even when community members are promoting peace. While the exact number of “militants” – as the hard-core, Molotov cocktail-throwing outsiders have been called – is unknown, Missouri police officials and politicians have implied that they compose a significant fraction of those looting and battling police.
Indeed, the outside agitator trope is often leveraged to draw divisions between good local, non-confrontational protesters, and bad, outsider militants in the classic colonial strategy of divide and conquer. On August 27, 2014, St. Louis Public Radio reported that:
‘Protestors don’t clash with police,’ [Police captain Ron Johnson] said. ‘They don’t throw Molotov cocktails. I said that many a criminal element that have been coming to Ferguson are not from the area. Tonight, some of those arrested came from as far away as New York and California.’
But the fragility of the construction comes through even here. St. Louis Public Radio explained, “St. Louis County arrest records for those two nights don’t provide much clarity as to who touched off the violence. From the morning of August 17 to the morning of August 19, 81 people were arrested. Twenty-two said they were from out of town.”
Similarly, in 2020, during the George Floyd Uprising, the militancy of the Minneapolis protests were blamed, like clockwork, on outside agitators. The Governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, argued that the local community wanted to protest Floyd’s murder at the hands of police “in a healthy way” but that outsider “anarchists” and “white supremacists”had taken over protests and were responsible for the rioting and property destruction that occurred. “With a sensitivity to the legitimate rage and anger that came after what the world witnessed,” the Governor said, “… the situation in Minneapolis is no longer in anyway about the murder of George Floyd. It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear, and disrupting our great cities … Minneapolis and St. Paul are under assault by people who do not share our values.” Jacob Frey, the Mayor of Minneapolis, also sought to divide between peaceful local protesters and militant agitators that were “coming in largely from outside of the city, from outside of the region.” Melvin Carter, the Mayor of St. Paulreportedly claimed that “every person who was arrested in the city Friday night was from out of state.” However, as USA Today reported, “Officials first blamed outsiders, but that’s not what arrests show.”
To be clear: my intention here is not to evaluate any particular set of protest tactics. Nor is it to say that people who come to protests from out of town never engage in “rioting.” I am also not saying that local protesters actually always approve of the militancy their protests might host. My aim is to simply to point out the ways in which the state’s discourse seeks to neutralize and discredit radical dissent by dividing between the “bad” protest of outside agitators and the “good” protest of authentic community members by associating, whether truthfully or not, outside agitators with more disruptive and destructive forms of protest. This framing criminalizes supposed outside agitation while constructing the figure of an idealized “local,” who not only appears to hold the keys to legitimacy but is constructed as always already more conservative or capitulating to the terms of the state – an inducement to proper behavior rather than a reflection of reality.
Along these lines, we ought to consider the implicit, shifting racialization of the outside agitator in Governor Walz’s narrative about the 2020 Minneapolis protests. Whether “anarchist” or “white supremacist,” there is an implicit or explicit whiteness attributed to the figure of the outside agitator. Militant protest – that is, whatever exceeds the bounds deemed legitimate by the powers that be – is thus relegated to the domain of white people: it now appears a privilege to protest militantly.
The white racialization of the figure of the outside agitator discredits militant anti-racist revolt by portraying it as a white co-optation of ostensibly non-confrontational and state-sanctioned forms of “authentic” Black protest. This seems to be addressed, as before, to a white audience with anti-racist sympathies, who are now told that only white outside agitators who disregard the wishes of authentic Black residents would engage in forms of protest that might challenge legal authority. Certain manifestations of militancy in anti-racist struggle are thus constructed as racist themselves; it is racist, it seems, to challenge the law and its enforcers. Thus, the narrative structure of the outside agitator moves to discipline and suppress radical dissent by representing militancy either as the privileged naïveté of white anarchists or the racist “marauding” of white supremacists.
Constructing a white outsider as the source of all militancy and confrontation in the 2020 protests implicitly and misleadingly characterizes the Black community as necessarily more conservative and less radical. The figure of the white outside agitator is constructed alongside an equally imagined Black local who is claimed to reject militant politics. In other words, the justice of militant Black revolt is rendered illegible. (We should recall here Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s analysis in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History of how the Haitian Revolution was discredited through the notion that whites must have been an orchestrating force because Black people could not possibly overthrow slavery alone.) Dressed in “anti-racist” garb, then, the trope enables the erasure of the diversity of Black politics and the long history of militant Black radicalism, as well as implies the impossibility of generative white solidarity with Black struggle.
Further, if militant revolt comes to be understood as a manifestation of white privilege and racism, then the state might be able to justify the use of police to suppress militant protest as “anti-racism” in action. Consider Walz’s emphasis on the infiltration of Minneapolis protests by white supremacists. This distorted logic might prove useful to US racial capitalism as seeks to secure itself in an emerging context where “anti-racism” is in vogue at the same time that police need to consolidate popular support to carry out the tasks set for them by the ruling class as it faces growing social unrest: increased repression and an intensified assault on the forces of liberation and transformative change.
The construction of the white outside agitator as a form of racialized counterinsurgency reappears in the Atlanta Police Department’s efforts to form a narrative of the March 5th arrests at the South River Music Festival. After quietly letting 11 local Atlantans also detained at the festival go, the Atlanta Police Department decided to put out a graphic online containing the mugshots of the 23 people charged with domestic terrorism. The vast majority depicted were white, with the state they allegedly traveled from listed below their photograph next to their name, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. The irony of Atlanta being a rapidly gentrifying city whose government is attempting to attract white transplants should not be lost on us.
Yet, despite the state’s attempts to discredit the Stop Cop City/Defend Atlanta Forest movement by associating it with outsiders lacking an authentic connection to the region, Atlanta-based activists remain committed to emphasizing local community resistance to Cop City. Jasmine Burnett of Community Movement Builders, “a Black member-based collective of community residents and activists serving Black working-class and poor Black communities,” is quoted as saying “There are lots of people local to Atlanta who are organizing against Cop City,” and “[t]he mayor is trying to paint this picture that Black people want Cop City, so it’s important now more than ever for us to be in the streets, for us to be linked into these movements to demonstrate that that’s a lie.”
Activists have also illustrated the irony of the state’s outside agitator framing, pointing out that it is the militarized police who occupy Black communities in Atlanta that are the actual “outside agitators.”
Importantly, however, Stop Cop City/Defend Atlanta Forest activists have also compellingly rejected the idea that one must be from a place in order to fight for it. “We Are All Forest Defenders” has been a consistent slogan of the movement, alongside the emphasis that the struggle against Cop City is not only local. Nor has it been, as Stop Cop City protests have occurred across the United States and Canada, often at the offices of funders and contractors associated with the project.
So, with national and international eyes turning to the fight over the future of the Weelaunee Forest, perhaps we ought to return again to King’s words, as they reveal the disavowal and criminalization of the “outside agitator” to be an attack on one of the most powerful tools in the struggle for liberation: solidarity. Solidarity emerges from a recognition of human interconnectedness and interdependence, what King described as “the interrelatedness of all communities and states” and the “inescapable network of mutuality,” the bonds of which form our collective power. The logics of domination run counter to this understanding. They promote individualism and disregard—the inverted morality of those who repudiate “outside agitation.” Against all this, it is our ability to connect across difference and form bonds of struggle that traverse space, place, and identity from which our capacity to remake the world grows. Deepening our commitments to collective liberation means claiming the mantle of the outside agitator. Like King, we must ground ourselves in the truth that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The outside agitator is reviled and criminalized because the powers that be rely on our isolation and indifference to the struggles of others. Yet our power lies in solidarity, in mutuality and collectivity, and in our donning of humanity’s “single garment of destiny.”
Benjamin Stumpf is a doctoral student in political theory at the University of Connecticut-Storrs researching counterinsurgency and abolitionist organizing in the post-2020 period.