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Videos, threats, but few signs protests have been stoked by 'outsider' extremist groups

U.S. police officials said Sunday that they are examining both local and out-of-state actors focused on creating damage and inciting violent confrontations.
Image: Protesters raise their fist during a demonstration in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020.
Protesters raise their fist during a demonstration in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020.John Minchillo / AP

Unrest, violence and property destruction in cities across the U.S. on Saturday showed few signs of having been stoked by organized extremists despite a growing narrative from several political figures that outside groups are to blame for some of the worst scenes of recent protests.

Some fringe groups, most notably anti-government “Boogaloo” members with guns, were seen in numerous cities, stoking fear that more severe violence could be ahead. Law enforcement officials have also said they are looking into anarchist groups that have previously shown up at civil rights protests.

And anecdotal reports of white supremacists and other extremist groups fomenting violence have been amplified by similar claims from authorities, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who tweeted on Saturday that the city is “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.”

That claim was later boosted by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who claimed outside protesters, white supremacists and drug cartels were part of the protest groups in Minneapolis.

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country

But little evidence for those claims have been put forward, and a previous statement by the mayor of St. Paul that most of the people arrested on Friday in Minneapolis were from out of town was later walked back. NBC News reached out to police departments in several major cities that were the scene of protests, but thus far none have said whether outside groups had been found to be operating during the protests.

While some Democratic governors sought to blame far-right groups, Republicans in the federal government pinned unrest on far-left groups. U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said violence at the riots was the work of “far-left extremist groups using antifa-like tactics.” President Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday that “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!”

Trump on Sunday tweeted that he planned to designate antifa as a terrorist organization.

They offered no evidence that organized extremists groups directly instigated events that led to arrests in Minneapolis or elsewhere.

U.S. police officials have also said that they are examining both local and out-of-state actors focused on creating damage and inciting violent confrontations with police and possibly other protestors in the name of anarchist and antifa causes.

Members of the antifa movement — a network of autonomous groups largely composed of radicals who rely on direct action, not police or the court system, to shut down the far-right and fascism — were probably a small minority of the protests, according to Mark Bray, a historian at Rutgers University and author of the book, “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.”

Bray noted that the antifascist movement’s core values align with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There are plenty of black antifascists, but even antifascists who are not black are anti-racist,” Bray said. “They see fascism as being a form of racism, and they want to stand in solidarity with victims of police oppression. There is also a strong police abolitionist sentiment throughout these protests that comes predominantly from the black radical tradition but also to some extent, from the anarchist tradition. And a lot of people out in the streets want to try to create a world without police.”

On the far right, members of the “Boogaloo” movement, a loosely knit online collective of firearm enthusiasts, were seen at protests in states including Minnesota and Texas, and in Philadelphia. In private Facebook groups and chat rooms, several of which have tens of thousands of members, members called for looting police precincts and burning down government buildings. But there was no indication any of those threats were carried out.

In interviews with local media, armed men wearing tell-tale Boogaloo patches said they were at the protests to “protect” protestors and stores. Online, Boogaloo activists called for meetups in dozens of states, to organize actions like the “rooftop Koreans,” a reference to shop owners who defended their stores by shooting would-be looters during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The term “Boogaloo” comes from a meme on the fringe website 4chan, and is short for “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo.” In groups and more private chat rooms on Discord and Telegram, Boogaloo followers discuss how to build weapons and explosives and other tactics for violence against the state.

In April, the Tech Transparency Project found the Boogaloo movement organized mainly across 125 Facebook groups with some 72,000 total members.

Though their numbers have skyrocketed in recent months, Boogaloo activists have been less successful organizing offline, said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who tracks online extremism.

“A cute name and matching shirts doesn't translate into on-the-ground organization,” Squire said, referring to the Hawaiian print shirts that some Boogaloo members wear.

For those who do make it out to protests, Squire said “most of them are planning to wait, armed, adjacent to the protests, then when violence kicks off they can either participate or ‘protect’ store owners or dissuade looting with their guns.”

Squire also noted that it can be hard to track groups that are generally lumped under the antifa label because they tend not to organize in public online forums.

For now, self-identifying white nationalists seem content to monitor the protests from their computers, according to Telegram channels where they congregate.

“They're stereotyping the protestors, denigrating white people who align with black protestors as race traitors, and lamenting that a civil war is not as cool as a race war,” Squire said.

Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group whose members describe themselves as “western chauvinists” and who marched at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, also appeared at Black Lives Matter protests over the weekend.

While members who marched in Raleigh wore Proud Boy branded shirts and hats, several known Proud Boys were photographed dressed in traditional all-black Antifa garb at a rally in Portland on Saturday.

On Sunday, Gov. Walz implied a large-scale outside operation was responsible for a cyber attack that briefly took down Minnesota state websites Saturday night.

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“Before our operation kicked off last night, a very sophisticated denial of service attack on all state computers was executed. That's not somebody sitting in their basement, that's pretty sophisticated,” he said.

Some experts don’t agree with Walz’s assessment that a denial of service attack, a relatively simple and common hacking operation, is inherently large-scale and sophisticated. Denial of service attacks can be purchased cheaply on the dark web and launched in minutes or hours.

“While a DoS attack is illegal, it’s shockingly easy to launch. Anyone can search for access to a ‘booter,’ which would allow someone to launch an attack with a few clicks and a bitcoin payment,” said Greg Otto, editor-in-chief of cybersecurity site Cyberscoop. “While the size of an attack may be massive, the ability to launch one isn’t much harder than buying something on Amazon.”