As unrest continued in Minneapolis on Saturday following the death of George Floyd during his detention by city police, leaders at the federal, state and local levels said large numbers of outsiders had seized upon protests begun by Minnesotans to advance their own political agendas.
But the officials offered little evidence to show who was responsible and contradicted one another on who was to blame.
They variously assigned responsibility for the escalating violence to far-right nationalists, left-wing radicals, drug cartels and possibly foreign agents in statements, news conferences and presidential tweets.
Ultimately, the confusion of rioting and looting that officials said had outstripped the capabilities of local law enforcement and prompted a historic deployment of the National Guard offered little clarity and ample opportunity for opposing political parties to advance their own theories.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) told reporters he had no doubt that protests over Floyd’s death began with Minnesotans frustrated and outraged “with inequality, inequities and quite honestly racism that persisted” in the state.
But state officials have assessed that up to 80 percent of those protesting or rioting came from outside Minnesota, Walz said. He suggested that far-right white supremacists and perhaps organized drug cartels were chiefly responsible.
A federal law enforcement official was not aware of any intelligence about cartels infiltrating the protests.
But according to local officials, most people arrested in protest-related incidents were state residents.
Of the 57 people arrested through Saturday morning, 47 (82 percent) provided a Minnesota address to authorities, said Jeremy Zoss, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. Most of them gave addresses from Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to data provided to The Washington Post. The 10 other people arrested were from another state or the state wasn’t provided, Zoss said.
State officials said that after reviewing posts online, they were confident far-right racist groups had encouraged their followers to descend on the state and take advantage of the crisis.
John Harrington, commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety, said officials were “checking to see, are they part of an organized criminal organization?”
“Is this organized crime? Is this an organized cell of terror?” he said, referring to posts by white nationalist groups.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) said local law enforcement had been “overwhelmed” by the huge number of people on his city’s streets.
“We are 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,” he said.
Walz suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies were providing the state with information about who was behind the protests, implying that the National Security Agency, which monitors foreign governments and terrorist organizations, might be playing a role.
U.S. officials dismissed those claims, noting that, by law, the NSA does not monitor domestic political activities. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, were also skeptical that foreigners were taking part in protests or had helped organized them. Foreign media, including Chinese and Russian sources, have sought to portray the violence as emblematic of systemic political failings in the United States.
State officials weren’t the only ones trying to pin protests in Minneapolis and other cities on politically motivated outsiders.
“The voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent radical elements,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement from Justice Department headquarters.
Unlike state officials, Barr was unequivocal on who was to blame, claiming that the protests were “planned, organized and driven by anarchic and far-left extremist groups using antifa-like tactics,” referring to anti-fascist groups that have used violence.
Barr offered no evidence to support those assertions, and his descriptions ran counter to Walz, who blamed the violence, at least in part, on far-right actors.
President Trump wrote in a tweet that 80 percent of the Minnesota protesters had come from out of state, concurring with the governor’s assessment. But like Barr, he singled out only far-left groups.
“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!” Trump tweeted.
Matt Zapotosky and Alex Horton contributed to this report.