Defining Safe: Defining the Outside Agitator

Alex Chun, Audio Editor

Following protests led by student group NU Community Not Cops, University President Morton Schapiro alleged that “Some of the instigators appear not to be Northwestern students at all, but rather outside activists” in an October 19 email sent to the Northwestern community. But what and who exactly is an outside agitator? Defining Safe took a close look at the history behind the trope to better understand it and contextualize it in relation to the recent protests in Evanston.

DONALD TRUMP: They’re not protesters. Those aren’t. Those are anarchists. They’re agitators. They’re rioters. They’re looters.

WILLIAM BARR: At some demonstrations, there are extremist agitators who are hijacking the protests to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.

ALEX CHUN: The outside agitator. Deeply rooted in American history, this trope has made a recent reappearance. This past summer, we saw it used across the nation as demonstrations for racial justice erupted. 

PROTESTORS: Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot!

TIM WALZ: I think our best estimate right now that I heard is about 20 percent, is what we think are Minnesotans, and about 80 percent are outside.

ALEX CHUN: The origin of the outside agitator trope isn’t clear. But for decades it has existed alongside social justice movements in America, including the Civil Rights era. And more recently, the trope reached Northwestern University. 

Beginning on Oct. 12, student group NU Community Not Cops began daily actions, demanding that Northwestern divest from University Police and the Evanston Police Department. On Oct. 19, President Morton Schapiro first addressed the protests in an email which sparked immediate controversy. Some students noted President Schapiro’s claim that some “instigators” appear to be “outside activists.” During a town hall, he tried to clarify his position:

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I didn’t — if you actually read my thing — I didn’t say they were all outside activists. And I said, well, why did they write, “Abolish the University of Chicago Police Department”? I mean, there were obviously a substantial number of members from outside the community. And to deny that, I think it’s ludicrous. 

ALEX CHUN: And here’s what an anonymous representative from NU Community Not Cops had to say in response.

NUCNC REPRESENTATIVE: The big thing about abolition is that it’s a hyperlocal fight. It’s simultaneously a global fight, and you have to have both of them occurring at the same time. 

ALEX CHUN: So today, we’re taking a close look at the trope, and how it has been weaponized against social justice movements, silenced collective liberation and preserved violence. Then, we’re going to look at how the trope made its way to Northwestern, and what student group NU Community Not Cops has to say about it. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. And this is Defining Safe, a podcast that looks at the intersection of identity and student life on campus. 

STEVEN THRASHER: So the outside agitator myth is a way to say who’s in and who’s out. And it preys upon another myth, the myth of stranger danger. And so the outside agitator myth will say these people should not be coming in and telling us how to live our lives. The point of calling them outside agitators is to delegitimize and de-emphasize the actual thing that people are protesting.

ALEX CHUN: That’s Dr. Steven Thrasher. He’s the Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting. He’s a professor in Medill and also teaches American studies, African American studies and gender and sexuality studies courses.

I approached Dr. Thrasher because I was curious about the trope “the outside agitator.” It was a term I had heard thrown around a lot this past summer as protests for racial justice erupted in all 50 states. So I asked him: where did this trope even come from? 

STEVEN THRASHER: So the outside agitator myth we most often talk about in the United States is having a particular rise during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. And the idea that as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is they were working with church networks in the South and working on desegregating the US South, they would be delegitimized by people and say these are outside agitators. And you can actually map that on to a much longer history of the antebellum time and the Civil War, the idea that everything was fine, that enslaved people were happy. They were dancing, they were singing — of course, none of this is true. But a lot of the media around it was trying to portray and — the media of its time in terms of literature and newspapers and propaganda trying to say that enslaved people were happy, “we don’t need you Yankees coming down here as outside agitators getting them all riled up.” 

ALEX CHUN: As I spoke with Northwestern professors, nobody was entirely sure who coined the term or who first used it. But they all agreed on one thing: The outside agitator trope experienced a newfound prominence in the 1900s. I’ll let Professor Kevin Boyle explain.

KEVIN BOYLE: In the early 20th century, there were any number of really traumatic working class movements in the United States for unionization for radical change, and it became a really standard argument for employers to make, or sometimes for community leaders to make, that those movements were being influenced by or being shaped by outside forces, and this is a very malleable concept in terms of who you get to blame for being an outside agitator.

ALEX CHUN: Professor Kevin Boyle is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History, and has written a few books about the 20th century and social justice movements. He explained to me that the outside agitator trope first began to reappear in the 20th century as a response to labor unionization efforts. Employers would claim that these movements were spurred by communists or radical union agitators from out of town. And so, when the Civil Rights Movement began to gain traction during the mid-20th century, the “outside agitator,” with it’s manufactured links to communism, gained newfound popularity.

KEVIN BOYLE: Then in the Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, that kind of key moment of a long civil rights movement, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, in the South, there was a massive use of “outside agitator,” the outside agitator argument that African Americans wouldn’t be staging protests, except that these outsiders came and riled them up. And again, it had a political dimension. There wasn’t anything more powerful in the United States in the 20th century than to say that someone is a communist. And so it was often that communists were coming in to rile up the Civil Rights activism. 

ALEX CHUN: Fighting the outside agitator trope is difficult because part of the trope is based on truth. Look to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. He was from Alabama, but frequently traveled to cities in other states to mobilize people. King was connected to a large network of Democratic socialists. And some of them operated out of Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, an organization that did community training and workshops. 

KEVIN BOYLE: A lot of the civil rights activists passed through there at one point or another. Rosa Parks did, Martin Luther King did just for, you know, a couple of weeks of training and connection with other activists. That connection, political leaders across the South tried to use to claim he was himself being recruited by outside activists, by these dangerous communists from the North working through Highlander, and that they were then using him as a tool of their outside ideas. 

ALEX CHUN:  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the trope in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He wrote, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.

America is a hypermobile country. With some exceptions, citizens are able to travel from state to state with little restriction at state borders. So while it is true that instigators and activists may come from different geographical regions, the question then is: is that a bad thing? Should social justice movements be isolated and defined by borders or should they be collective? To answer this question, Dr. Thrasher contextualized it with the protests for racial justice that happened in Minneapolis this past summer.

STEVEN THRASHER: So the murder of George Floyd, or I guess I should say the alleged murder because we’ll see whether he goes to trial and whether or not the police officers will be convicted. But, of George Floyd, is something that people of good conscience should be outraged about everywhere. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a resident of Minneapolis or St. Paul, or Michigan or Illinois. Anyone can legitimately be angry about that, and saying that they’re outside agitators is a dangerous thing, because it delegitimizes the central claim. And it also creates the idea that that other human beings on this planet, other citizens of the United States don’t have a legitimate reason to speak up about these things. This is one of the first times that I felt like laughing, watching this stuff, when at some point there were protests happening in all 50 states — and so how do you say they’re all outside agitators? 

JUAN ZUNIGA: What justification could you possibly have for accusing protesters of being outside activists, when you full well know that they are students who have been organizing and asking for, you know, some response to the question of policing on this campus?

MORTON SCHAPIRO: I didn’t — if you actually read my thing — I didn’t say they were all outside activists. And I said, well, why did they write, “Abolish the University of Chicago Police Department” if they were not from the University of Chicago? I mean, there were obviously a substantial number of members from outside the community. And to deny that, I think it’s ludicrous. 

ALEX CHUN: On Oct. 20, President Schapiro held a Community Dialogue where students could submit questions to a panel of faculty. In it, he addressed the protests led by student group NU Community Not Cops and the University’s response. He also talked about the email that he sent to the Northwestern community the day before, in which he wrote, “Some of the instigators appear not to be Northwestern students at all, but rather outside activists.” And while it can’t be confirmed nor denied that every single protestor was a Northwestern student, I was curious about NU Community Not Cops’ response to the claim. So I spoke with an NU Community Not Cops representative, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

NUCNC REPRESENTATIVE: First of all, the campaign is student-led. So even if people were coming from other places, it’s not like the students aren’t fine with that. But even if they were like, let’s say that it is a bunch of outside people, everyone benefits from a private police force being abolished. Everyone benefits from us getting closer to abolition, like we need support from everyone because we all, even the people that aren’t for abolition, we all benefit from this. And in terms of being stronger together like we need to support each other’s movements. How can you be an outside agitator when this is also your fight. You just can’t. Like you’re not on the outside. Nobody’s on the outside.

ALEX CHUN: So if nobody’s on the outside because liberatory movements are collective, the outside agitator trope would really just be a constructed myth. Which leaves us to ask: What influences who is and isn’t considered an outside agitator?

STEVEN THRASHER: So you certainly saw this this summer with Kyle Rittenhouse who in Kenosha, Wisc., seems to have come from another state, is alleged to have shot two people. And he was not sort of posited as an outside agitator. Partially because White people —  the history of White supremacy is that White people have a right to go anywhere, right? Like White people have the ability to travel through any space in the US. And so they did not have to think about segregation, Black codes, sundown laws, Jim Crow, things of that nature. The origins of policing have to do with the Louisiana slave patrol, which gave White people the right to question and actually compelled them legally to make sure that Black people were in their place. And so White people can’t really be outside agitators in that way, because they’ve already been given license to go anywhere. Part of the outsider agitator trope is to say you need to stay in your place. And you’re not supposed to go to other places. People who are not already part of the dominant power structure should stay where they’re at and not travel between different places.

ALEX CHUN: So Dr. Thrasher asserts that White Americans are often not posited as “outsiders.” Thus, the trope is often used to uphold existing structures and delegitimize criticism. 

With the recent protests, Northwestern and Evanston have called in an external police body: the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System. Some students on social media have pointed this out, flipping the trope and calling these officers outside agitators. But opinions on this are a little complicated.

The organization serves as a law enforcement body designed to supplement local police departments when needed. In an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request, the NIPAS leader Chief David Clark asked the city of Evanston if NIPAS forces could intervene in the NU Community Not Cops student protests. 

In the email, Clark wrote, “We understand each agency has the right to police their jurisdiction in a way that best suits their residents. If the city of Evanston’s policy is to follow the group around and allow them to commit criminal acts with no intervention, we respect that, but we cannot be a part of it.” Clark then requested permission for the NIPAS to police Evanston. The city agreed. 

NUCNC REPRESENTATIVE: Our protests have been called unpeaceful, violent. And it’s like, OK, who’s coming ready for that? Because we’re not showing up in riot gear with weapons with, like, gas, with batons? Why is that not considered violent? And that’s not seen as an outside agitator. For the same reasons that we don’t have outside agitators, is that to them, they’re all invested in the same goal of protecting property, maintaining White supremacy.

ALEX CHUN: At the NU Community Not Cops protest that took place on Monday night, November 9, over 70 police officers flanked approximately 60 protesters gathered in Fountain Square. A significant number of those officers were NIPAS. Multiple officers were seen covering their badge numbers, and there were also several K-9 vehicles and a police van. While Professor Boyle doesn’t consider NIPAS to be an outside agitator, he does express concern about their presence. 

KEVIN BOYLE: I don’t think it’s quite the same thing, though there is sometimes the fear that bringing in outside police units, or National Guardsmen, say in some of the protests over the summer, for instance, can in fact be a really, really dangerous step to take. Because what they don’t have is, they don’t have an understanding of a community. And they don’t have the training for the particulars of that community. So a place like Evanston, for instance, or Northwestern, that’s a really, really particular community. You know, there’s history and traditions and expectations on campus and in Evanston. And if you bring in forces that are from outside of that, how do you know they’re going to understand those dynamics?

ALEX CHUN: For now, NU Community Not Cops plans to protest every day until Northwestern cuts ties with University Police and the Evanston Police Department. And they plan to do so in coalition with other local abolitionist student groups.

NUCNC REPRESENTATIVE: We’ve had multiple collaborations. We’ve had SOLR, Students Organizing for Labor Rights, Fossil Free, we had a coat drive with FTP – Chicago. We had a teach-in with Dissenters, and despite the fact that there’s like, all of those things are like FTP’s concerned with providing resources, Dissenters is concerned with militarism, SOLR is concerned with labor rights, Fossil Free is concerned with climate change, but those are all abolitionist struggles. Which really shows how expansive the prison-industrial complex is, but also like, all of the levels that we need to be pushing on. And those are just some of our collabs. I think we’ve had more and we always have more upcoming.

ALEX CHUN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported on and produced by me. The email between the city of Evanston and David Clark accessed through the Freedom of Information Act was obtained by Adam Mahoney. The audio editor of The Daily is me. The digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Jacob Ohara. The editor in chief is Marissa Martinez. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @apchun01

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