The American Myths of the ‘Black Wrecker’ and ‘Outside Agitator’

Government response to Black Lives Matter shows not much has changed since the 60’s

“We have never had a problem in the South except in a few very isolated instances and these have been the result of outside agitators.” — George Wallace, 1964

George Wallace penned those words in response to the civil rights movement. It was the beginning of a valiant and glacially paced but inexorable march toward unkept promises of universal justice, promises of an American dream available to all that had long been withheld from black communities — many of which remain unfulfilled to this day.

Just as Trump now cannot fathom what is happening today before his eyes and citizens rise up, Wallace could not accept the possibility that blacks suffering injustice could possibly have the determination and bravery to take their destiny into their own hands. To Wallace, his racism ran so deep that African-American organizers, protesters and their allies who resisted the tyranny of the state could not possibly have self-determination or autonomy, they were incapable — the only explanation that made sense to him was that the movement had to be led by white agitators.

As the citizenry take to the streets of every American city to protest police brutality, this tool of division and distraction from those who supported segregation is being dusted-off and re-deployed by a panicked administration in the throes of civil uprising.

Across borders and throughout history, the tactics of discrediting, demonizing and de-legitimizing social movements have always been the primary response of government when citizens take to the street to clamor for justice, but in the United States two specific variations on this strategy have historically been employed with grave consequences; that of the “Black Wrecker”, painting blacks as dangerous criminals intent upon destroying and looting white communities and the “outside agitator”, an imaginary and shadowy cabal of anti-American provocateurs bent on destruction of the American way.

John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s aide on domestic affairs, who would eventually get convicted in the Watergate scandal said of the administration’s tactics during the height of the civil rights movement:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

Nixon knew he couldn’t win on the merit of his argument against dissidence, and so he relied on fear to crush it instead.

And now history is repeating itself as those who would demonize the right to dissent in the United States dust off an old playbook. Right-wing media personalities conflate looters capitalizing on chaos with protesters and amplify conspiracy theories to discredit those in the streets. They claim without proof and against findings of the FBI that “Antifa”, an ideology they intentionally misrepresent as a global organization, is bent upon sowing communism and discord.

And they ignore the hundreds of instances of police brutality against press and protesters as they do so.

It is the “Law and Order” strategy of Nixon in the 60's — as government forces and law-enforcement behave illegally: discrediting, beating, using attack dogs and fire hoses and even assassinating activists, they blame the protesters as agents of chaos, destruction and communism.

Trumps’ unconstitutional threats to declare “Antifa” a terrorist organization, his calls to deploy the military to crush a broad civil movement, and his increasingly unhinged conspiracy theories that critically injured protesters are socialist plants are as cynical as they are untrue. Much like Nixon when he launched the War on Drugs, Trump knows his claims are nonsense.

But they serve another purpose: they demonize a movement that demands an end to institutional racism and injustice.

Martin Luther King was subjected to surveillance, threats and was even the target of blackmail and false accusations trying to goad him into suicide by FBI agents. On Dec. 4, 1969, Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton, 21 and Mark Clark, 22, were shot to death by 14 police officers as they lay sleeping in their Chicago apartment.

Movements that demand an end to the status-quo and present a real threat to entrenched power are not taken lightly by the State. Historically, officials have often bent and even broken laws that serve as safeguards to the liberty of citizens in order to crush and discredit civil uprising.

The Trump administration has already proven they are willing to lie in pursuit of their goals, and are now bending and breaking these same rules in the name of crushing what threatens to become an open rebellion. Deadly police riots have claimed lives and limbs across the nation, leaving behind blinded and maimed protesters.

This is neither Law, nor order. These are the draconian tactics of authoritarian regimes come to the United States. They are also a throwback to a darker time when lynchings were common, and the police acted as arms of oppression against African American activists, who were commonly attacked and even murdered.

Ironically, there have been more reports of violence from White-supremacist groups than by “Antifa” during the ongoing protests, as documented in an ongoing twitter thread by researcher Alexander Reid Ross. Many communities that have bought these lies about “outside agitators” have even armed themselves and waited in the streets for legions of Antifa activists that never arrived — a rather poignant symbol of how non-existent Trumps’ personal boogeyman truly is.

Some defenders of the Trump response to the Black Lives Matter protests continue to scream through social media and cable news that racism and oppression don’t exist in modern America, but as activists in the streets demand changes to a system they have denounced for hundreds of years, the State seems quite determined to publicly show that not much has changed at all.

Unjust and unprovoked violence against those who exercise their constitutional rights as citizens very much still exists.

Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Colombia. He has worked for Al Jazeera, the New Humanitarian and various other organizations in Latin America. For more stories you can follow him on twitter or at his website Muros Invisibles.

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more

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