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There's a long history of accusations of outside players influencing student protests


University administrators and law enforcement around the country continue to crack down on campus demonstrations protesting Israel's war in Gaza. In New York City, the city's police force has arrested hundreds across multiple colleges and cleared protest encampments. New York Mayor Eric Adams has said that outside agitators have co-opted these protests, and he cited preliminary police intelligence to NPR's Morning Edition earlier today.


ERIC ADAMS: It appears as though that over 40% of those who participated in Columbia and CUNY were not from the school, and they were outsiders.


The refrain of malign outside influence has been common from school and government authorities during this wave of protests. Of course, supporters of the student movements have also blamed people unaffiliated with their colleges for hijacking their activism. Whatever the case, the concept has a long history in American life. It was notably wielded to delegitimize abolitionists and civil rights leaders in the 20th century and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

SUMMERS: That year, NPR's Code Switch podcast tackled this history with Peniel Joseph, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who is also founding director of the school's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He spoke with hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, and the conversation turned to the 2014 protests over the killing of a Black man in Ferguson, Mo.


SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Gene and I were both in Ferguson six years ago reporting on the protests that were happening then. Gene was doing a lot of reporting in the Black community. I was assigned to talk to white people in Ferguson, and nearly every person I spoke to blamed people who lived outside of Ferguson for what was happening in their town - you know, the nightly protests, the destruction of property. And that outside agitator trope - it became one of the major storylines in 2014. It was everywhere.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the outside agitator trope, whether it's to denounce left-wing or anti-racist forces or to even denounce culpability with right-wing or alt-right white nationalist causes, is something that's utilized as a trope to really defend white supremacy through pleas of either white innocence or pleas of saying that these Black folks who are protesting are not our authentic Black folks. And that's...

MERAJI: Right.

JOSEPH: That has a very, very long history, the idea that in the South, we treat our colored people good.

GENE DEMBY: But we heard - when we were in Ferguson, and after Ferguson, especially, a lot of organizers were saying that they were frustrated that people from other places had come to their city and had become the faces of Ferguson, in some cases, They had very different goals from the organizers on the ground in St. Louis County.

JOSEPH: Historically, those tensions are very real, and there's sort of no way to stop those tensions. SNCC probably tried the best because what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did during the 1960s was organize African Americans who were in Arkansas, the southwest of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and organize them for civil rights, voting rights. But they tried to ask local communities what they needed and assist in cultivating local leadership who would then lead the local movements. So that's really unprecedented.

But other organizations did something different. So the best person here to look at is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC was an organization of political mobilizers, led by the greatest of all time in the 20th century political mobilizer - is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes he received permission to assist a local movement. Sometimes he did not. And local people were left very, very upset about the dissonance between what Martin Luther King Jr. might be trying to negotiate and what they felt was the authentic measure of their own local needs.

So what happened in Ferguson has a very, very long history where certain activists who were not from Ferguson absolutely came into Ferguson were perceived as the symbolic faces of the local movement, and local people got so upset with these activists, some of whom became media stars, that those same figures can no longer visit Ferguson.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: But we're having this conversation about the outside agitator trope. Is this the same type of thing? I mean, can we compare this type of pointing the finger at - you're not from here, in the same way as we are when we talk about, you know, public officials or those who are in power and have power who call other people outside agitators?

JOSEPH: No, I don't think we're comparing the same thing. Those are apples and oranges. So the outside agitator trope is really designed to undermine, to disrupt social protest movements and at times, as we see with Charlottesville, to undermine an exposure of white supremacy by trying to say that you are innocent from these racist forces that are in your backyard. So you say, I didn't know about this. So that's sort of the difference between the Klan and the White Citizens' Councils during the 1950s and '60s.

The Klan is who everyone repudiates. The more powerful expression of white supremacy was the White Citizens' Councils who were the business leaders, the civic leaders, the faith leaders, who made sure that massive resistance worked and that racial integration did not succeed in public schools or neighborhoods in the South.

SUMMERS: That's University of Texas at Austin Professor Peniel Joseph speaking in 2020. The idea of the outside agitator lives on in the rhetoric around campus protests today. But in 2020 or 2024, protest movements like Black Lives Matter or pro- Palestinian encampments - they go national quickly. So who is even on the inside or outside anymore? Joseph told NPR that he doesn't believe the term has the power it once did.


JOSEPH: It doesn't have teeth anymore for a few reasons. You know, it's about the political divide, but also the demographics of the country changed. It's the same reason why Barack Obama, no matter how eloquent he was - he could not have been president of the United States in 1968 or 1988 or 1996. The first time he could be president was in 2008 and 2012 because he could knit together a coalition that only needed, at its high point, 43% of white voters to become president of the United States.

So they - the time - it has run out of gas, simply. It's run out of gas. So you can say that, but you're only preaching to your own choir, and that's ineffective. The reason why the outside agitator used to be so effective was that you could preach to people who were not part of your choir, and they were believing it, and you were smearing these social movements. Right now, we are so divided, no one is even going to the other person's church to visit (laughter) to hear that message.

CHANG: Peniel Joseph, professor at UT Austin. He spoke in 2020 with Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby for NPR's podcast Code Switch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARO TRIBASTONE'S "SERENADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.