Nobody knows left-wing, Antifa-style protests like the law enforcement agents of Portland, but the mass rioting springing up in the wake of George Floyd’s death is like nothing U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy J. Williams has ever seen.
“This is different,” Mr. Williams said Monday at a press conference. “Those aren’t my words; those are words coming from across the country.”
Indeed, state and local officials across the country have been left blindsided and dumbfounded by the unprecedented number of rioters, the intensity of the destruction, and the unexpectedly high level of coordination and organization.
“It’s different here in Portland,” Mr. Williams said. “At some point during each protest in individual cities, law enforcement has noticed a more organized effort as at some point during the evenings, protesters fan out and engage in the same kind of criminal conduct.”
In addition, he said, “people have been noticed in effect organizing those kinds of endeavors. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
As the unprecedented rioting and mayhem enters its second week, federal and state authorities are becoming increasingly interested in who or what is behind the hordes of mostly young men of different races hijacking the peaceful civil rights protests to wreak havoc.
Speculation has included domestic agitators such as Antifa, anarchists and white supremacists, or black-market rings such as drug cartels and organized crime, or foreign agents from China or Russia seeking to destabilize the nation before the presidential election.
The one point on which state and local officials increasingly agree is that the unrest is no longer about George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis police custody. Former Officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in his death.
“Let’s be very clear: The situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Saturday at a press conference. “It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great cities.”
State and local officials point to a moment about two days after Mr. Floyd’s death when the demonstrations shifted from mass but peaceful protests to violent uprisings.
“It has elevated to an organized level across the United States from what we are all gathering in terms of the information,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s just different. It’s like a light switch going off at some point and similar conduct is going on throughout the United States.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Saturday that the “dynamic has changed over the last several days.”
“If you look at Tuesday, it was largely peaceful protests, the vast majority from inside our city,” Mr. Frey said. “Gradually, that shift was made, and we saw more and more people coming from outside the city, we saw more and more people looking to cause violence in our communities.”
Minnesota officials said the extremists appear to be using stolen vehicles to transport incendiary devices, gasoline and other contraband. Video posted from different cities on social media shows stacks of bricks suddenly appearing in strategic locations.
“They are adapting, they are receiving information together, they are being fed by professionals in this and professional tactics in urban warfare,” Mr. Walz said. “Those types of things are happening with these people. Again, as I said, they are getting what they want. They are getting on TV.”
In the District, Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham warned Monday of “antagonists” and “bad actors” whose intentions appeared “organized in nature” about peaceful protests that turned into rioting and vandalism Sunday night in the nation’s capital.
The Trump administration’s focus is clearly on Antifa, the shadowy left-wing protest group known for wearing masks and throwing milkshakes at “fascists.”
President Trump declared Sunday that the federal government would designate Antifa a domestic terrorist group, prompting pushback from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Stacy Washington, co-chair of the black conservative network Project 21, said Monday that white protesters who she believes represent the far-left group Antifa were responsible for property destruction in weekend protests.
“Expressing grievances to our elected officials in the form of protest is a time-honored tradition,” Ms. Washington said. “But what we are watching unfold across the country is a coordinated effort to destroy the rule of law and order in our communities and to gin up racial tension. In video after video, we see masked white protesters dressed all in black destroying property in black neighborhoods. And it’s blacks who are trying to stop the Antifa protesters from defacing small businesses.”
Others have raised the specter of white supremacists such as the so-called Boogaloo Bois taking advantage of the chaos to start a “race war.”
John Harrington, Minnesota Department of Public Safety commissioner, said Saturday that his department was working with local and federal agencies to figure out which groups were responsible for the devastation.
“We have seen things like white supremacist organizers who have posted things on platforms about coming to Minnesota,” Mr. Harrington said. “We are checking to see with the folks we have made arrests on, that we have information, are they connected to those platforms?”
Mr. Harrington also said he had seen “flyers about protests where folks have talked about they’re going to get their loot on tonight.”
“We’re checking to see: Are they part of organized criminal organization? And if so, what is that organization and how are they organized?” Mr. Harrington said.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien disagreed.
“I haven’t seen the reports on far-right groups. This is being driven by Antifa,” he said.
Could the college-age weekend radicals known for wearing masks and throwing milkshakes have organized the violent national uprising? Some are skeptical. Not Andy Ngo, the Portland journalist who has followed the anti-fascist group for years.
“Antifa are organized in multiple units,” Mr. Ngo tweeted. “Scouts monitor perimeter of an area & provide live audio/text updates. There are street medics, who are trained to get injured comrades out. And there are those who carry out violence w/weapons & firebombs. They use Signal to communicate.”
Signal is an encrypted messaging app.
• Adam Zielonka contributed to this report.