D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser used the term “outside agitators” or some derivation repeatedly this week in placing blame for the mayhem that befell the nation’s capital over the last week.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, police say about 60% of arrestees during clashes there were from outside the city. And in Portland, Oregon, the district attorney complained the city was being “terrorized by people coming into Portland for the explicit purpose of committing violence.”
The tendency to blame others for the cities’ problems is strong — and not particularly accurate, according to a Washington Times review of data.
In Portland, city police arrests from Aug. 21 to Aug. 31 showed nearly two-thirds of those charged were listed as from Portland, and that ratio grows even higher when close-in suburbs like Beaverton and Vancouver, Washington, are counted.
Meanwhile the federal Justice Department says of 76 defendants charged in Portland, all but 17 are from Oregon. In Kenosha, 135 people have been charged and nearly 100 of them are from Wisconsin.
In the nation’s capital, Ms. Bowser’s math discounts people from Virginia and Maryland, for whom the District is the center of the metropolitan area. When they’re included, the “outside agitators” look a lot more homegrown.
“What we’re certainly not going to do is stand by and allow outside agitators to come to our city and distract us from the work of D.C. residents,” Ms. Bowser said at a press conference Monday where she pinned the blame for several days of violent flare-ups on interlopers.
The Metropolitan Police Department has been keeping tabs. From May 30 through Wednesday there had been 541 people arrested for curfew or riot-related incidents. Of those, 43% were from the District, 27% from Maryland and 12% from Virginia. The rest were either from other states or, in 12% of cases, their home addresses weren’t known.
Ms. Bowser said she didn’t know how many of those Virginia and Maryland residents were from close-in communities like Montgomery County or Alexandria.
And her office didn’t respond to emails seeking clarification on whom she was talking about, but at Monday’s press conference Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham offered one example: the driver of the Snack Van.
The graffiti-laden van and its driver, Jeremy Vajko, have been fixtures at the Portland protests, and also popped up in Kenosha and in D.C., where he was arrested for reckless driving — and had the charges dropped.
Mr. Vajko, who tweets at @SnackVanTM, says he hands out water, snacks and medical supplies to demonstrators, and makes no secret of his whereabouts on Twitter. He has also complained about treatment by police in all three jurisdictions.
Ms. Bowser suggested city officials see signs of outside organization in those like Mr. Vajko, and said his arrival is part of a new trend.
“We’ve have experience all summer with protest, and we’re seeing a shift of who’s involved,” the mayor said.
Ed Maguire, director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State University, said it’s common for police and politicians to blame outsiders for unrest.
“The outside agitator theory is a handy defense against accusations that local police/governments have not invested sufficiently in building and sustaining these crucial relationships,” Mr. Maguire told The Times in an email.
He said when folks do come from outside, it complicates things for police, who, when they’re dealing with locals, have a chance to form relationships that can help both sides.
“However, it is unreasonable to expect police to form enduring relationships with people coming in from elsewhere,” he said. “One of the helpful dynamics that can occur when police have established good relationships with local protesters is that the locals can then exert an influence on outsiders who seek to make trouble.”
Protesters complain that the police themselves are the real outsiders.
In Portland, just 18% of officers lived in the city, according to a 2018 story in the Portland Mercury. More officers lived over the border in Washington state than in Portland proper, the news outlet reported.
In D.C., 17% of Metropolitan Police Department officers reside in the city — a ratio that’s been steady throughout the last decade, though the department has been trying to change that. It says its cadet recruiting program within the city is showing promise, with the highest retention rates of any recruiting approach right now.
Ms. Bowser’s office didn’t respond to questions about that ratio.
Protesters in Portland said the makeup of police matters there because the city is a liberal bastion surrounded by more conservative areas, where the cops reside. That is a setup for an antagonistic relationship, the protesters say.
Federal agents and officers deployed to the city may complicate things even further.
Homeland Security has surged personnel to Portland to protect federal property — and they’ve become flashpoints for violence.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced charges against a man accused of trying run down Federal Protective Service officers with his SUV as they returned to their hotel. The accused, Lonnie Vantewa Albert, 55, is from Portland.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Oregon also announced charges against three others Wednesday. A Seattle man was accused of making a bomb threat to Portland police, another Seattle man was charged with using a sling shot to fire a ball bearing at a city firefighter, and a Portland woman was charged with civil disorder for throwing a helmet at an officer making an arrest.
Gary D. LaFree, chair of the criminology department at the University of Maryland, said there may be something to the notion of outsiders helping swell the ranks of protesters in some cities.
At least dating back to the Charlottesville protests of three summers ago, race-tinged clashes have drawn people from all over to certain flash points, brought in by social media announcements.
“Something different is happening,” Mr. LaFree said. “You’ve got these events now announced in advance, and armed people showing up to weigh in.”
That appears to have been the case for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged in connection with the killing of two protesters.
The teen lives in Antioch, Illinois, about 20 minutes away from Kenosha, but, according to reports, he was driven to the city, armed, in order to defend police and property from riots.
And a man charged with carrying a flamethrower to a demonstration in Green Bay, Wisconsin, over the weekend is from Neenah, about 40 minutes away, according to local news reports.
Yet sometimes those with outside addresses listed may be misleading.
Portland police arrested one man on charges of reckless burning, disorderly conduct and interfering with officers, listing his address as Virginia.
But while he grew up and attended high school in Virginia and still has a driver’s license from the state, the man is a Portland resident and graduate student at a university in the city.