Black lives matter: As Trump blames Antifa behind US violence, protest records show scant evidence
Trump has characterised those clashing with law enforcement after George Floyd's death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as organized, radical-left thugs engaging in domestic terrorism.
WASHINGTON: Scott Nichols, a balloon artist, was riding home on his scooter from the protests engulfing Minneapolis last weekend when he was struck by a rubber bullet fired from a cluster of police officers in riot gear.
"I just pulled over and put my hands up, because I didn't want to get killed," said Nichols, 40.
"Anybody that knows me knows I wasn't out there to cause problems."
Nichols, who before the coronavirus pandemic made his living performing at children's birthday parties under the stage name "Amazing Scott," spent two days in jail before being released on criminal charges of riot and curfew violation.
President Donald Trump has characterised those clashing with law enforcement after George Floyd's death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as organized, radical-left thugs engaging in domestic terrorism, an assertion repeated by Attorney General William Barr.
Some Democrats, including Minnesota Gov.
Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, initially tried to blame out-of-state far-right infiltrators for the unrest before walking back those statements.
There is scant evidence either is true.
The Associated Press analysed court records, employment histories, social media posts and other sources of information for 217 people arrested last weekend in Minneapolis and the District of Columbia, two cities at the epicenter of the protests across the United States.
Rather than outside agitators, more than 85 per cent of those arrested by police were local residents.
Of those charged with such offenses as curfew violations, rioting and failure to obey law enforcement, only a handful appeared to have any affiliation with organised groups.
Those charged with more serious offenses related to looting and property destruction, such as arson, burglary and theft, often had past criminal records.
But they, too, were overwhelmingly local residents taking advantage of the chaos.
Social media posts indicate only a few of those arrested are left-leaning activists, including a self-described anarchist.
But others had indications of being on the political right, including some Trump supporters.
The president has tried to portray the protesters and looters with a broad brush as "radical-left, bad people," ominously invoking the name "Antifa," an umbrella term for leftist militants bound more by belief than organizational structure.
Trump tweeted last Sunday that he planned to designate antifa as a terrorist organisation.
"These are acts of domestic terror," Trump said in a Rose Garden speech Monday, moments before heavily armed troops and riot police advanced without warning on the largely peaceful protesters across the street from the White House.
Barr, put in charge of organising the police and military response, activated the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force last weekend to target protest organizers.
"The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly," Barr said in a statement issued Sunday.
There have been violent acts, including property destruction and theft.
Police officers and protesters have been seriously injured and killed.
But federal law enforcement officials have offered little evidence that antifa-aligned protesters could be behind a movement that has appeared nearly simultaneously in hundreds of cities and towns in all 50 states since Floyd's death.
The AP obtained copies of daily confidential "Intelligence Notes" distributed this past week to local enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security that repeat, without citing evidence, that "organized violent opportunists including suspected anarchist extremists, could increasingly perpetrate nationwide targeting of law enforcement and critical infrastructure."
"We lack detailed reporting indicating the level of organization and planning by some violent opportunists and assess that most of the violence to date has been loosely organised on a level seen with previous widespread outbreaks of violence at lawful protests," the assessment for Monday says.
The following day, the assessment noted "several uncorroborated reports of bricks being pre-staged at planned protest venues nationwide."
"Although we have been unable to verify the reporting through official channels, the staging of improvised weapons at planned events is a common tactic used by violent opportunists," the Tuesday assessment says.
But social media posts warning that stacks of bricks have been left at protest sites in Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles have been debunked by local officials who have explained that the masonry was out in the open before the protests or was for use in construction projects.
Nichols, the balloon artist, hardly fits the portrait of a radical.
He recently gained local notice for a giant balloon rabbit and other sculptures displayed in his front yard for Easter.
He laughed when asked if he had any ties to antifa or other militant groups.
A white man who lives less than a half mile from where Floyd was killed on May 25, Nichols said he protested to support of his neighbours, many of whom are black.