At the risk of agitating the MAGA crowd, who think English is the only lingo people should speak here in "good-ole 'Murica," I would like to introduce a phrase from a different tongue: agent provocateur.
I bring it up because agents provocateurs are once again infesting protests, and are a key arrow, although by no means the only one, in the quiver of those who seek to discredit protesters by changing what people say about the marchers. They would like the citizenry to be talking about marchers' bad behavior instead of the centuries-long oppression of Black people.
Agents provocateurs infiltrate a movement that threatens their grip on power and try to get participants to commit vandalism and violence, often committing it themselves.
They're scuttling about, vermin-like, in the murkier corners of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is why I think "sabotage" whenever I hear "looters" or "violence" thrown at this long-overdue and necessary movement.
I have no doubt they are running amok in Portland.
Agents provocateurs have been putrefying the social and political landscape for a long time, and not just in the U.S. (thus, the French phrase). They were particularly instrumental in hamstringing working men and women who tried to organize during the labor movement a century and more ago.
But their chief feeding ground is politics, everywhere: Russia, France, England, all over.
Here in the U.S. they have a long history that goes back to the 1800s. Their glory days were the 1960s and 1970s, during the federal government's counter intelligence program—COINTELPRO. They burrowed so deeply into so many progressive movements—civil rights, women's suffrage, anti-war, environmental—that some groups joked they had more spies than members.
How can I be sure of this? First, because I read and study history—the evidence is overwhelming. But I also have been involved in my share of movements and have seen outside forces try to sabotage all of them.
The first order of business of any protest is to persuade people of the rightness of the cause. But directive 1A is to refrain from engaging counter-demonstrators or committing violence. March leaders work very hard at this.
The chief reason, of course, is that violence and plunder are wrong. But there is also a tactical imperative: Don't let the story become a tale of violent protesters rather than protesters who want change.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, with their hundreds of thousands of participants, have been overwhelmingly peaceful. A few have not.
Again, it is inaccurate to lay that at the feet of the protesters. With very few exceptions, it comes from BLM opponents who have infiltrated the movement and are very good at sniffing out the idealists in the march who have short fuses, and spurring them to misbehave.
The most notorious and dangerous of these is the so-called boogaloo movement, which shows up to both attack and provoke marchers. In June, to cite one example reported in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, federal prosecutors charged boogaloo members with terrorism and plotting to incite mass violence and create chaos at a BLM rally.
The U.S. commander-in-chief has added a sinister new wrinkle, going full führer and sending storm troopers into American cities that do not want them, hoping—successfully, alas, in some cases—to goad peaceful marchers into confrontations.
But what about the San Luis Obispo protest that meandered onto the freeway last week, you ask? I don't how that happened—I'd love to see a frame-by-frame retelling. Was it an agent provocateur who initiated that move? A hothead in the crowd?
If local protest organizers orchestrated that move, they are outliers among movement leaders nationwide, and they have made a strategic blunder. But none of us knows the truth yet; that usually takes a while, and it's going to take longer in this case because local law enforcement, most notably the Tea Party sheriff, have taken sides against the protest movement and abandoned the precept of equal justice under the law.
I can tell you one thing: BLM supporters must be appalled at what has happened here. Why? Because all week we have been talking about the behavior of protesters, not systemic racism in the police culture. For those who seek to distract, mission accomplished.
Agents provocateurs and their fellow disrupters are merely foot soldiers in the larger war to discredit. Their actions feed into a fever swamp of corrupt power-mongers, most of them on social media or talk television and radio, including our own KVEC, who seek to denigrate the movement.
All of these forces are what African Americans, seeking to educate ordinary Americans, face and will continue to face.
Has the distraction succeeded?
It's worked a bit. It so frightened some men in South County last month that they stood on a store's rooftop, heavily armed, during a protest there. Unable to discern between First Amendment peaceful protesters and violent looters, they had been frightened into believing that their neighbors were coming to burn the building they were perched atop. And they were ready to shoot those neighbors—think about that for a moment.
But for the most part, at least so far, Americans in general seem to know better, freeway protests or no freeway protests. All of the poisonous distracting behavior to which I have alluded to can't erase the powerful image of George Floyd being murdered in cold blood by a policeman wielding power as his fellow officers watched. Nor can the thousands of stories shared by others who had been treated like Floyd, but survived, be ignored any longer.
Real Americans—those with a conscience, who know and believe in the better part of our nation's sometimes noble, sometimes reprehensible history and promise—seem to realize, feel, perhaps, or sense, that this is a special moment.
It's a reckoning, and we're ready for it.
And we'll have it, if the disruptors don't distract us. I'll give the final word to Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers basketball coach.
"You know, it's funny," Rivers told the Los Angeles Times, "whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that? How about being real?" Δ
Bob Cuddy is an award-winning columnist, now retired and living in Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a letter to the editor and send it to email@example.com.