As massive street protests against anti-Black state violence continue into their second month across the United States and the world, so too has an old phantom emerged from the depths of US historical and political imagination: the “outside agitator.” “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda,” claimed US Attorney General Bill Barr on May 31st, without presenting an iota of evidence. [ref]https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barrs-statement-riots-and-domestic-terrorism[/ref] State and local officials across the country, both Democrat and Republican, have also blamed geographic and ideological outsiders for the property damage, police violence and mass arrests, and general rage occasioned by recent protests.[ref]https://www.vox.com/2020/5/30/21275562/minnesota-protests-governor-walz-mayors-frey-carter-out-of-state-agitators-violence[/ref]
As several contemporary journalists and activists have already argued, conjuring “outside agitators” as a way to explain Black rebellion is one of the oldest, most racist narrative tropes in US history. [ref]https://www.thenation.com/article/society/outside-agitators-antifa-racism/ [/ref] These commentators have justly noted the blatant inaccuracy of “outside agitator” claims, both historical and contemporary. However, many of these contemporary commentators have underestimated the power of the “outside agitator” trope by suggesting that its primary purpose is to distract. As Jeet Heer writes for The Nation, focusing on the “outside agitator” allows powerful and privileged Americans to avoid “accepting the reality…that [the United States’] problems are not caused by Antifa or Putin but by a deeply racist criminal justice system.”[ref]https://www.thenation.com/article/society/outside-agitators-antifa-racism/[/ref]
But the “outside agitator” trope is not merely a distraction. To frame it in this way obscures its narrative power, and the reasons for its historical endurance in US discourse. The “outside agitator” does not simply divert the American observer’s attention to some place “outside” the urgent demands of Black folks. It does something much worse. It renders these urgent demands, and all the people who make them—especially Black folks—as “outsiders” to the nation, encouraging and justifying their public violation.
“The ‘outside agitator’ does not simply divert . . . It does something much worse.”
In order to briefly show how this trope has historically worked to shape US political imagination, I would like to focus on two examples of the “outside agitator” trope in political discourse from the earliest decades of United States history. The resemblance that these centuries-old examples bear to contemporary “outside agitator” claims illustrates the depth and length of this trope’s enmeshment in US political thought.
The first example is the founding political and ideological document of the United States, the 1776 “Declaration of Independence.” The final charge that Thomas Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries level at King George III in the “Declaration” is that George III had “excited domestic insurrections against us, and endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages…”[ref]https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript[/ref] By “exciting domestic insurrections,” Jefferson means that the British were causing enslaved Black people to rebel against their enslavement. In other words, Jefferson accuses King George III of being an “outside agitator.” Furthermore, enslaved Black people are constituted not as property or objects in this passage—nor, certainly, as fellow citizens—but as an internal enemy, an “outside” within.
“an internal enemy, an ‘outside’ within.”
In an earlier draft of the Declaration that was not ultimately published, Jefferson even more explicitly names enslaved Black people as a subjugated enemy people—cast, according to Jefferson, into the innocent and reluctant arms of Anglo-American enslavers. These enslaved people, Jefferson complains, now “rise in arms against us, to purchase that liberty which [King George III] has deprived them, by murdering the [white slave-owning Americans] on whom he has obtruded them.”[ref]https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/declaration-independence-and-debate-over-slavery/[/ref] The presence of enslaved Black people in the United States is thus, according to this Jeffersonian historical fantasy, a crime committed by an external enemy force, forced onto innocent Anglo-American colonists. Furthermore, these enslaved Black people can only secure their freedom via the necessarily criminal murder of (allegedly innocent) white Americans. Therefore, the concept of Black freedom is both foreign and menacing to Jefferson’s imagined American polity. It is itself constituted as an existentially dangerous “outside agitator,” worthy of continual repression and destruction.
A second early-US example of the “outside agitator” in US discourse relates to an actual instance of Black rebellion: the 1811 German Coast Uprising in what would eventually become southeastern Louisiana, then the new US Territory of Orleans. This example also suggests the inextricable connection between anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments in US political thought.
The 1811 German Coast Uprising was the largest slave revolt in US history by sheer number of enslaved participants.[ref]See: Dormon, James H. “The Persistent Spector: Slave Rebellion in Territorial Louisiana.” Louisiana History. Vol. 18, No. 4, (Autumn 1977); Paquette, Robert. “A Horde of Brigands? The Great Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811 Reconsidered.” Historical Reflections, Vol. 35, No. 1. Spring 2009; Thrasher, Albert. On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt (Cypress Press, 1996; “Slave Rebellion Reenactment” Website (slave-revolt.com)[/ref] While the US Army and local militias were eventually able to crush the revolt before the rebels made their way to their intended destination of New Orleans, the governor of the Territory of Orleans, W.C.C. Claiborne, faced massive pressure from local planters to assure them in the aftermath of the revolt that he would do more to prevent future uprisings.
Governor Claiborne responded most tangibly to these demands by permanently stationing US troops along the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana, and by enacting laws mandating and regulating slave patrols and overseers throughout the territory. However, he also repeatedly insisted that the rebellion must have had foreign Caribbean origins, and argued that ceasing the influx of Caribbean Black people, enslaved or free, would alleviate the threat of future rebellion.[ref]Claiborne, Letter Books. Speech, Delivered by Governor Claiborne to both Houses of Legislative Body of the Territory of Orleans. 123.[/ref] “It is a fact of notoriety that negroes of character the most desperate and conduct the most infamous…are frequently introduced into this territory,” he argued at speech to the Territory of Orleans Legislature following the 1811 revolt.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Indeed, Claiborne exhibited a career-long obsession with controlling the immigration of Black people, particularly those who possessed some level of social and economic power. For example, in 1809 he wrote a US representative in Jamaica instructing him to “discourage free people of Color of every description from emigrating to the Territory of Orleans—we have at this time a much greater proportion of this kind of population than comports with our interest.”[ref]Claiborne, To William Savage Esqr., Commercial Agent of the United States for the Island of Jamaica, 11/10/1809 Letter Books. 4.[/ref]
“However, he also repeatedly insisted that the rebellion must have had foreign Caribbean origins . . .”
In Claiborne’s writings, as in the Declaration of Independence, the “outside agitator” gives shape to—rather than distracts from—a dominant American conception of Black freedom and self-determination. Specifically, by linking the 1811 revolt to foreign Black folks of allegedly disreputable and notorious character, Claiborne renders Black political agency alien and criminal, providing an ideological and legal framework for the total violation of Black people’s actions everywhere. Furthermore, Claiborne explicitly links the alleged dangers of immigrant “people of Color” to the dangers of Black rebellion, by repeatedly insinuating that the former necessarily unleashes the latter. In doing so, he justifies and explains the reproduction of militarized terror against Black people as a matter of national security.
Thus, over and over again, Black collective action comes into the view of dominant US institutions only to be rendered “outside” via the use of some “outside agitator” du jour—King George III, Caribbean Black people, Jews, communists, caricatured versions of specific Black reformers like Ida B. Wells and Martin Luther King, Jr., Antifa, and many more, all of whom have played the role over the course of the past two-and-a-half centuries. Therefore, as we critically observe the ways in which the “outside agitator” trope directs attention away from the voices of the people organizing against anti-Black state violence across the United States and world, it is crucial to keep in mind the historical purpose of this trope: not to obscure the machinations of anti-Black state violence, but to justify them.