Counter-terrorism expert: Don’t blame peaceful protesters for violence at George Floyd demonstrations

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Police car on fire

A police car was set on fire May 30, 2020, in Kansas City, during protests at the Country Club Plaza.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Don’t blame the peaceful protesters for the violent clashes, fires, looting, and vandalism that erupted across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Extremists, antagonists and agitators often infiltrate peaceful demonstrations like the ones recently seen nationwide, an international security consultant and expert on counter-terrorism told FOX4.

“Their main motivation is to take the opportunity to exploit the large crowds of peaceful protestors,” Todd McGhee, managing partner of Protecting the Homeland Innovations in Massachusetts, said. “They can only espouse their ideology on social media so much, so they think, ‘If my ideology is so strong, I have to mobilize, or I stand for nothing.'”

“And what better place for them to showcase their beliefs than a community-versus-government type of protest?” he added.

McGhee suspects some people inciting violence at these protests — and detracting from the demonstrators calls for justice in Floyd’s death and an end to police brutality — may come from extremist factions. Those include followers of the far-left, anti-fascist Antifa movement and the far-right, anti-government, anti-police movement called Boogaloos Bois.

“These are groups of people who were self-recruited over the Internet and social media,” McGee said. “They’re people who are disenfranchised and found like-minded individuals and are now indoctrinated into a whole new subculture… They believe that the government has failed, and they’re taking the opportunity to show up in force at these protests.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which is monitoring the protests and the people involved, agrees some extremists and anti-government agitators are taking an active role in these demonstrations.

“While the majority of protests around the country have been peaceful and focused on opposing police brutality and systemic racism, some individuals and groups, including a scattering of extremists, are taking full advantage of a national crisis to advance their own violent agendas,” ADL wrote in a June 1 posting on its website.

“Working From The Same Playbook”

Across the county, peaceful rallies and marches turned violent as some in the emotionally charged crowds clashed with police. Bad actors – as McGhee calls them – have thrown frozen water bottles, rocks, bricks, cans and even bottles filled with urine at police. Others set fire to police cars, looted businesses, vandalized property and blocked traffic on major highways.  

“In every city and every state, you’re seeing the same types of incidents,” McGhee said, adding that these agitators prey on the crowd’s emotions and fuel the already-charged demonstrations. “And that tells me the same organized groups or groups of people are involved. They’re all working out of the same playbooks.”

Tensions across protests in Kansas City and elsewhere in the nation have tended to rise after the sun goes down. Tempers flare. Violence escalates.

“You start to see the change in the crowds at dusk.” McGhee said. “Police feel the change in the tone of the crowd.”

He and the ADL emphasize the majority of people protesting Floyd’s death are not extremist and should not be cast in that light.

“The vast majority of people at these protests, I believe, are peaceful,” McGhee said.

Added the ADL: “It is our initial assessment that while a number of extremists – including anti-government agitators, anarchists and a handful of white supremacists – are taking an active role, these protests should not be categorized as ‘extremist’ events at this point. Claims that extremists are taking the lead in these demonstrations diminish the message protesters are trying to convey.”

How To Prevent Peaceful Protests From Turning Violent

How can police — who now face harsh criticism for their use of pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful tactics on demonstrators, bystanders and journalists — prevent these peaceful gatherings from turning violent?

“Embrace the public… Engage the public as your eyes and ears. Start a dialogue with them. This breaks down barriers,” McGee said. “The first people who see the bad actors are the protesters, and police want them to share that information with them. But here’s where the barrier is. Some people might not think they can trust the police.”

Law enforcement needs to bridge that gap and earn the public’s trust, McGhee said.

“They can start by telling the protesters that they have a right to protest and that they want them to protest peacefully,” he said. “They can also tell them that they need their help. They want them to notify police when they see bad actors.”

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith has asked protesters through interviews to surrender up those acting violently towards police. He said that could help mitigate large-scale, forceful control measures, like tear gas.

“We also need to make sure that political leaders are hearing what the community is saying,” McGee said.

In Kansas City, Chief Smith and Mayor Quinton Lucas have met with demonstrators on The Plaza. They’ve taken a knee with protesters. Two Kansas City police officers also raised a sign that said “End Police Brutality.”

On Wednesday, Chief Smith and Mayor Lucas participated in a Unity March with protesters, pastors, and community leaders.

However, protesters have complained of police tactics during parts of the civil unrest. In addition to tear gas, police have used pepper spray and bean bag projectiles on demonstrators. One man said he was shot in the eye with a police projectile and may lose his vision.

Those incidents are under investigation.

 “Potential civil rights violations by officers of protesters are being investigated internally and externally by our partners at the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Missouri,” KCPD wrote on its Facebook page Wednesday, June 3. “You’ve asked us to be better. We are making steps to do so.”

Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker today denounced the charges Kansas City filed against non-violent protesters.

“Based on calls to my office and after speaking to protest organizer Henry Service, it is clear many citizens are confused and believe my office has filed charges against dozens of protesters who were arrested for minor offenses like walking in the street or stepping off a curb,” she said. “Those charges against protesters were filed by the City Prosecutor’s office, an office that reports to the Mayor and the City Council.”

She added: “We are reviewing alleged police misconduct. We have already asked for an investigation of one incident in which protesters were pepper sprayed by police. We are later today launching a web page at our website to collect any other evidence, including videos, of excessive force by police. We also will review any case submitted by police to us regarding any individual throwing bricks, rocks, bottles or other dangerous objects.”

 “I Don’t Want To Be Working With A Bad Officer”

McGhee said police departments should publicly denounce the actions of the four officers involved with Floyd’s death.

“From someone in the police culture, I can tell you that I don’t want to be working a bad officer,” he said.

The Minneapolis Police Department fired the four officers involved in Floyd’s death. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday filed new charges against Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is seen in a video pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Chauvin initially faced third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges. Those will stay, but Ellison added a more serious charge of second-degree murder against Chauvin.

The other three officers involved with Floyd’s death, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao now face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

“The callousness and disregard shown for Mr. Floyd is sickening and leaves everyone, including police officers across this nation, shocked, appalled, and infuriated. Mr. Floyd’s death is a painful reminder to all who strive for justice of the work that remains before us,” The International Association of Chiefs of Police stated in a blog post, a blistering condemnation of those officers’ actions.

“Protestors have raised legitimate concerns regarding policing policies and practices, ranging from use of force, to bias in policing, to police accountability and transparency,” the association added. “These are issues that are rightly at the heart of any community’s relationship with its police department and must be addressed.”

Review Policies And Procedures

McGhee said now is the perfect time for police departments to review their policies, procedures and training guidelines.

“I can guarantee you, the next thing the attorneys for the Floyd family are going to do — now that they have an independent autopsy — is look at policies of the Minneapolis Police Department,” he said. “They’re going to look at their arrest policies and procedures. They’ll want to know how officers are trained and how often. I can guarantee you that defensive tactics are not trained on an annual basis. And yes, they should be.”

He added: “I’ve done expert witness testimony on behalf of police in supporting their use of force. And nothing that happened here [in the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death] comes close to being justified.”

McGhee also said police officers should do a better job of policing each other in the field.

“It’s stressful for an arrestee and a police officer when you’re arresting someone,” he said. “We don’t arrest people every single day in every single shift. And if I’m too involved in making an arrest, my fellow police officers need to have the voice and courage to say ‘back off.’ ”

Peaceful protestors can also help prevent the rallies from turning violent, McGhee said.

“They need to call out the bad actors. And they need to continue to air their grievances.”

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