Tay Anderson wanted Friday’s protest against police brutality in Denver to be peaceful.
“We asked people throughout the day, please do not deface property, please do not destroy stuff, because we’re not asking you to do that,” Anderson, a Denver school board director and activist, told BuzzFeed News.
Still, with hundreds taking to the streets for the second day of demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer put him in a knee chokehold, there was vandalism and clashes with Denver police, who fired tear gas and flash-bangs into the crowd.
In a video that has been shared online widely, Anderson, who is black, is seen confronting a white man with a cloth covering on his face after the man spray-paints “ACAB” — “all cops are bastards” — on public property.
Anderson said he was doing a news interview when he saw the man vandalizing, so he turned around and tried to stop him.
“I said, ‘We asked allies to step back so that we can make sure that you’re following what we’re asking you to do,'” he recalled. “And he was like, ‘I’m not your ally, you guys want to protect the status quo. I don’t need to be here for you all.'”
Anderson said there were “several people” who were behaving like that at the protest, some of whom he believed are “right-wing conservative individuals who just don’t give a damn about black and brown people, or want to make this movement look bad.”
“It wasn’t black and brown folks that were antagonizing police. It was white people throwing stuff at them,” he said. “And then when they kept throwing bags of urine, cans, and water bottles, that’s when the police snapped and they started tear-gassing innocent bystanders.”
Denver police spokesperson Kurt Barnes told BuzzFeed News the department’s tactics on crowd management “depends upon the severity of the response from the people in the crowd, and based on that it depends on whether the officers feel their lives are threatened.”
Black activists and organizers have been vocal about their concerns over who some of the instigators are at protests across the country, saying some people are seemingly coming for the fight and mayhem, and not to support their expression of anger over the police killings of unarmed black people and their demand for it to end.
Those tensions played out over social media on Friday night into Saturday morning, with people specifically highlighting videos posted from Oakland, Detroit, Minneapolis, and more, showing some white people smashing windows and destroying property.
Asia Cruz, who joined the protests in Oakland Friday night, said she arrived to what looked like a peaceful protest, but then saw a group of about a dozen white men dressed in all black tearing down the boards that covered the window of a Chase Bank. A video she posted of the incident on Twitter has gone viral.
“They started breaking the glass, set off a firework in the bank, and started a fire,” she told BuzzFeed News. Then they moved to a Walgreens across the street and “did the same thing.”
“I noticed each time, once they were in and protesters began to move in [too], the men dressed in black left almost immediately, and then the peaceful protestors would be sprayed with tear gas,” Cruz recalled. “It seemed very organized.”
Following another night of heated protests in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, several Minnesota officials suggested — some without evidence, causing confusion and potentially moving the focus away from police brutality — that many people who destroyed public property were not locals.
Officials also suggested, without providing hard evidence, that white supremacists may be instigating the violence. “We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out of state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey tweeted Saturday.
And Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said at an early morning press conference, “I need those legitimate folks who are grieving to take this back. … Why are we talking about anarchists who are burning down damn buildings?”
The conversation has dominated social media, particularly one white man — who has become known as Umbrella Man — who stood out while smashing up a Minneapolis AutoZone wearing new-looking gear and holding a black umbrella. Some people identified him as a St. Paul police officer, which the department denied.
SITE Intel Group, an organization that tracks white supremacist groups’ online activity, told BuzzFeed News that they have “seen early indications of a trend in calls for violence” against police and protesters in Minneapolis and elsewhere among white nationalists and the far right.
Discussions on far-right platforms called for violence against authorities and instigating racial violence during the protests, according to the group’s analysis. Some posts also encouraged destructive actions like setting buildings ablaze and firing shots into crowds.
It’s unclear if these calls are translating into coordinated action, and it’s impossible to verify whether every instance of violence at the protests is organized — the violence could come from anyone with or without a motive. But ultimately, the anger over Floyd’s killing is palpable and widespread among the black community and beyond, and has brought people out to the streets in force even amid a global pandemic.
DeMeeko Williams, a Detroit activist who organized a protest Friday, expressed frustration over those from outside the city who joined the protest and wreaked havoc.
“What was the point of it?” he told the Detroit News. “When you don’t live in our city, don’t come down here and think you are going to try to bust out our windows and then go back to your little white neighborhood.”
Ultimately, Anderson, the activist in Denver, said he knows that others “are going to blame black people” for the violence and destruction, whether or not they started it.
“When we aren’t asking people to destroy things in our name and people do it anyway, we know that this is something that’s going to blow back on us,” he said. “I’m pissed that this is going to blow back on us, because we don’t deserve this. We didn’t ask for this.”