By Erik Kleinsmith, Associate Vice President, Public Sector Outreach, American Military University
After months of patiently—and impatiently—enduring a pandemic-related lockdown, many of us have asked: “What could make 2020 worse?” Based on the nationwide events during the last week, it appears we have an answer.
Protests Lead to Riots
While trying to protest and demonstrate anger and frustration at a heinous act of police brutality and the murder in Minneapolis of African American, George Floyd, the nation now finds itself witnessing widespread civil unrest and varying levels of destruction within many of our cities.
It is a difficult task for anyone to make sense of what has happened in the past few days. In reality, it may be months before we can fully grasp how a movement to protest racism and injustice turned into the potential breakdown of portions of society. While we now know that our society can bear months of economic shutdown and massive social restrictions, we also know that we cannot bear rampant looting, violence, and destruction for long.
[Related: Preparing for Protests, Civil Unrest Requires Coordination among Agencies]
Many people have turned to both the traditional media as well as information on social media to try to gain an understanding of these rapidly unfolding events. These media have provided the public with a flurry of myopic and often conflicting stories about the civil unrest. There have been many eyewitness accounts of demonstrations and violence along with photos and videos of a burning police station, stores being looted, and varying degrees of police response.
Instead of gaining a more holistic understanding of the civil unrest, the public has seen only a series of snapshots and anecdotal stories that include both shameful and courageous acts. From this information, individuals are then left to make sense of it all.
Understanding the Three Major Groups Involved in Civil Unrest
To better understand the protests and riots of 2020, the public must first understand the three major groups involved in the civil unrest and their position in society.
There are many groups, movements, and individual actions involved, but, in general terms, they fall into three overlapping categories: peaceful demonstrations, criminal elements, and radical political groups that include anarchists, white supremacists, and ultraleftists such as Antifa and others.
Legitimate and peaceful demonstrations and protests against racism and injustice are a necessary and almost universally accepted part of our society. Those who are protesting the murder of George Floyd have a right to assemble and make their grievances heard.
Predictably, these demonstrations put a strain on local law enforcement to ensure that the protests are conducted peacefully and without issue. This strain is compounded if, as we saw this week, some of the protests are directed at the police themselves.
While a peaceful demonstration is not something that would overwhelm local law enforcement, it sets up the conditions that criminals and radicals desire for their unlawful and violent acts.
Criminal elements are a persistent aspect in any society, but looting on a massive scale as we are seeing can only occur when law enforcement is stretched beyond its capabilities.
Generally, there is minimal organization among looters during a massive demonstration. Most work in small groups or teams to plunder stores. Each looter operates from the more selfish principles of personal gain and survival rather than from the shared common cause of the protestor or radical. If protests and looting were all the police had to worry about this week, it would be nowhere near the crisis that is unfolding now.
Radical Political Groups
For the radical political elements, this week’s demonstrations provide excellent cover and unprecedented opportunities for their activities. When masquerading as demonstrators in what would start as a peaceful demonstration, these small groups of radicals, adorned all in black and armed with rudimentary weapons and even some armor, can quickly alter a peaceful protest into a frenzy of destruction of private and public property.
These radicals, who can be mapped generally as college-age, middle-class males with a few females in their ranks, can also expand their violence to attack both law enforcement and law-abiding citizens who have bravely chosen to stand up for their city or businesses.
Can These Groups be Profiled?
To the untrained eye, radical groups may look like peaceful protestors on the street, but the former have almost nothing in common with the latter. If you were to compare a profile of a protest group, such as Black Lives Matter, with a politically radical group, such as Antifa, you would find that they share only a few aspects in the demographics and motivations of some of their members. But that’s where the similarities end.
Each group’s respective goals, objectives, targets, organization, leadership and methods of operation widely differ from the other. For those who decry that many of these radical groups can’t be profiled or countered since they have no national organization, that simply is not true. Their organization may be decentralized and disjointed, but every other aspect of their profile remains consistent and therefore can be analyzed for weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and appropriate countermeasures.
Unfortunately, many of those supporting the protestors with monetary donations and sympathetic social media posts, including celebrities, don’t understand that they may also be supporting the more violent radicals hiding in the group’s midst. Support to radicals can be legal and illegal, direct or indirect, and witting or unwitting. But someone is paying for those pallets of bricks conveniently positioned along protest routes.
As noted earlier, violence on the scale we’ve been seeing this week can only take place once the criminals and political radicals perceive that they have overwhelmed law enforcement to the point where they can conduct attacks and get away with them. For law enforcement, understanding that radical violent and criminal activity requires overwhelming their capabilities and the methods used to achieve it is the first step towards countering it.
It is heartening to see the many accounts of commitment and bravery of ordinary people who have stepped up to counter the radicals by protecting themselves and, in some cases, protecting police who have found themselves in vulnerable positions. This is one act that the criminals and radicals may not have expected – that the same citizens who are protesting the murderous actions of a few police officers would support and ally with law enforcement across the country. Hopefully, a result of the riots of 2020 will be a strengthening of these bonds as one way to combat not only violence and criminality, but also racism and injustice.
About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Business Development in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger, tracking Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He is the author of the 2020 book, Intelligence Operations: Understanding Data, Tools, People, and Processes. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife, son, and daughter.
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