WASHINGTON — Scott Nichols, a balloon artist, was riding home on his scooter from the protests engulfing Minneapolis last weekend when he was struck by a rubber bullet fired from a cluster of police officers in riot gear.
“I just pulled over and put my hands up, because I didn’t want to get killed,” said Nichols, 40. “Anybody that knows me knows I wasn’t out there to cause problems.”
Nichols, who before the coronavirus pandemic made his living performing at children’s birthday parties under the stage name “Amazing Scott,” spent two days in jail before being released on criminal charges of riot and curfew violation.
President Donald Trump has characterized those clashing with law enforcement after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as organized, radical-left thugs engaging in domestic terrorism, an assertion repeated by Attorney General William Barr. Some Democrats, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, initially tried to blame out-of-state far-right infiltrators for the unrest before walking back those statements.
There is scant evidence either is true.
The Associated Press analyzed court records, employment histories, social media posts and other sources of information for 217 people arrested last weekend in Minneapolis and the District of Columbia, two cities at the epicenter of the protests across the United States.
Rather than outside agitators, more than 85% of those arrested by police were local residents. Of those charged with such offenses as curfew violations, rioting and failure to obey law enforcement, only a handful appeared to have any affiliation with organized groups.
Those charged with more serious offenses related to looting and property destruction – such as arson, burglary and theft – often had past criminal records. But they, too, were overwhelmingly local residents taking advantage of the chaos.
Social media posts indicate only a few of those arrested are left-leaning activists, including a self-described anarchist. But others had indications of being on the political right, including some Trump supporters.
The president has tried to portray the protesters and looters with a broad brush as “radical-left, bad people,” ominously invoking the name “antifa,” an umbrella term for leftist militants bound more by belief than organizational structure. Trump tweeted last Sunday that he planned to designate antifa as a terrorist organization.
“These are acts of domestic terror,” Trump said in a Rose Garden speech Monday, moments after heavily armed troops and riot police advanced without warning on the largely peaceful protesters across the street from the White House.
Barr, put in charge of organizing the police and military response, activated the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force last weekend to target protest organizers.
“The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly,” Barr said in a statement issued Sunday.
There have been violent acts, including property destruction and theft. Police officers and protesters have been seriously injured and killed. But federal law enforcement officials have offered little evidence that antifa-aligned protesters could be behind a movement that has appeared nearly simultaneously in hundreds of cities and towns in all 50 states since Floyd's death.
The AP obtained copies of daily confidential “Intelligence Notes” distributed this past week to local enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security that repeat, without citing evidence, that “organized violent opportunists — including suspected anarchist extremists — could increasingly perpetrate nationwide targeting of law enforcement and critical infrastructure.”
“We lack detailed reporting indicating the level of organization and planning by some violent opportunists and assess that most of the violence to date has been loosely organized on a level seen with previous widespread outbreaks of violence at lawful protests,” the assessment for Monday says.
The following day, the assessment noted “several uncorroborated reports of bricks being pre-staged at planned protest venues nationwide.”
“Although we have been unable to verify the reporting through official channels, the staging of improvised weapons at planned events is a common tactic used by violent opportunists,” the Tuesday assessment says.
But social media posts warning that stacks of bricks have been left at protest sites in Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles have been debunked by local officials who have explained that the masonry was out in the open before the protests or was for use in construction projects.
Nichols, the balloon artist, hardly fits the portrait of a radical.
He recently gained local notice for a giant balloon rabbit and other sculptures displayed in his front yard for Easter. He laughed when asked if he had any ties to antifa or other militant groups. A white man who lives less than a half mile from where Floyd was killed on May 25, Nichols said he protested to support of his neighbors, many of whom are black.
“It was the most insane thing I’ve seen in my life,” he said. “The city was going crazy.”
Nichols said he and a friend helped douse a dumpster fire near a laundromat. He remembers getting a text from his mother saying that Minneapolis had set an 8 p.m. curfew, but he thought it would be enforced loosely.
“Had I known that being out after curfew would be such a severe penalty, I would have never done it,” Nichols said, adding that he missed his son's high school graduation while he was in jail.
Lars Ortiz, a 35-year-old classical musician, said he was driving just blocks from his Minneapolis home on May 29 after visiting a friend recovering from COVID-19 when officers pulled him out of his car at gunpoint. He said he had been unaware of the 8 p.m. curfew enacted that night.
Ortiz and another friend in the car with him were put in zip-tie restraints and forced to wait on a bus for hours before police took them to jail, where he would spend the weekend.
“It was scary. It was confusing. I felt violated,” said Ortiz, a cellist who identifies as a biracial Mexican American.
Ortiz was held on a riot charge and curfew violation. He said he was told when he was released from jail on Monday the more serious rioting charge was dropped.
Lt. Andy Knotz of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies were deployed from the suburban county north of Minneapolis into the city to help with the unrest, said it was a “chaotic scene” and that Ortiz was coming from the direction of the protests. Knotz said Ortiz was removed from his car by the Minnesota State Patrol, and an Anoka deputy took him to the police station.
"In chaos like that you can’t determine who is legit and who isn’t,” Knotz said.
Natalie Cook, 43, who’s white, said she had never before participated in a protest, but wanted to be there to support and protect her 24-year-old son, who’s black.
“Not only did I want to go to be an ally to black people, but I wanted to go to support my son," Cook said. “Also, I was afraid to send him out by himself.”
Cook said they were marching peacefully with about 100 protesters for hours when police started using tear gas and shooting rubber bullets. As they tried to get away, they were pepper sprayed and her son was hit at close range by a rubber bullet, she said. They were both jailed and released on Monday, charged with riot and violating curfew.
Cook said her son was deeply affected by Floyd’s death and she doesn’t have any regrets about going out to make their voices heard.
“My son was really struggling with it,” she said. “We couldn’t just sit by and watch.”
AP filed public records requests seeking arrest reports and other documents that might show what evidence law enforcement officers have against Nichols, Ortiz the Cooks and others arrested in Minneapolis. Those records have not yet been provided.
In Washington, the D.C. Metropolitan Police arrested at least 81 people last weekend, including some as young as 13. Most were charged with curfew violations and felony rioting, which could result in up to 180 days in jail and $5,000 in fines.
Among the highest profile arrests made by federal authorities in the last week was Matthew Lee Rupert. Prosecutors allege the 28-year-old Illinois man traveled to Minneapolis to participate in riots and then posted videos on a Facebook page showing him looting stores and handing out explosives.
In one video, Rupert, a convicted felon, says: “We come to riot, boy! This is what we came for!”
Though Rupert is alleged to have targeted police officers, there is no evidence cited in his indictment he is affiliated with any organized group. Among the few indicators of his political beliefs was a series of Facebook posts celebrating Trump's 2017 inauguration. “Trump is my president but I’m not racist,” he wrote, adding that he loves Mexican food.
Rupert, who made an initial court appearance Friday, remains in federal custody. A federal public defender assigned to represent him did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.
Michael German, a former FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said people often travel and cross state lines to participate in protests and that not all of them have peaceful intent. He said politicians and law enforcement often cite the presence of out-of-towners to justify greater police force against protesters.
“It’s an old tactic for law enforcement policing protests to suggest that the problems are being caused by outside agitators,” German said. “It opens up the opportunity for greater police violence in response.”
Among those who traveled to Minneapolis to protest Floyd’s killing was Tara Houska, a 36-year-old attorney and member of the Couchiching First Nation from northern Minnesota. An activist for indigenous rights, she was arrested in Minneapolis last Saturday night and charged with not complying with a peace officer.
Houska, who attended college and law school in the city, said she was with a group a couple blocks from where Floyd died when police told them they were breaking curfew. They replied they were going home, she said, and then the officers hit them with pepper spray and zip-tied their hands.
“Almost everyone that was in our holding tank with us was from Minnesota," Houska said.
Sierra West, 29, of Kansas City, Missouri, said she drove to Minneapolis with a friend because she is “so angry about what is happening” with police brutality and wanted to peacefully protest.
After marching for hours, West broke away from the crowds and was walking back to her car through an alley alone when police arrested her early Saturday on riot and curfew violation charges. She said she did nothing to provoke the four officers who confronted her.
“They were hiding, and they literally jumped out of the shadows with guns drawn on me,” she said. “The street was completely empty.”
West, who is white and describes herself as a strong supporter of the Black Lives Movement, was freed from jail on Monday afternoon.
University of Minnesota Law School student Santana Boulton, 23, said a police officer pepper-sprayed her in the face on May 28 before she was tear-gassed two days later and then arrested on Sunday, charged with unlawful assembly and violating a curfew.
About 15 minutes before the 8 p.m. curfew, Boulton said she and her boyfriend joined a large crowd of marchers on Interstate 35. People linked arms and kneeled before two lines of police officers formed near the protesters. She said she never heard any orders to disperse.
“It was nothing like a riot. It was a sit-in,” she said.
Boulton, a white woman who moved from Michigan to Minneapolis to attend law school, was arrested and spent 16 hours in custody. She described herself as “philosophically an anarchist,” but “not a revolutionary.”
“Antifa isn’t even real,” Boulton said. “As an actual person who identifies with the political label of anarchist, the only thing anarchists do is have meetings where they argue for five hours and get nothing done.”
Kunzelman reported from Silver Spring, Maryland, Bleiberg from Dallas and Durkin Richer from West Harwich, Massachusetts. Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko and Ashraf Khalil in Washington, Amanda Seitz and Don Babwin in Chicago, and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.