WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 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 sought to blame out-of-state far-right infiltrators for the unrest before walking back those statements.
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.
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 were overwhelmingly local residents taking advantage of the chaos.
Social media posts indicate 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 sought to paint the protesters and looters with 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, as the source of the trouble. Trump said he planned to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization.
Barr, in charge of organizing the police and military response, echoed the president. “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.
There have been violent acts, including property destruction and theft. Police officers and protesters have been seriously injured and have been killed. But federal law enforcement officials have offered little evidence that antifa-aligned protesters are behind a nationwide protest movement.
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.”
But the note for Monday acknowledges that the department lacked “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.”
Nichols, the balloon artist, hardly fits the portrait of a radical. He laughed when asked if he had any ties to antifa or other militant groups. A white man, Nichols said protested to support of his neighbors, many of whom are black.
“The city was going crazy,” he said.
Lars Ortiz, a 35-year-old classical musician, said he was driving just blocks from his Minneapolis home on May 29 when officers pulled him out of his car at gunpoint, forcing him to wait on a bus for hours before police took them to jail.
“It was scary. It was confusing. I felt violated,” said Ortiz, a cellist who identifies as a biracial Mexican American.
The AP filed public records requests seeking arrest reports and other documents that might show what evidence law enforcement officers have against Nichols, Ortiz and others arrested in Minneapolis. Those records have not yet been provided.
In Washington, the D.C. Metropolitan Police arrested 81 people last weekend, some as young as 13. Most were charged with curfew violation and felony rioting.
Among the highest profile arrests made by federal authorities in the last week was Matthew Lee Rupert, a 28-year-old Illinois man. Prosecutors say traveled to Minneapolis to participate in riots and then posted videos on Facebook showing him looting stores and handing out explosives.
In one video, Rupert, a convicted felon, says: “We come to riot, boy!” 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 Facebook posts celebrating Trump’s 2017 inauguration. “Trump is my president but I’m not racist,” he wrote.
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.
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.
“It was nothing like a riot. It was a sit-in,” she said.
Boulton, a white woman who moved to Minneapolis from Michigan 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 writer Brian Slodysko and Ashraf Khalil in Washington, Amanda Seitz and Don Babwin in Chicago, and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.
Follow Associated Press Investigative Reporter Michael Biesecker at http//:twitter.com/mbieseck
Have a tip? Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org