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Analysts Say Armed Groups At Protests Raise Specter Of A ‘Street War’


Over the past two months, street clashes have erupted at protests in several cities. Brawls involve a mix of protesters, police, federal forces and extremists. With armed groups squaring off and a big upcoming election adding to tensions, terrorism analysts fear that the worst may still be to come. NPR’s Hannah Allam reports. And just a note here, Hannah’s story does include the sound of gunfire.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: At a congressional hearing earlier this month, extremism researcher J.J. Macnab had this warning for lawmakers – a potential street war is brewing.


JJ MACNAB: The risk that worries me most right now, though, I am concerned that there will be a shootout at one or more of the Black Lives Matter protests. There are too many guns at these events held by too many groups with conflicting goals.

ALLAM: Nine days after Macnab’s grim prediction, this happened.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: In Austin, Texas, a protest and then gunfire…


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: …As people run for cover. Police say a protester with a rifle was shot and killed by a man in a car driving through a crowd. In Aurora, Colo., this…

ALLAM: At least five protesters were shot last weekend. Researchers worry that tensions among different armed factions could spiral into more bloodshed, especially in the runup to the November presidential election, an election steeped in toxic us vs. them politics.

SETH JONES: I’m telling you, I think we are coming into very dangerous waters over the next couple of months.

ALLAM: Seth Jones is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He calls the current climate a tinderbox.

JONES: This has the potential for larger numbers and amounts of street violence between groups and networks on opposing sides. This is serious. I mean, I have not seen this kind of domestic terrorism threat really in my lifetime.

ALLAM: Jones and others say extremists are either attacking protests or trying to exploit them for their own agendas. Some want a violent revolution, others a race war. Meanwhile, guns are increasingly visible on the protesters’ side, too. At a hearing this week, House Democrats accused Attorney General William Barr of ignoring the far-right threat. In Barr’s view, the protests have been hijacked by armed anarchists and other radicals. Here’s how he described protesters in Portland, Ore.


WILLIAM BARR: The rioters have come equipped for fight, armed with powerful slingshots, tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles and explosive devices.

ALLAM: Barr also defended the deployment of federal police. That move has been widely criticized as an unnecessary addition to an already combustible mix.

ASHLEY HOWARD: This becomes very dangerous in who is being read as an enemy, who is read as being engaged in criminal activity and when the federal government can use its considerable power to shut down public dissent.

ALLAM: Ashley Howard is an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who studies violence and civil rights rebellions. She says protests in the ’60s also drew an extreme backlash. But now, with the organizing power of social media and guns in so many hands, this era is different.

HOWARD: I for so long have taken for granted what protesting in this country meant, that you could go out and come home that night, right? And I think now this has changed. You could get hit by a car. You could get a rubber bullet to the face. You could, you know, be shot by someone who’s trying to protect you.

ALLAM: And yet, Howard says, Black and allied protesters are still showing up, facing new threats to protest old inequalities. Hannah Allam, NPR News.