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No, ‘outside agitators’ have not been dominating the unrest in Ferguson

Police officers arrest a demonstrator on Tuesday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As the unrest in Ferguson drew worldwide attention, it also lured scores of people to the Missouri town. Many of them were journalists, of course, who flooded the streets to document the scene. Some headed to Ferguson to protest and to join in what was taking place, while others were coming with less noble goals. (“It’s like looting tourism,” one Ferguson police officer said).

It was this contingent — the “outside agitators” — that has been remarked upon by authorities in the state, as well as by residents. Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson told CNN on Tuesday that “there are some outsiders” among the “small number of agitators” who were unlike the peaceful protesters. “We continue to worry about folks who are coming in from outside who are using this,” Gov. Jay Nixon (D) told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the same day, adding that the protests were “attracting bad guys across the country.”

When the St. Louis County Police Department reported that more than 50 people were arrested on Monday night and into Tuesday, a representative of the police force made sure to mention how many people were not from Ferguson. “It is of note that 93 percent of those arrested were not Ferguson residents,” Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the county police, wrote in the e-mail. “Of all those arrested, 27 percent were not residents of Missouri.”

As news spread that many of those arrested were not from the area, these numbers were picked up and remarked upon by media outlets including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (“Are outside instigators to blame for Ferguson violence? It’s complicated“), the Wall Street Journal (“In Ferguson, Many Outsiders Are Among Those Arrested”), CNN (“Some ‘agitators’ arrested in Ferguson come from across U.S.“), the Kansas City Star (“‘Outside agitators’ worsening unrest in Ferguson, Mo., residents say“) and The Washington Post, which noted that some of those arrested came from as far away as Chicago and San Diego and others came from Illinois or Texas.

Still, in the days since these numbers were disseminated, officials have provided additional information about how many people were arrested and for what. St. Louis County police told The Post that 155 people had been arrested as of Wednesday afternoon, a number that was likely an understatement because it did not count those held in municipal jails or any residents or journalists detained and released without charges. That number had risen to at least 168 people by Friday morning.

While the numbers don’t tell the entire story (because getting arrested is not necessarily a sign of criminal action or intent and because inevitably some people did break the law in Ferguson and were not arrested), it is useful to pause and consider that the majority of those arrested by Wednesday were from the St. Louis area:

Yes, it is noteworthy that people came to Ferguson from states across the country, and that a quarter of the people arrested by county police came from somewhere else. But even as the streets have calmed and the nightly arrest numbers have dwindled, it is still worth noting that the majority of those arrested were from the community that surrounds Ferguson, rather than travelers just passing through.

Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.

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