The top civil rights agent in Pennsylvania is warning that peaceful protests across the state are being infiltrated by white supremacists and other extremists.
"I've been on the ground for three days in Philadelphia, and I'm disturbed by what I'm seeing," said Chad Dion Lassiter, a national expert on race relations and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission.
Looting, destruction and fires recently overtook otherwise peaceful protests in Philadelphia, its suburbs and other communities across the state. Demonstrators have been rallying in support of George Floyd, who died during an arrest in Minneapolis, and marching against police brutality.
But those peaceful protests are being hijacked, Pennsylvania officials say.
"What I saw was a coordinated effort of looting encouraged by white supremacists who hide behind signs demanding justice while promoting anarchy," Lassiter said.
Other Pennsylvania officials are also reporting what Lassiter is seeing.
Lancaster Police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser on Monday said police have “definite evidence” that white nationalists were among the crowds of protesters during the weekend.
They were wearing body armor and carrying handguns, and "caucasian individuals" threw rocks and bottles containing cayenne pepper at police, Berkhiser said.
There were also threats to set fire to the police station, the county courthouse and local stores, he said.
“Our main concern right now are the agitators that are coming into the city and trying to instigate violence between the crowd and the police officers,” he said.
These warnings come as York prepares for a Black Lives Matter rally at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Twitter on Monday removed accounts linked to Identity Evropa, a white power group. The social media company said one of the accounts created by Identity Evropa was a fake Antifa account that promoted violence. Twitter said inciting violence is a violation of its social media policies and that's why it removed the accounts.
Identity Evropa is based in Alexandria, Virginia, and also operates under another name, the American Identitarian Movement, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The group promotes itself as "identitarian," that white people should preserve their racial and cultural identity. The American Identitarian Movement says it prohibits violence and illegal activity.
It's not clear how much of a reach that group had or has in Pennsylvania, but it is known that the state is home to several hate groups and white supremacists. There were 36 hate groups in Pennsylvania in 2019, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Of those, 19 were white nationalists or racist.
"I'm very concerned about violence in Pennsylvania," Lassiter said. "I'm on high alert, and we should all be on high alert. We need to all be on the lookout for anarchists, facists, white supremacists and other extremists who may infiltrate the protests."
Other human rights agencies say it's hard to pinpoint who's to blame for violence that erupts at the protests.
Antifa, which is a shortened version of anti-facists, is generally opposed to law enforcement and can get combative during demonstrations. The George Floyd protests give antifa protesters an opportunity to cause anarchy, which is not the goal of those who are carrying signs demanding equality and justice, according to Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.
But there's no good way to track which group is responsible for recent vandalism, he said.
It is also unclear how many of the protesters committing violence or destroying property are part of antifa or just upset with the ongoing issue of police brutality, Greenblatt said.
"So many people are showing up and making their voices heard. Our Center on Extremism is keeping tabs on the extremists who could use the civil unrest to advance their hateful agendas," he said.
The groups showing up include not only white nationalists, but also anarchists and boogalooers, who are extremists preparing for another civil war.
But not everyone who is committing violence is an extremist or connected to an organization, and not every extremist participating in protests is immediately identifiable, according to the ADL.
"It is our initial assessment that while a number of extremists – including anti-government agitators, anarchists and a handful of white supremacists – are taking an active role, these protests should not be categorized as “extremist” events at this point," the ADL's Center on Extremism said in a report.
"Claims that extremists are taking the lead in these demonstrations diminish the message protesters are trying to convey," the report said. "It is, of course, easier to believe that white supremacists or anarchists are leading the charge than it is to accept that Americans are so angry, so fundamentally outraged at the state of their country, that they are willing to take to the streets, push back against a militarized police force, risking serious injury or arrest."
There aren't many signs of an organized effort to coordinate violence at protests, according to Howard Graves, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I have not seen any clear evidence that white supremacists or militiamen are masking up and going out to burn and loot,” he said to the New York Times.
Lassiter said his biggest concerns in Pennsylvania are cultural and not assigned to one particular area.
"I've met great and amazing Pennsylvanians, but I've also felt the glares and stares because I am a 6-6 black man," he said. "I know if I get pulled over, it may be the last day of my life."
While there are amazing Pennsylvanians, there are also Pennsylvanians who don't see everyone as human beings or treat them equally.
He was heartsick to see what happened to Floyd.
"When I saw Mr. Floyd with a knee on his neck, something went out of me. When I heard him say, "I can’t breathe," something in me died," Lassister said.
He is also disturbed by a recent video in Pennsylvania that shows an Erie police officer kicking a seated protester in the shoulder Saturday during a demonstration against police brutality. An officer used his foot to kick Hannah Silbaugh, a 21-year-old Erie resident, and knock her backwards. She was also maced during the incident.
"There's no area of Pennsylvania that is immune to unrest," Lassiter said.
Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny during a Monday news conference said the video was "disturbing," according to the Erie Times-News. The city police bureau's Office of Professional Standards is investigating whether there were any use-of-force violations.
Lassiter said he is encouraged by the growing number of police chiefs in Pennsylvania who are condemning police brutality and the methods used by the officer who put a knee on Floyd's neck.
"There are amazing police officers of all types who are denouncing these forceful behaviors in policing and at protests," Lassiter said. "We need to keep doing that and we need to remember the bad apples don't define the bunch. We all need to work toward peace."