Mysterious brick piles and gasoline bottles: staying safe and sane despite riotous rumors

You may have heard reports about pallets of bricks conveniently left near protests around the United States, ready to be thrown through windows. We’ve also been hearing about bottles of gasoline hidden in bushes around Minneapolis. Could people really be planting violent objects in our cities? Let’s take a look at the claims and try to ascertain what the truth is.

What you need to know:

  • We’re skeptical of the bricks story, but some public officials are insisting it’s true. After digging into it, we couldn’t come to a firm conclusion one way or the other.
  • The gasoline bottles story seems a lot more solid than the bricks story, but we still have some lingering doubts.
  • It’s really, really hard right now for even the most dedicated, honest professionals in public safety and media to sort out rumor from reality. There’s just too much uncertainty out there in the fast-moving flow of events.
  • There are specific principles you can use when evaluating and sharing warnings and other information you get from public authorities and media outlets (see the last section of this piece).

Hit the bricks

Conspiracy theories around caches of bricks have been bandied about in the past few days. Here’s a video showing multiple protest sites with seemingly random piles of bricks and even people handing out bricks (warning: foul language).

The left and right both have developed conspiracy theories around the mystery bricks. Many on the left claim that the police are deliberately planting bricks in order to cause violence and create a reason to escalate against protestors. Some on the right blame the placement of the bricks on left-wing actors like Antifa and George Soros. Here’s a video of Sean Hannity’s coverage.

Debunking the conspiracy theories

However, there are perfectly rational explanations for why pallets of bricks would be laying around, such as construction. For example, the Associated Press looked into reports of bricks near a protest in Frisco, Texas and found that a residential construction project was planned near the site.

The BBC investigated a video from Fayetteville, North Carolina, tracked down its geolocation, and found pictures of the area from May 24th with the bricks in place well before any protests.

Twitter user @lextayham posted a video of brick pallets in San Francisco, and quickly received a response from the San Francisco Police Department saying that the pallets were affiliated with a construction project and that the city has now asked the contractor to remove them.

So, that’s the explanation: construction crews just left brick pallets laying around for future projects, not anticipating civil unrest. Right? Not so fast.

The New York Police Department jumped in, with Commissioner Dermot Shea tweeting a video of police officers removing boxes of what Shea claimed were “strategically” placed “caches of bricks & rocks at locations throughout NYC.”

VICE looked into it, and found that the bricks were stashed far away from any planned protests, though conceded that it was possible the bricks could have been planted. Mark Treyger, the New York City council member over that area, said it was construction debris from a nearby site that hadn’t begun construction yet.

Lesser reported was the Kansas City police claiming that people had been stashing bricks and rocks around the Country Club Plaza where a protest was planned.

Then you have videos like this one, which depicts police in Boston doing something with bricks (warning: foul language). The video’s narrators claim the cops were planting bricks, but the Northeastern University Police Department later explained that the video depicted NUPD officers unloading bricks at their headquarters that they had removed from a damaged brick sidewalk. The Boston Globe tracked down the brick sidewalk and found that it was indeed in disrepair and missing bricks.

100 bottles of beer in the grass…

Another strange story comes from Minneapolis, where multiple witnesses claimed to find bottles of gasoline and other combustibles distributed around neighborhoods:

  • Minnesota Public Radio reported on stashes of kitchen matches, a salad dressing jar full of gasoline, and a pile of wood doused with gasoline or mineral spirits found around south Minneapolis.
  • Twitter account @gullyboysband tweeted a warning about water bottles of gasoline.
  • The Black Disability Collective also tweeted a warning about gasoline bottles.

The Minneapolis Police Department issued a warning about the bottles and told residents to call 911 if they find any.

Oddly enough, despite all the reports and even official warnings, we have yet to see a single picture of a gasoline-filled bottle.

The idea isn’t implausible. Weapon caches are a common tactic in guerilla warfare. But as with the bricks, we’re mostly just left with questions and a lot of “he said, she said” disputes.

The bottom line

We honestly aren’t entirely sure what to think about either the bricks or the gas-filled bottles. It is not inconceivable that troublemakers from anywhere along the political spectrum could be caching weapons in order to foment social unrest for whatever ends.

We’d like to be able to default to just “go with whatever your local authorities are telling you,” but two things give us pause:

  1. Different authorities are saying different things right now, so there’s no a clear “official line,” and
  2. Authorities have mislead the public about, say, the importance of wearing masks in public during the pandemic, so blind trust in them is not always advised.

More: Milk does not treat tear gas but helps a little with pepper spray

On a practical level, the following responses seem appropriate and in line with the principles of sane prepping:

  • Behave as if the worst-case thing your local authorities are telling you is true, even if you think it’s suspect. It doesn’t hurt to prepare for the worst, even if it’s unlikely.
  • Take care with how you share information from local authorities. I.e., don’t just repeat it as truth, but frame it along the lines of: “our local authorities are telling us to look out for this. I can’t personally vouch that it’s legit, but do keep an eye out nonetheless.”
  • Exercise extreme caution with sharing any press reports of shadowy groups doing bad things, even from trusted outlets. Even professionals are getting taken in by disinformation right now.
  • Don’t get too hung up on fights over the origins of supposed threats. If you get hit in the face with a brick, you’re not going to care where the brick came from. Just take necessary precautions if you anticipate being in a potential riot zone — stay alert, wear protective gear, be prepared to bail if it gets crazy, and carry supplies (water, first aid kit, towels, masks, sanitizer, etc.).
  • Whatever you think about what’s going on, now is a really good time to have a fire extinguisher in your home—an essential prep.

When evaluating fast-moving news in the fog of chaos, remember the “Sagan standard,” which is: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Always stick to the fundamentals of sane preparedness and don’t let yourself be driven mad by the noise.

  • 1 Comment

    • Hardened

      Thank you Josh for this balanced reporting and especially the references to the U.S. Army Guerrilla Warfare Handbook.  I think it’s important that we keep looking at these questions and others like them while retaining a skeptical mind.

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