The Corner

Politics & Policy

Nick Kristof’s Times Colleague Kindly Helps Him ‘Find Trump’s Anarchists in Portland’

A riot against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Oregon, August 2, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

In July, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof appealed to his readers. “Help Me Find Trump’s ‘Anarchists’ in Portland,” he asked. Then he offered up 900 or so sarcastic words, in this vein:

 I’ve been on the front lines of the protests here, searching for the “radical-left anarchists” who President Trump says are on Portland streets each evening.

I thought I’d found one: a man who for weeks leapt into the fray and has been shot four times with impact munitions yet keeps coming back. I figured he must be a crazed anarchist.

But no, he turned out to be Dr. Bryan Wolf, a radiologist who wears his white doctor’s jacket and carries a sign with a red cross and the words “humanitarian aid.” He pleads with federal forces not to shoot or gas protesters.

. . .

Maybe the rioting anarchists were in front of the crowd, where there are discussions about Black Lives Matter? I found musicians and activists and technicians, who were projecting a huge sign on the wall of a nearby building — “Fed Goons Out of PDX” — that seemed a bit geeky for anarchists.

Oh, wait, there was a man using angry language about the federal “occupation” and calling it “abhorrent.” Lots of protesters don’t seem to like him, so could he be a crazed anarchist rioter?

Oops, no, that’s just Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, sputtering after being tear-gassed by the feds.

Alas, Kristof found nothing in Portland besides the people who confirmed his thesis. And yet it turns out that he didn’t need to recruit the Times’ readership to his side, so much as to take a casual stroll across the office to talk to his colleagues, one of whom, Farah Stockman, has written a fascinating piece titled “The Truth About Today’s Anarchists.” As Stockman notes, these people exist, they are not pro-Trump provocateurs, and they are not incidental to the violence.

Stockman’s essay opens with an account of a furloughed Californian photographer named Jeremy Lee Quinn, who was shocked to discover that the looting he was seeing through his lens was not, in fact, spontaneous:

Mr. Quinn began studying footage of looting from around the country and saw the same black outfits and, in some cases, the same masks. He decided to go to a protest dressed like that himself, to figure out what was really going on. He expected to find white supremacists who wanted to help re-elect President Trump by stoking fear of Black people. What he discovered instead were true believers in “insurrectionary anarchism.”

To better understand them, Mr. Quinn, a 40-something theater student who worked at Univision until the pandemic, has spent the past four months marching with “black bloc” anarchists in half a dozen cities across the country, chronicling the experience on his website, Public Report.

Or, to put it in terms that Nick Kristof might understand: Mr. Quinn found “Trump’s ‘Anarchists’ in Portland.” Furthermore, Mr. Quinn discovered that — amusingly enough, given their moniker — those anarchists were organized:

Mr. Quinn discovered a thorny truth about the mayhem that unfolded in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis. It wasn’t mayhem at all.

While talking heads on television routinely described it as a spontaneous eruption of anger at racial injustice, it was strategically planned, facilitated and advertised on social media by anarchists who believed that their actions advanced the cause of racial justice. In some cities, they were a fringe element, quickly expelled by peaceful organizers. But in Washington, Portland and Seattle they have attracted a “cultlike energy,” Mr. Quinn told me.

That’s the same Portland about which Nick Kristof wrote in July.

Okay, Kristof might say, But what if Mr. Quinn is a right-wing Trump fan who ju—:

He says he respects the idealistic goal of a hierarchy-free society that anarchists embrace, but grew increasingly uncomfortable with the tactics used by some anarchists, which he feared would set off a backlash that could help get President Trump re-elected.

Fine. But we shouldn’t just take Mr. Quinn’s word for it, given tha—:

Don’t take just Mr. Quinn’s word for it. Take the word of the anarchists themselves, who lay out the strategy in Crimethinc, an anarchist publication: Black-clad figures break windows, set fires, vandalize police cars, then melt back into the crowd of peaceful protesters. When the police respond by brutalizing innocent demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets and rough arrests, the public’s disdain for law enforcement grows. It’s Asymmetric Warfare 101.

All right, but maybe they’re just claim­i—:

If that is not enough to convince you that there’s a method to the madness, check out the new report by Rutgers researchers that documents the “systematic, online mobilization of violence that was planned, coordinated (in real time) and celebrated by explicitly violent anarcho-socialist networks that rode on the coattails of peaceful protest,” according to its co-author Pamela Paresky. She said some anarchist social media accounts had grown 300-fold since May, to hundreds of thousands of followers.

Okay, but surely their hearts are in the right pla—:

They are experts at unraveling an old order but considerably less skilled at building a new one. That’s why, even after more than 100 days of protest in Portland, activists do not agree on a set of common policy goals.

Even some anarchists admit as much.

“We are not sure if the socialist, communist, democratic or even anarchist utopia is possible,” a voice on “The Ex-Worker” podcast intones. “Rather, some insurrectionary anarchists believe that the meaning of being an anarchist lies in the struggle itself and what that struggle reveals.”

In other words, it’s not really about George Floyd or Black lives, but insurrection for insurrection’s sake.

It’s nice when people find what they were looking for — even when it has been abundantly obvious to everyone with eyes for three or four months straight.

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