Yesterday, Farah Stockman from the New York Times editorial board published an article claiming to be “The Truth About Today’s Anarchists.” It draws on the work of an amateur conspiracy theorist, a poorly researched report from a nonprofit including a former Republican state attorney general and a former NYPD chief, a couple interviews with politicians and reformers, decontextualized and misleading references to two of our own publications, and regurgitated right-wing talking points to argue that violent anarchists are somehow controlling the ongoing countrywide protests but don’t care about Black lives.
What follows is a detailed rebuttal of this dangerously irresponsible article. Fortunately, initial reactions on social media suggest that the reading public has largely seen through its distortions. Nonetheless, we want to take the opportunity to reply in full—because despite its absurdity, the article touches on critical issues that deserve to be addressed. This is an opportunity to set the record straight, to explain why many anarchists have participated in these protests, and to elaborate our vision for a freer world.
“The Truth about Anarchists”
How did Stockman learn this “truth”? She appears to have spoken to at least one experienced activist in the course of her research, though she didn’t use any of the information or contacts that person offered her. There are thousands she could have approached—but she didn’t include perspective from any of them.
Instead, the article’s primary source is Jeremy Lee Quinn, an amateur conspiracy theorist posing as an investigative journalist who has no more familiarity with anarchists than one can gain from standing around at a couple demonstrations. Admitting he has no prior background on the subject, he claims to have “gone undercover” during black bloc protests in several cities over a period of months, and has now posted a website full of videos and disjointed rants as “a non-partisan source of information on riot Direct Action [sic] and how it may succeed under the cover of protest.” Last week, this self-described “centrist” reached out to Enrique Tarrio, the head of the Proud Boys, the group of violent extreme-right thugs who Trump called on to “stand by” during his debate with Joe Biden on Tuesday. Addressing Tarrio, Quinn claimed that “the establishment media has completely dropped the ball” and implied that he had penetrated “a fog of propaganda that obscured how the insurrectionist Anarchists (Antifa) have worked.”
Stockman bought Quinn’s story wholesale, casting him as the humble hero of a crusade to save a peaceful protest movement from violent mobs of white anarchists who are working to undermine it for their own agendas. In her account, these anarchists are actually coordinating the unrest through social media, “hiding in plain sight” and conducting a “violent insurgency” under the guise of the legitimate peaceful movement, while relying on the liberal media and duped public to minimize the threat they pose. Black protest leaders who are working for constructive change resent these efforts to appropriate their struggles, but are powerless to stop them. Unless they are checked, Stockman implies, they will not only delegitimize the movement in the eyes of the public, but escalate their violence and mayhem.
Does this sound familiar? That’s because it comes directly from President Donald Trump—who began tweeting that anarchists were behind the protests within their first days—and Attorney General Bill Barr and Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf, who have worked tirelessly to divide and conquer the movement against police and white supremacy by continuously trying to change the subject to alleged anarchist criminals and antifa “terrorists.”
The problem is that it’s nonsense. Worse, it’s a pack of lies. Any self-respecting journalist who repeats it should be ashamed.
Permit us to detail why.
Jokes aside, @fstockman signs on on Jeremy's conspiracy theory. "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."
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) October 1, 2020
The Roots of the Narrative
So why is a seemingly critical journalist repeating these absurd and harmful stories? On what basis does she make these claims?
Rhetoric about the role of white anarchists as “agitators” surfaced in the first days of the rebellion in Minneapolis. It had existed as a trope for years before the Floyd protests, often used as a wedge to shut out militant participation and centralize control over tactics in protest campaigns. As the rebellion spread from Minneapolis across the U.S. and beyond, participants actively discussed racial, political, and tactical dynamics in the streets. Despite initial reports blaming white agitators for violence, most subsequent accounts recognized that the riotous crowds have been multiracial; that “outside agitator” narratives were false; and that anarchists made up only a small part of most large demonstrations. Black anarchists have been actively participating in the rebellions from the very beginning, making it clear that neither Black reformists nor white anarchists are calling the shots. Even the government’s own reports acknowledged that their “antifa” bugaboo had no significant organizing role in the protests, while emphasizing that both countless threats and numerous acts of actual violence were carried out by Trump’s extreme right defenders.
Of course, some anarchists have participated alongside thousands of other people in black blocs that have confronted police and attacked symbols of state violence. The use of confrontational tactics continues to be a controversial issue as the movement evolves. But any moral calculation would recognize that the real issue here is the widespread and thoroughly documented violence committed against protesters, rather than by them. While a range of opinions exists in the movement over how effective confrontational protest tactics usually are and how best to respect our different approaches without undermining others’ goals, it’s clear that our most urgent shared need is to defend ourselves against the attacks intended to terrorize the movement. Protestors have suffered tens of thousands of arrests and countless acts of unprovoked brutality at the hands of police across the country, including the murders of over a dozen people by police, National Guardsmen, and right-wing vigilantes. For self-styled “journalists” like Quinn, these facts are unworthy of mention, eclipsed by a single-minded insistence on blaming the “violence” of the protests on anarchists.
Stockman disingenuously reports that Quinn’s investigations were prompted by his concern that anarchists’ militant tactics “would set off a backlash that could help get President Trump re-elected.” It is unlikely that this was a sincere concern for someone so eager to collaborate with the Proud Boys. Quinn’s shocking conclusion, Stockman breathlessly reports, was that the “mayhem” following Floyd’s murder “wasn’t mayhem at all”—rather than the “spontaneous eruption of anger at racial injustice” that countless reports described, the uprising was “strategically planned, facilitated and advertised on social media by anarchists.”
This claim is absurd—and frankly racist. To insist that a small group of white anarchists somehow managed to coordinate a multiethnic movement that brought tens of millions of Americans into the streets and direct it to their own ends smacks of the worst conspiracy theory thinking. Anarchists of various ethnicities certainly supported, promoted, and participated in the protests, and in some instances modeled confrontational tactics that became contagious. But the most spirited efforts would have been meaningless without the autonomous efforts of countless millions of others. Groups of anarchists planned their own participation, but none directed the movement as a whole. Anarchists provided material support and ideas—but they provided them to a horizontal movement drawing on the skills and energy of countless others. Anarchists advertised protests through social media, like most of the other participants, but by any reckoning the participation of self-identified anarchists, online or in the streets, was dwarfed by the crowds with whom anarchists shared many values and desires but no distinct ideology. To claim otherwise misunderstands the nature of leaderless movements, overestimates the power and influence of a single strand in a diverse web, and denies the agency and leadership of countless others without whom the movement could not have happened.
Quinn’s transparent agenda as an attention-seeking aspiring pundit explains his efforts to deceive. But why did Stockman fall for it?
She cites an account CrimethInc. published describing the siege of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis—though she either failed to understand the text, or willfully misrepresents it. She summarizes the text as a prescription for “Asymmetric Warfare 101,” suggesting that black bloc property destruction was used to prompt police violence against “innocent demonstrators” in hopes that this would delegitimize police. In fact, the anonymously submitted text describes how, without central coordination, shared goals, or political ideology, a wide range of different people spread out over a vast area achieved one of the most memorable victories of the entire movement, inspiring resistance around the globe. In misrepresenting her sources, Stockman echoes Fox News, which also misrepresented this report as a prescriptive program to provoke violence, citing an account of an event marked by the diversity of its participants as evidence of a shadowy anarchist conspiracy pulling the strings.
An experienced activist tried to get credible information to Farah Stockman when she was working on her poorly researched opinion piece blaming anarchists for countrywide unrest—and she refused everything that didn't match her conspiracy theory narrative.https://t.co/aWo1TTLvXG https://t.co/blzKxTFHNy
— CrimethInc. (@crimethinc) October 1, 2020
So if Stockman did not talk to anarchists and did not pay much attention to the anarchist sources she cites, what information convinces her to believe Quinn’s account of the anarchists as puppeteers controlling the protests?
Stockman uncritically repeats the conclusions of a report by the Network Contagion Research Institute, a non-profit that claims to have “no political agenda.”(1) The report’s co-authors include a former Republican state attorney general, a former NYPD chief, and a handful of academics, none of whom have ever studied anarchism. It uses a range of dubious associations through word clouds and quantitative analyses of tweets and Reddit posts to imply that what it calls “militant anarcho-socialists” are “using social media to instigate widespread violence against political opponents and law enforcement.”
Over the past months of protest, no one has documented “widespread violence” by anarchists against political opponents or law enforcement, while the widespread violence by far-right groups and law enforcement against protestors has been widely documented. So how do they make this case?
Take Figure 4, a “word cloud” showing associations between different key terms on Reddit. The term cop, it turns out, is associated with “reactive outrage and violent depictions in terms like ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘gestapo.’” That’s right—when anarchists post online that cops are indiscriminately beating protestors and using gestapo tactics, according to these brilliant researchers, it’s the anarchists who are being violent. It would be less violent, presumably, to pretend that police never beat anyone at all.
Section 2 warns that anarchists are spreading memes that include “tactical information” such as links that promote “the use of encrypted communication.” So when anarchists share information on how anyone can protect their privacy against surveillance, this is presented as proof of violent intentions.
Section 2.1 shows that during the protests, “anarcho-socialists” used online forums “to recruit support and followers like other extremist groups do.” Very insightful! Clearly, the fact that many people were curious to hear from radicals who want to see an end to police violence during a wave of protests against police violence is hard evidence that anarchists are equivalent to jihadi and white supremacist groups. Figure 14 shows that the number of tweets about July 25, which some had identified as a day of protest, peaked on—you guessed it, July 25. Brilliant work here, folks. Worse still, the hashtag in question, “#J25,” could have been used by anyone on the internet aiming to designate this date, not just protesters.
Figure 17 reproduces a tweet calling for the Seattle police chief to be “sacked,” like an earlier chief who was fired during protests in 1999; but the report’s caption falsely claims that the tweet “calls for sacking the police precinct,” then blames this tweet for having incited violence against the building. So when anarchists call for a public official to be fired, we are inciting violence? One might more precisely speak about the violence being done to common sense in a report of this caliber.
The report with “no political agenda” concludes by echoing Trump’s line equating white nationalists to anti-fascists, ominously predicting that “attacks on vital infrastructure” and “the possibility of a mass-casualty event” may be imminent if these nefarious anarcho-socialists are allowed to continue unchecked. There have been no precedents for “mass-casualty events” linked to anarchists in the United States for a full century, though white supremacists have carried out a large number of mass killings in the past decade alone.
Apart from the willfully poor-quality “research” in this absurd report, its framing and conclusions are lifted straight out of Attorney General Barr and Fox News’s playbook. When anarchists call out state violence, accuse them of being violent for doing so; when anarchists share non-violent self-defense tactics, cite this as evidence of violent intent; make spurious comparisons between diametrically opposed groups based on superficial similarities to heighten fear; pack in some misleading numerical data, and conclude by projecting sensationalized fantasies of apocalyptic violence to justify repression.
This is the report that New York Times editorialist Stockman urges us to “check out.” She is correct in noting that the report “will almost certainly catch the attention of conservative media and William Barr’s Department of Justice,” whose agenda she is apparently keen to promote.
So shoddy research, copyediting, and argumentation are not the sole province of self-styled amateur sleuths like Jeremy Lee Quinn. These characterize practically all of the material available from hostile think tanks, as well. In both cases—as in the case of Stockman’s own work—the studies only exist to fulfill an external agenda, so there is no incentive to rigorous research.
“Anarchy Got Results”
Then comes the strangest part of the article. In a rare moment of honesty, Stockman soberly assesses the impact of the riots, and concludes, “Anarchy got results.”
Of course, as we’ve pointed out, it would be absurd for anarchists to take credit for a widespread, wildly diverse rebellion that was not led by any group nor driven by any single ideology. But it would be accurate to describe the decentralized, leaderless, tactically diverse, direct action-based movement as “anarchy.” This is what anarchists have been calling for all along: egalitarian, horizontal, voluntary movements.
While lamenting the destruction caused by rioting in Minneapolis, Stockman acknowledges that she was wrong to think that “looting and arson would derail the urgent demands for racial justice.” In fact, media attention was captivated and public support soared precisely in response to the fiercest moments of struggle.
But, Stockman notes, more recently, there has been a decline in public support (which is to say white support; Black support has held steady, according to the poll she cites) for the Black Lives Matter protests. What’s the reason for this?
For Stockman, it’s because “insurrectionary anarchy brings diminishing returns.” In other words, it’s the fault of those who continue to courageously confront police in the streets. Apparently, the same public that once praised rioters now increasingly condemns them as time passes.
But this doesn’t make much sense. The fiercest rioting by far took place in the first weeks of the uprising, when public support was solidly at its highest. While a few locations such as Portland have maintained continuous militant protest, they’re the exception; the widespread looting and property destruction that marked the early days in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, and beyond have ceased. It seems senseless to lay blame for any shift in support at the feet of the small number of militant protestors who are still involved.
What has changed, rather, is that Trump, Barr, and the right-wing media have conducted a relentless campaign to discredit the protests. It’s a classic counter-insurgency strategy: if you can’t repress a movement, try to delegitimize, divide, and conquer it. The primary tactic they have employed has been labeling anyone who opposes the status quo “anarchists” or “antifa,” spelling out the implication that they are all terrorists and criminals, and spreading the lie that anarchists are somehow in control of the whole thing. This has been surprisingly successful. They’ve managed to get everyone from Joe Biden to liberal protest leaders to join them in condemning the most radical participants, sowing discord and weakening the movement. This is the key reason why support for the protests has declined among white people specifically—and to be even more precise, only among white Trump supporters.
Stockman’s editorial plays right into this counter-insurgency strategy. Her text perfectly exemplifies the dynamics that have led to a decline in conservative white support for the movement. It is a part of the exact problem she bemoans.
“Anarchists Complicate Life”
At that point, Stockman levies serious charges against anarchists: anarchists “complicate life for those working within the system to halt police violence.” She cites a few Black politicians and activists who disagree with or have been criticized by anarchists.
This is important, and we should not sweep it under the rug. There are serious differences of opinion in the movement regarding strategy and tactics, regarding working within systems versus rejecting and dismantling them, and regarding whose perspectives should be centered in resolving these disagreements. In these debates, many white radicals, including some anarchists, have been obnoxious or arrogant, unaware of their privilege, and disrespectful to more experienced or directly impacted organizers. This is inexcusable, and it should be challenged. Anarchists’ desires for a world without hierarchies should inspire them to forge interdependent, accountable relationships with other communities in struggle, to listen respectfully and learn from others in the movement even when they disagree, and to be conscious of how their actions impact others. There is a long way to go to build the bonds of trust across lines of difference necessary to forge durable, powerful movements that challenge the dynamics of white supremacy within and beyond them.
But Stockman’s discussion does not help us to do this constructively. It ignores the many important conversations that have happened in the streets, community meetings, and online regarding how best to resolve political differences. It neglects how the movement’s divisions over strategy and tactics do not break down neatly as a split between white anarchists and Black peaceful protestors, but between older and younger Black activist generations and along other lines as well. And Stockman’s account champions a single path to social change around racism and policing—reform in collaboration with police and local government—which has proved remarkably ineffective at actually stopping racist police violence.
Furthermore, it assumes that all anarchists are white and that we are not directly impacted by police violence or white supremacy. Vanessa Taylor’s brilliant article on Black anarchists in the recent protests explains how the presence of Black anarchists
complicates the notion of an ‘outside agitator’—to describe anarchists as random white people outside of Black and otherwise oppressed communities is to erase Black anarchists—as well as the ‘peaceful’ protester narrative that others try to conjure to oppose Trump.
But, she provocatively asks, “Why is there an obligation to be peaceful if you are dying?” According to a Dallas anarchist named Tina,
Trump labeling protesters as anarchists is another form of white supremacy at work. Blackness is already anarchy in white folks’ minds. I don’t think a Black person necessarily has to call themselves an anarchist to be one, because in the land where whiteness is law and order you are already one.
Centering Black anarchist experiences breaks down the binary logic of Stockman’s article, forcing us to understand political differences in a multiracial movement through a different lens.
To Stockman, because anarchist approaches aim to prevent the consolidation of power in the hands of politicians and activists, they can only be destructive, never constructive. On this basis, she accuses anarchists of being “fickle allies,” since even “if they help you get into power, they will try to oust you the following day, since power is what they are against.”
This is as close as she gets to the truth. Anarchists are not trying to get anyone into power over anyone else. Anarchists are trying to get everyone into power at once—to create egalitarian relationships based on cooperation and mutual respect, not force and domination. This is a real difference between Stockman and the anarchists she smears. The question is how to resolve it.
Building a New Order
Stockman’s concluding assessment accuses anarchists of being “experts at unraveling an old order but considerably less skilled at building a new one.” Yet had she actually spoken to a single anarchist in her exposition of “the truth” about them, she would have gotten quite a different picture. From the first moments that the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in North America, anarchists immediately mobilized to form mutual aid networks, drawing on extensive experience doing disaster relief and protest support. These became some of the most popular and urgently needed institutions helping to ensure community survival while our rulers bickered and dragged their feet. Beyond their immediate practical value, mutual aid networks model an anarchist vision of a self-organized world of freely shared resources rooted in an ethic of solidarity—a vision anarchists have been promoting for decades through Really Really Free Markets, Food Not Bombs meals, and many other institutions meant to build a new world.
Stockman did not trouble herself to learn who anarchists are, what anarchists actually believe, or how anarchists put it into practice. It was easier for her to copy and paste from Trump’s playbook, backed up by her source—who, his claims to be an “infiltrator” notwithstanding, clearly knows even less than she does.
But Stockman has saved the worst for last. The article concludes by claiming that for anarchists, “it’s not really about George Floyd or Black lives, but insurrection for insurrection’s sake.”
This kind of demonizing, divide-and-conquer language is offensive and harmful to all who are striving to cooperate across lines of difference. It’s also absurd and inaccurate.
First and foremost: Stockman herself acknowledged just a few paragraphs before that anarchy got results—her words, not ours! How can she possibly justify claiming that anarchists are only interested in insurrection for insurrection’s sake? Given that the reforms she praises have been tried many times without making a dent in police killings, it might be more accurate to conclude that reformers are the ones who are only interested in reform for reform’s sake—perhaps because they want to preserve the positions of the reformers in the power structure. By contrast, one could argue that the people who rioted after George Floyd’s killing, including the handful of insurrectionary anarchists among them, apparently did so because that was the most effective thing they believed they could do to force a national reckoning with racist police murder. As Stockman herself admitted, so-called peaceful protests didn’t attract media attention, didn’t result in institutional changes, and didn’t compel the country to confront the racist brutality that characterizes Black experiences with police every day.
If Stockman had the courage to take her own observations seriously, then, she might be in the streets rioting, rather than drawing a salary trying to sow division in movements that have finally started to push back effectively against police violence.
Insurrectionary anarchists believe that disrupting the normal functioning of the state and the economy can open up spaces of possibility for people to relate to each other differently, to imagine a different world, to experiment with new ways of organizing daily life. The uprisings have shown that this is possible. From protests to autonomous zones to police-free neighborhoods, the spaces that confrontational tactics have opened up over the past year have helped transform abolition from a pipe dream to a possibility that warrants serious discussion and debate. They’ve served as laboratories for freedom—obviously not utopias, but places we can start to remake the world together. There are serious problems, including how to preserve safety and resolve conflict, how to accommodate differing visions, and how to meet everyone’s basic needs outside of the economy. But it’s a start—rather than repeating the old rituals endlessly, always reaching the same dead ends—and it’s only possible as a consequence of making a dramatic break with the present.
We can’t speak for other anarchists, but we can speak for ourselves. Yes, we have goals that extend beyond obtaining justice for George Floyd alone. We want to see a world in which all Black lives are valued and no one need fear being killed or terrorized by police—and we believe that to get there will require directly confronting the violent systems of power responsible for Floyd’s death, everywhere, not merely securing criminal charges for the latest killers. We live in a world in which the capitalist economy keeps almost all poor people under the heels of bosses and landlords—particularly Black and brown poor folks. So we’re fighting to transform the economy, too—because Black Lives Matter is just an empty slogan if we ignore the poverty that makes so many people’s lives a constant struggle. And while we’re at it, we can’t forget the ways that the same structures of policing hold our borders in place, dehumanize migrants, and inflame xenophobia—or the role of the U.S. military in policing the entire globe to secure access to oil and raw materials—or how incipient fascism in the United States imitates similar authoritarianism from Brazil to Turkey to Russia.
The point isn’t to distract from the central issues that prompted the uprising. The point is to tackle these problems at their roots, we have to understand that there are no single issues, and truly systematic change involves more than charging a few killer cops or passing a few local reforms. To change anything, we have to change everything.
On the subject of insurrectionary anarchism, Stockman cherry-picks two sentences from Episode 9 of the Ex-Worker podcast, released seven years ago:
We are not sure if the socialist, communist, democratic, or even anarchist utopia is possible. Rather, some insurrectionary anarchists believe that the meaning of being an anarchist lies in the struggle itself and what that struggle reveals.
She takes these lines out of context to accomplish her purpose: implying that anarchists only care for destruction. In context, however, this quotation describes the process of how movements grow and evolve. As the Zapatistas say, we make the path by walking. That is—what shows us how to move forward isn’t an abstract utopian vision, but the concrete experiences of people resisting oppression together in the streets and in our everyday lives.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t fight to win or that we don’t care about the outcome. Of course we do! Our lives and the lives of our loved ones, our dignity and our freedom, our most cherished ideals—we know that all of these are at stake and more.
Rather, it means that we recognize that the struggle for freedom was going on long before we were born and will continue long after we’re gone. If you think the U.S. is a fundamentally just society and all that is needed is just to make a couple tweaks to keep cops from killing quite so often, then you can imagine political struggle as a simple means to a simple end. But for those of us who intend to spend our whole lives working towards a freer and more egalitarian world, we have to find meaning in the struggle itself lest despair consume us. Like the fighters in the French resistance to the Nazis, we don’t need hope to keep fighting; resistance to tyranny is a way of life. The anarchist hypothesis is that we can still find ways to forge meaningful lives in the struggle against police brutality, racial injustice, economic exploitation, ecological destruction, encroaching fascism, and worse. This does not come from believing that total change is just around the corner—though we cherish the moments when it feels that way. Rather, it comes from believing that acting against oppression is always ennobling and worthwhile, and provides the most meaningful foundation we can imagine for our relations with others.
So let the New York Times side with Trump, Barr, and other right-wing conspiracy theorists. It won’t stop us, and it won’t stop the movements that we have always supported without ever seeking to control. We know what matters. We have not forgotten all the lives lost to the everyday violence of American policing, nor the sacrifices of those who came before us.
As we head into the frightening weeks ahead, with fascism or civil war looming closer than ever, we don’t know how things will turn out. But whatever happens, we will be in the streets, fighting for freedom while there is still breath in our lungs. To all the readers of the Times who have the sense to see through Stockman’s shoddy journalism—who seek the real truth about today’s anarchists—we look forward to meeting you there.