What He Saw at the Riots

Rioters throw back tear-gas canisters fired by federal law-enforcement officers in Portland, Ore., July 29, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

An interview with independent journalist Michael Tracey


ichael Tracey is an independent, left-leaning journalist who is a thorn in the side of the progressive consensus that is set on Twitter. He has been driving around the country to the sites of riots and protests. Because his work may be of some interest to NR readers, I thought I’d interview him.

Full disclosure: I have some history with Tracey. I bought him lunch almost a decade ago after we made a bet on the details of a news story. He was more right than I was. We are both from New Jersey and retain a fondness the Garden State’s charms, which are, I admit, an acquired taste. We are both anti-war and can test people’s patience as critics of “our own side.” And we are both objects of ridicule for our admiration for Tulsi Gabbard.

The interview was conducted by email and hasn’t been meaningfully condensed.

Michael Brendan Dougherty: We’ll go back and forth a few rounds. Cool?

Michael Tracey: Sure. Is this how the massively overrated Isaac Chotiner does it? I hope not

MBD: You did something that very few journalists at the leading outlets did; you traveled to the locations of mass protests and rioting, took pictures, and asked questions. Your summary of what you saw over the last six weeks is at Medium. You say that the media have not conveyed the enormity of what happened these last six weeks.

How would you characterize the scale of destruction you saw? Was it just a handful of buildings? Concentrated on a handful of blocks? Were there any patterns to the targets?

MT: The scale of the destruction is unlike anything I have personally seen before, and unlike anything I understand to have occurred in the U.S. since at least the 1960s. I’m not even sure that the 1960s civil unrest is an apt parallel, for a variety of reasons — one being that much of what occurred then were straightforwardly “race riots,” whereas the riots of 2020 were distinctly multiracial in nature, and often instigated by activist whites rather than subjugated poor and working-class blacks. I could summarize the scale this way: My basic route in taking this trip was to go from Jersey City, N.J. (where I live), to Chicago, and then to Minneapolis. As I proceeded, I would sometimes Google whether there happened to have been riots in any unexpected places along the route. Almost invariably, there had been. The four cities I mention in the piece are just a few examples: Atlantic City, N.J.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Green Bay, Wis., and Olympia, Wash. (As I realized the scale of the damage, particularly in Minneapolis–St. Paul, I extended the trip cross-country and am now in Portland — which is a whole separate story.)

So the crux of what’s unique about these riots is the sheer geographic prevalence. There were even riots in Fargo, N.D. — which wasn’t on my route, but illustrates how the 1960s probably are not the correct precedent to invoke. I could also summarize the scale this way: The number of boarded-up or destroyed structures I’ve seen across the country — commercial, governmental, and even residential — is staggering, and keeping an accurate count has been impossible. Given that I’ve managed to personally observe only a small fraction, this raises questions about the true scale of the wreckage.

In terms of targets and patterns of destruction, it varies somewhat by city. Minneapolis and St. Paul are what set off the nationwide convulsion and underwent the most extreme destruction, so the patterns there may be most instructive. The initial target was the Third Police Precinct building, which Minneapolis police ultimately fled upon orders from the mayor, Jacob Frey — allowing protesters/rioters to seize it for a time. A nearby Target store was then bombarded. But one fallacy that was often heard in the early days of the riots was that the “targets” were merely corporate chains that could easily cover the damage. It’s plausible that the insurrectionary activists, many of whom came from out of town, did initially “target” corporate chains to some degree. But once the chaos breaks out, it’s impossible to contain.

One block away from the Third Police Precinct building, a resident named Rick told me about an Indian restaurant and a brunch restaurant that had been burned to the ground. Was the initial target some “corporate” chain? Maybe, but it’s not as though that could be strictly adhered to as some kind of clearly delineated rioting ethos. In the Lake Street area of Minneapolis, entire blocks are boarded up and/or destroyed. Elsewhere in the region, individual parcels of land are reduced to rubble, almost without rhyme or reason. For instance, it’s not clear to me why an Ethiopian restaurant in St. Paul was subjected to an arson attack and reduced to rubble. Or why a Goodwill’s windows were smashed. It could simply be that many of the rioters were so amped-up (and probably intoxicated) that they had no ability to discern what they were going after.

Elsewhere, such as the heavily black areas of cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, “looting” broke out when there was a vacuum of municipal resources caused by the mass protests and other riot-like activity. I would distinguish this form of opportunistic “looting” from the ideologically driven insurrectionary rioting that initially sparked the unrest. If you are a black 16-year-old and there’s no police around, and all your friends are rushing into a busted-up streetfront store to take sneakers, it’s understandable why you’d follow suit. According to residents, the “looting” in heavily black areas like Chicago’s West Side started in earnest at apparel stores like Foot Locker and branched out from there. Police had generally stood down. In Philadelphia and the Bronx, I was told by residents that the acquired goods ended up being sold in black markets, such as the K&A (Kensington and Allegheny) intersection in Philadelphia.

The destruction also came at what appears to have been the worst possible time for many small businesses, which had already been undergoing hardship as a result of COVID — and had just been in the process of beginning to establish reopening procedures during that span of time in late May and early June. As I recounted in this column, a woman named Flora Westbrooks who operated a hair salon in North Minneapolis for nearly 35 years was planning to resume business on June 1, after she’d purchased all the needed sanitation supplies to comply with state and local regulations. Then, seemingly without warning, her salon was burned to the ground. And she did not have insurance.

MBD: What did you see that surprised you?

MT: I don’t know if I was “surprised,” but the divergence in opinion — between local black and minority populations about the ethical implications of the riots, and the activists/journalists who claim to speak on their behalf — is striking. Locals are almost uniformly condemnatory of riots, and often harshly so. They wonder why the destruction wrought in their neighborhoods has received so little attention. And they are more skeptical about what this suggests for the wider protest “movement” than you might expect. Their views don’t tend to be represented in media narratives.

MBD: What do you think drives the lack of media interest in the stories of these injured communities? To my eyes it looks like the circumstances in these communities would, if acknowledged, complicate what has been a media story that has been simplified and abstracted. If I had to describe that story, it would be that the death of George Floyd inspired a consciousness-raising protest movement aimed at police reform and the dismantling of white supremacy.

But your telling of these events is more ambiguous, even depressing. It’s as if these communities were mere props, used and destroyed, and the aftermath is lost money and opportunity, mainly for members of racial minorities. I was struck by how the big-box stores seemed to be further along in their recovery and cleanup, while mom-and-pop stores were stuck in long, grinding conversations with their insurance companies.

Am I off base?

MT: What drives the lack of media interest in these communities can’t be that they lack the makings of a compelling story. It would be almost trivially easy to go to Minneapolis, Chicago, or Seattle and interview an immigrant small-business owner who’d been “living the American dream” but whose life prospects have now been seriously disrupted, if not destroyed altogether. The fact that the instigators of this destruction tended to be ideological whites would also make for a compelling story formula. However, you haven’t seen very many heartfelt 60 Minutes retrospectives, or special reports on CNN, or long New York Times Magazine disquisitions on the consequences of these historic riots. (It should also be said that the conservative media haven’t really bothered much at all, either, from what I gather — the vast majority of these victims are not going to vote for Donald Trump.)

So what explains the non-coverage? I’ve offered a few theories. One, it’s clear that most members of elite media institutions are deeply invested in what they regard as “the movement,” even if they can’t precisely define what “the movement” is. (The slogan “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t capture its full scope.) Therefore, they would be horrified to produce any coverage that might be seen to undermine the moral and political legitimacy of said “movement.” This is also why you see them so stridently committed to qualifying every depiction of the protests as “peaceful,” even though “peace” is often not how the protests are perceived within working-class and minority neighborhoods. If your small grocery store was trashed or burned down, are you going to sit around drawing meticulous technical distinctions between the “peaceful” aspects of these events and the aspects that led to the destruction of your livelihood? In addition, there’s obviously a passionate aversion to doing anything that may be seen as “helping Trump” during an election year — possibly the gravest affront any journalist could ever imagine themselves committing. Even if it’s true that Trump would be “helped” by providing accurate coverage of these historic events, it wouldn’t justify withholding such coverage. But it’s also not even clear that Trump would in any sense be “helped.” He’s ultimately the one presiding over this chaos, and as the incumbent is generally going to be blamed in some fashion — rightly or wrongly. So whatever myopic political calculation might be operative here doesn’t have merit.

MBD: You just arrived in Portland. What are your first impressions of what’s happening there? And what’s unique?

MT: Portland has a culture of perpetual protests that is distinct — almost as a kind of recreation. It’s also an overwhelmingly white city, which partly explains the zeal to keep a nightly protest going in perpetuity — one recent speaker compared their efforts to the Montgomery bus boycotts, so don’t expect this to cease any time soon. The anarchist element clearly calculate that the longer these actions go on, the more opportunity there is for a catalyzing event on the order of the George Floyd killing, which could spark further nationwide protests and riots. To be at the Portland protest zone on a Saturday past midnight is surreal; it does give the impression of a small-scale insurrection, with black-clad (overwhelmingly white) protesters in full armor and gear, wielding massive shields and wearing industrial-grade gas masks. I’m not sure the indiscriminate use of tear gas by law enforcement is necessary — I was teargassed myself one night, and it was highly unpleasant. However, the “protesters” are most certainly engaging in tactics that go far beyond any commitment to “nonviolence.” It’s strange that journalists are so insistent on characterizing the constant firing of mortars, for instance, as “peaceful.”

MBD: I take your point about conservative media, and it’s why I wanted to draw attention to your work. I want to shift gears here and ask you about your vocation. You’re broadly a man of the Left who came of age during the Bush years, opposing the Iraq War (as I did). And it seems that your determination not to just repeat the mantras of the mainstream or institutionally progressive media has led you to be an independent journalist. I think being a gadfly is a noble vocation, but it’s a difficult one, with its own perils. On your Patreon page you say you “have to consciously resist the temptation to mindlessly placate people, and when there’s a financial element involved, that’s extra challenging. “

That seems obviously true. And I notice you come in for a great deal of abuse on Twitter, which is easy to make light of, but I think there is a psychological cost to it for most people. I even worried that interviewing you at NR would cost you something and make it easier to paint your independence as some kind of move to the right.

How have you found being independent? And how do you fortify your willingness to challenge the mainstream without letting it curdle into mere contrarianism or resentment?

MT: It does take a unique personality type to be willing to withstand an onslaught of online hatred, which has the potential to materialize as offline hatred. I’m not sure exactly what accounts for my disposition in this regard. From an early age, I was always inclined to engage in debate — beginning on Internet forums, in school, and so forth. So there’s something psychologically ingrained, I suppose, that impels me to do this. I don’t want to paint myself as a victim — I’m not. However, I was “doxxed” last month and left my apartment as a precaution. While in Portland, I have received a number of threats of physical violence, and one night last week at the protest zone a group of “protesters” accosted me, seized my phone, required me to recite a political slogan with sufficient vigor in order to get it back, threatened to “stomp” me, and hurled objects at me as they demanded I run (not walk) away from the area. Was this the gravest injustice ever to be inflicted upon a journalist? No. But I would imagine the average person would not want to bother with the hassle.

I’m happy to engage with conservative media. From the time I started writing “professionally,” I made a conscious effort to write for the widest possible range of outlets (within reason) — including The American Conservative, where I contributed frequently from 2011 to 2016. At the same time, I wrote for left-wing or “progressive” outlets like The Nation, Salon, and Mother Jones, and for a while I was a columnist for Vice. The idea is that one should be able to produce arguments and reportage that are amenable to the widest possible range of audiences, and that necessitates not allowing oneself to be ideologically siloed. So even while I worked at The Young Turks — a self-branded “progressive” online media organ — from 2017 to 2018, I was always leery of how certain “progressive” pieties can substitute for original thought.

Once I left that job, it became clear that the current nature of the media industry would render it almost impossible for me to get full-time employment somewhere. Thankfully, there are new models available. This trip I have taken across the country was subsidized by readers and viewers. And they contribute money without any expectation of getting anything exclusive in return, apart from an assurance from me that I will use my judgment to produce the best work possible. Coupled with continuing to write for established publications (like the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Nation, the New York Daily News, Unherd, and others), I have happily found it to be a sustainable model. Then again, I am a single person with no dependents, so I could see how others in different life circumstances might not want to take “the leap.” To diminish the potential that I might subconsciously cater to online “Patrons,” I never research the identities of those who contribute, nor do I offer them any individualized perks. Either you derive value from what I do — in which case you give money — or you don’t.

I’m accused of “contrarianism” constantly, which I guess is to be expected if you are instinctively averse to the unthinking coagulation of political and media narratives. This accusation was especially prevalent during the heyday of the “Russiagate” fiasco, when I was among the few media (or media-adjacent) figures to present a reasonably informed “skeptical” perspective, without also being a pro-Trump partisan. The tide certainly seems to have turned on that particular narrative, so maybe “contrarianism” wasn’t too off base. Further, I believe many people in the media deserve resentment for the exceptionally poor job they do covering the country in which they live. Their failures have real-world consequences.

All that said, it’s true that genuine contrarians can devolve into nihilistic trolling, and I like to think that’s not what motivates me. I can give you a reasoned explanation for anything I do, say, or tweet. If this results in consternation or accusations that I’m operating in bad faith, so be it. I’ll let my work stand on its own merits.

MBD: Thank you. Mind if I include the Isaac Chotiner thing at the start?

MT: Ha, no problem.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review Online.

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