Q+A: Michelle Lhooq, creator of Rave New World

Lhooq reflects on a summer of documenting autonomous zones and asks: “What is the place of pleasure and partying in a political revolution?”

by | October 23, 2020

Michelle Lhooq is an independent journalist and the creator of Rave New World, a newsletter on “the intersecting countercultures of this revolutionary moment.” She previously worked as a features editor for VICE, where she covered nightlife and electronic music, and is the author of WEED: Everything You Want to Know But Are Always Too Stoned to Ask. Lhooq’s recent reporting for Rave New World has brought her to protests and autonomous zones across the country, where she has investigated the cultural and political trends that connect mass, Black-led mobilizations against white supremacy, militarization, and police brutality. She approaches this project through the lens of her previous work within rave countercultures; to Lhooq, both raves and recent autonomous zones are temporary, site-specific instantiations of abolitionist models of community. She highlights the sonic practices that these sites have in common, such as the use of music, chants, and dancing to demarcate autonomous space.

In late July, when the NYPD kidnapped a young trans woman and forced her into an unmarked van, Lhooq’s on-the-ground coverage of the day’s events was widely shared. Footage of the abduction, originally filmed by Brandon English and posted by Lhooq on Twitter, spread quickly online as well. To many, the episode suggested that the illegal techniques used by federal agents against protestors in Portland, Oregon were spreading; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the kidnapping “disturbing” and “troubling,” respectively, in light of developments in Portland. (They offered nothing beyond that, and ignored the implications of the abduction as a longstanding police tactic in New York City and elsewhere.) Lhooq’s summary of the day’s protests indicate that the kidnapping was part of a sustained attempt to thwart mass agitations against the police — and harm protesters — under the guise of public health and safety. Rave New World is a study of contemporary political movements in the United States, and positions pleasure and partying as tools for revolution.

Interview by Adam Willems. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Study Hall: What have you been up to in the past few days?

Michelle Lhooq: Last week, I decided to pop over to Washington, DC for a big march happening there, which I thought would be a really good conclusion to the journey of this project [of covering autonomous zones and protests] because it was a march that brought together protests from all over the country in DC, a heart of political power. It was very illuminating.

I’ve always pursued the same line of questioning throughout this journey, which is: what is the place of pleasure and partying in a political revolution?

SH: How did that question come about?

ML: In my pre-pandemic life as a music journalist, I was always very interested in the politics of rave culture. How does rave culture push forward this radical vision of society based on social justice and political resistance? Then once the pandemic hit, it inverted, and I started questioning what the place of party culture and pleasure is in an actual political revolution.

This question popped into my head for the first time during Black Lives Matter protests that were happening in Hollywood. They were very celebrity-influencer heavy. YG filmed the music video for the song “Fuck Donald Trump” at a protest that was happening down my street. That protest got so much backlash on social media, where everyone was like, “Fuck these people shooting the protest like a music festival, this is not Coachella.” And I thought, “This is interesting: obviously it’s not Coachella, but why does it feel like Coachella?” That energy that I felt at that protest, I’ve never felt anywhere else except for a music festival. Examining the social factors that have consolidated to create that kind of energy became one vector of the inquiry.

SH: What’s compelled you to approach autonomous zones through the lens of rave culture versus just relaying what you’re seeing?

ML: This revolution is so huge that it’s constantly changing all the time. I think people are opening up to the idea of music being used as a subversive tool. I’ve seen a lot of sonic demonstrations happening recently, where people stand outside of a mayor’s house and play really loud punk or noise music to disrupt the space.

It’s also important to talk about the music that you hear during these extremely fraught confrontations with police: Why are people playing certain types of songs versus others? What role does dancing play? I’ve danced several times at protests, and it has always been a revelatory experience. One that really stood out to me was when a protester was killed in Seattle while blocking off the highway, and they were dancing right before they died. At their memorial, everybody put on the song they were dancing to before they died, and we danced again to it. It was this group moment of grief, coming together and dancing, that was just so powerful to me.

I also think that my identity matters. I don’t think that people are used to seeing a woman of color, an Asian woman, talking about drugs and partying, doing the kinds of journalism that I’m doing. It’s usually the forte of straight white men who are allowed to do this subversive, immersive journalism. I feel that friction sometimes, of people not seeing my work as being as serious because I’m not taking on this super objective, official journalist tone.

I sometimes ask, “Am I allowed to do this? Am I allowed to talk about the drugs that people are doing at autonomous zones?” But I think in 10 or 20 years, I’m not going to regret providing this type of historical record. I truly believe that we are witnessing the formation of a new political culture, and what’s happening right now in the streets is going to be very formative to the kinds of music, pop culture, and political culture that are fomenting and will continue to shape the future.

SH: How do you go about reporting in autonomous zones with these questions in mind?

ML: There’s a lot of resistance towards recording and documentation, particularly at the barricades, which are the perimeters and the defensive walls of the space. I think that walking in [foremost] as a civilian and being there primarily as someone who’s interested in speaking to someone on a person-to-person level first and establishing that trust is really important.

The rumors that spread like facts [in the media] can be very disorienting. There are so many competing narratives about what’s going on based on outside observers pontificating about what they think is happening inside the zone. People who are the loudest in the spaces might not be the only people that you should talk to. I think it’s equally important to think about who is remaining silent, who has been cast out of this space, who has not been given a chance to speak.

SH: How do you find these sources who you feel like have been drowned out?

ML: One example is from the first day that I was at the autonomous zone outside New York’s City Hall. I noticed that there was a tent that said “People’s Smoke Spot.” I went up to that tent, and I met one of the protesters there, who was a young trans girl named Stickers. We had a conversation about weed and how to get weed in that zone. She ended up becoming a friend of mine. And then two weeks later, she was the protester who was kidnapped by the NYPD at a protest and became national news. The reason why she was arrested is because she was spray painting security cameras outside of City Hall to prevent the police from being able to surveil the protesters, so she was basically committing protest graffiti. She became a really important source in the [New York protest report] story.

SH: In your reporting, have you questioned traditional journalistic ethics of “objectivity” and observation instead of participation?

ML: What does objectivity mean when you’re covering something like this movement? One thing that I noticed at the Seattle autonomous zone is that there was a really clear distinction between how different journalists approach these protests, and whether or not they choose to chant along with the protestors. The journalists from MSNBC would not chant along, whereas the live streamers, who were the ones who were more immersed and way more present, were definitely chanting along. Some of them would get up in the faces of the cops, or Fox News, or whoever people were agitating around, and they would participate in those conflicts directly. The lines were way more blurred with the live streamers.

I feel like I’m in the middle. I’m still interested in understanding and reporting out what the police have to say; I think it’s important to know what the cops are saying in order to push back on that narrative. If I need to not chant for an hour to give the semblance of objectivity and get the quote, I will do that.

One narrative that I’ve realized is misleading or even a myth is this idea of outside agitators. Trump and police chiefs all over the country keep blaming the violence and the looting on outside agitators. And I’m like, literally, who are they? I’m out here and I don’t see how you can differentiate between who is on the inside and who is on the outside of this political scene.

SH: How are you handling the security of the people you’re talking to?

ML: When I am filming a protest, the majority of people are wearing masks, so that is a level of anonymity that I think protects people’s identities. I also think that when you’re filming people engaging in illegal activity, their faces should not be in the video, period. It’s very easy to just point your camera down and not include their faces. There are also tools and technologies that help you blur people’s faces. Signal has a way to blur people’s faces. In general, asking for consent, even though ostensibly it’s a public protest.

SH: What do you think is next for your own work?

ML: I think that it’s time to pull back a little and analyze what this summer really meant. I think these autonomous zones carry a lot of weight and importance as microcosms of what’s happening in political cultures, in the conversations that are happening around police abolition, as well around so-called “far-left agitators” versus protesters. What is the purpose of violence? of rioting? of creating anarchic communes? All of these “extreme” political tactics, I think, have been really weaponized by Trump and the right. By expressing my experience in these zones, I want to help people understand that these are really complicated and wonderful spaces.

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