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Recent thoughts on the Black Bloc

Black Bloc—a tactic used in protests in which participants wear black clothes, hoods, masks, helmets and other concealing, protective items to hide their identities and protect themselves from assault—is consistently smeared by the media. As an anti-capitalist, broadly, and an anarchist specifically, I am sympathetic to the causes of economically damaging and appropriating from corporations, defending against police repression, highlighting police abuses, and working towards achieving hard-earned rights and goals. Indeed, Black Bloc has a richer history than it seems most commentators would have one believe.

Thinking about the Occupy movement in the US, I have heard many liberals complain about anarchist and anti-capitalist elements losing the PR game for the left. But, to be fair, I don't think revolution is about PR. That is where I part with the liberal tendencies of Occupy. Goebbels said, “arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to the emotions and instincts, not the intellect.” 1) I don't think I can be so shallow and deceptive. I am not a sloganeer. This is what frustrates me so much about the subject of the Black Bloc, and how it has been framed in media—and accordingly in networks, blogs, Occupy general assemblies, etc.—because it's all about PR. It’s all about the one “bottle thrown” that ruins the protest for all the good folks, right? As if it’s never the police that incite violence, themselves.

Something bothers me in this context: the fetishization of nonviolence. Indeed, Black Bloc has offered today's commentators an easy straw man for insurrection, illegalism and violent revolutionary tactics. Never mind that Black Bloc is not actually insurrectionary. I see my liberal friends eat it up by the spoonful. I believe I have seen it go this way many times before: “Do these kids make us look bad? Yeah. Destroying private property is 'violence'? Sure, okay. So we are absolutely against all forms of violence? Okay, yeah!” More back and forth with media commentators, more calls on protest movements to “renounce violence”, more sloganeering. Brains off, party line on. No one ever wants to discuss the complex issues of morality and violence. Meanwhile, violence inflicted upon us defines our institutions and society.

I am constantly disappointed at the way the discussion is always framed. I think it's a trap and it's worked perfectly. The emphasis on nonviolence is a simple step to make from the passive role that the morality of Christianity and the state has embodied. The preconceived notions of the role of the state, the priest, the father, are there—martyring yourself is the only way; in the face of abuse, act like an abused person. Of course nonviolent action has achieved wonderful things—that's not my point. My point is that questions of the notion of violence as a tactic, and the discussion of tactics, generally, ought to be discussed openly and honestly—not dismissed outright because the media commentator told you so.

To this point, a question I am always interested in hearing answers to is, at what point in the endless police repression is enough, enough—even if only for further reference? When is it enough to say that the reformist's set of tactics is not enough?

I think it's important to have thoughtful criticism of Black Bloc tactics. And to be frank, I think it has been for the most part unsuccessful as a tactic in North America. In regards to how it has been employed in recent years in the US, I'm not sure it's effective given the conditions here, specifically regarding the attitudes towards anti-capitalists. In Oakland, which, ravaged by poverty and violence, is not known for its corporate headquarters or consumerist/financial hubs—nor activist communities that can produce thousands of Black Bloc protestors at once—the Black Bloc looked like little more than petty vandals misdirecting their anger. In that sense, I think there is certainly a learning curve here.

That's not at all to say—as mentioned earlier—that it hasn't achieved great things, as in Germany. Forcing police to retreat many a time; fortifying squats until the state was forced to legalize them; mass organizing against Neo-Nazi rallies; tens of millions of dollars (equivalent) in property damage to consumerist-feeding corporations in single days of action; it's the stuff dreams are made of! It's been instrumental in Germany's anti-nuclear movement—in which the use of crowbars and molotov cocktails by militant protestors was not uncommon—and which in 1998 won its goal of the abandonment of nuclear power. Still, there is no doubt that there is place for criticism of Black Bloc, regarding when and how Black Bloc tactics are employed.

But I want to reflect on the logic and mentality that we have when we make criticism – that's my problem with liberal commentators like Chris Hedges. As an aside—every time that guy opens his mouth, it basically comes out, “These kids are irrelevant punks, so we should be reformists!” But regarding the basis for our criticisms, we need to be very careful not to dismiss tactics outright on the basis that they are not appropriate at this particular place and moment. This consciously damages our ability to deal with internal dissent, which will always exist, and which we have seen in protest movements’ divisive attempts to “police” the Black Bloc. It also represents an attempt for the liberal discourse to dominate the discussion, which frankly is just futile, and leads to the end I previously mentioned. We should also be careful not to conflate Black Bloc tactics with militancy. They aren't the same thing and we should not assume that a practical criticism of Black Bloc translates to such for militancy, broadly defined.

I am often told by liberals that engaging in militancy is dangerous to the protest movement as a whole until there is widespread support and organization around militant tactics. To which I think—different causes and different movements, should plan around one another best they can. Internal policing to “snuff out the problem” or as Hedges put it, excise “the cancer”, is futile I think, but more importantly, what kind of “movement” will we build by doing so? And if the discourse loses focus on the true enemies—capitalists, generally, (or at least the greedy ones, as the liberals like to say, to make themselves as ineffective as possible) and their government enablers—who is really hurting the movement? Who is playing into the media-propaganda trap by focusing the “movement” on attacking fellow comrades, both rhetorically and literally (as we have seen in the countless physical attacks on Black Bloc protesters by other protestors)?

The passive/nonviolent approach, taken alone, limits us to martyring ourselves in the face of police repression. All I can say is that I’m not okay with that—I disagree and I will not partake, nor will I advocate participation in that watered-down and philosophically baseless position. And that's how a lot of people feel. We're not going to act like victims, like abused people. Black Bloc tactics are largely used in self defense—and defense of others, no less. As the SF Gate put it, many see the Black Bloc as “a force for protection of other demonstrators and assertive expression.” 2) Attempts to trample on the autonomy of people to do so won't work, and it's not something I can support. I'm not going to let myself get beaten down for someone else's “good PR”—which will never happen anyway in the corporate media; liberals are fooling themselves on this point.

Think about it: you can a) turn activists into the police so they can rot in jail, b) physically assault and compel them to stop, or c) co-exist. Given this, the media question is a moot point—it also is for the reasons I mentioned earlier—but really, how much “good PR” do we expect protest movements to receive in the corporate media? The more robust the movement is, the more probable that we will see an escalation of police repression. That is precisely the time when activists, far-left, left and center alike, need to rise in solidarity and recognize that we are not each other's enemies when the police are battering people in the streets.

So how do we move forward and embrace all tactics as valid according to context? Really, everything points to theory and practice—educate, radicalize, organize, confront, revolt, take over, occupy—there are no easy answers. I've been accused of being “anti-theory” or “anti-high theory” but the way I see it: different and unique people, different cultures, different organizations, different visions, different ideas—it's not my place to sell human beings short. This is for us to figure out together—there are no vanguards here.

Certainly, in a time when—for the first time—the US middle class has lost stability, and it's an age of austerity, debt and poverty in the “developed” world—it is an interesting time to be a revolutionary. At some point, the middle class may be unwilling to continue passively asking the state for a few stale crumbs. Enter, revolutionary ideas and tactics.

Politics Philosophy Anarchism

1) Joseph Goebbels in Danner, Mark. The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History. New York: New York Review of Books, 2006: 26.

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