Black Bloc: the culture of coercion and poor strategy at mass actions needs an overhaul
As someone who has often defended black bloc tactics since I first encountered it at the Seattle WTO in 1999, I find myself searching for a greater critique, discussion and engagement around strategy and what really is the best approach to contributing to an effective movement that brings significant social, economic, and environmental change to this world. I have come to the conclusion that the typical narrative of the black bloc that has prevailed at mass actions in the U.S. has proven to be counter productive.
This is not a new debate. Ever since these tactics were utilized (breaking windows at Starbuck’s) at the Seattle WTO in 1999, there was a tremendous rift between the so called “good and bad” activists. Even the recently produced (and absolutely unwatchable) film “Battle of Seattle” played this up. Black bloc anarchists are always portrayed as meat head spoiled kids with little analysis of what they are doing. I know this is not the case. I have worked with a number of very thoughtful and engaged activists who sometimes utilize these tactics and I know that that some are sensitive, intelligent people from diverse walks of life. Many have devoted their lives to the cause and I have tremendous, deep respect for them. Others, however, I find to be transient, cliquish, and sexist, rarely participating in longer term community strategies, hopping from protest to protest wearing a “more radical than thou” shroud of arrogance. But this is just my experience, not everyone’s.
I think there needs to be a discussion of “strategy” as opposed to “tactics”. While many are absolutely against the idea of any kind of property destruction, I think that the real issue in regards to the feeling around what happened on the evening of November 2nd are actually due to a lack of strategy. There are many things that were amazing about the general strike: closing down of the ports by 100,000 people, taking over the city from police who were noticeably absent the entire day, and coming together en masse for a common cause. It was incredibly empowering, and the world was watching. Every major news outlet had its eyes on Oakland. Because of that, activists and community organizers should always keep in mind the larger story that is being told. Also, understanding the role of the corporate media in this kind of event, it seems obvious that they are chomping at the bit to get footage of a smashed window, or vandalized storefront. The cameras waited, and due to a lack of political discipline, they got exactly what makes them money.
There is something about the culture of black bloc tactics that seems to go into default mode whenever there is a mass action. Firstly, if a massive protest is advertised as “non-violent”, doesn’t it make sense to allow space for that? It seems there is this consistent need by black block anarchists to be coercive with their tactics, by bringing property destruction to these events without any kind of agreement from others who are participating. There are many problems with this. Some people can not get arrested (3 strikes law, immigration status, or compromise of professional licensing (ie if you are medical care provider)) Other issues that warrant consideration are people who may have had traumatic experiences around violence or the police (or both). People with health issues (mental or physical) may also not be able to participate in these kind of activities. That said, everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in a peaceful protest if that is what is promoted. That is not what happened on Wednesday. Windows were smashed at a Whole Foods and numerous banks while thousands of people marched were vandalized in a city (Oakland) that is itself on the verge of bankruptcy, with no major banking headquarters. Clorox is the only major corporation based in Oakland and it was not targeted…at all. Of the 100 or so arrested for utilizing these tactics or getting caught in the fray, only 30% were actually from Oakland, the rest were from outside the city or from out of state. It’s safe to say, from a direct action perspective utilizing property destruction, Oakland is an extremely poor target. This illustrates my point that there was a lack of strategy and a certain level of coercion involved in bringing these tactics to the general strike. Why didn’t the black bloc target downtown SF, the headquarters of Wells Fargo and a major financial center? Why not target a wealthy community like Belvedere (one of the wealthiest towns in America)? Why Oakland, a community crippled by poverty and violence?
The use of property destruction around the general strike was terrible strategy as we are now seeing with the footage that has been broadcast across the globe. The narrative by the corporate press is now “the general strike was violent” and the power of the day is eclipsed. That evening there was an attempted foreclosed building takeover where an organization that provided services to the homeless was once located. It was a great target, except it was two blocks from the Occupy Site. Why did activists choose this site knowing it would bring a heavy police presence to Occupy Oakland? Was there consideration given to the impact this would have. The events that followed left a sour taste for everyone as local small businesses were smashed and vandalized.
Some have made parallels with the Occupy Movement to the Civil Right’s Movement. I don’t know about those direct parallels, but I do know that the Civil Right’s Movement had a similar debate. Malcolm X, the black panther party, leaders like Stokely Carmichael who were deeply involved with the Civil Right’s Movement in the deep south with Dr. King, made the compelling argument that people deserved to practice self defense. It’s important to note, that even with this division, you never saw coercion by the more radical members towards peaceful protesters. That is, you never saw the black panther party or followers of Malcom X practicing property destruction (or brandishing guns) at the marches that Dr. King or SNCC were organizing. In fact the black panther party (and black Muslims) were more focused on developing social programs in community outreach and having a public display of arms against police harassment. It wasn’t until the Weather Underground’s bombing campaign against the U.S. government(and its breaking off from SDS) that you see this tactic being significantly used. Even then, activists didn’t merge tactics of mass actions with property destruction. They kept them strategically separate. There was tremendous political discipline in that period of social unrest. That’s not to say property destruction did not occur at mass actions, but there was an awareness among organizers to give space for peaceful protest and property destruction in a different time and space continuum. An example of this is in the "Days of Rage" that the Weather Underground and more radical elements of SDS tried to organize (unsuccessfully I might add). Could you imagine how different the narrative would be if there were black bloc tactics during the march to Montgomery? History would be very different, and I could pretty much guess the media would have told it in the way they always have....violent protesters create a riot!
I know that black bloc tactics were originally developed in Germany as effective resistance to police brutality. In 1980, German Police forcefully evicted the Free Republic of Wendland, an anti-nuclear protest camp in Gorleben, Wendland. This attack on 5,000 peaceful protesters led many former pacifists to reconsider their tactics. By December 1980 the Berlin City Government organized an escalating cycle of mass arrests, followed by other local authorities across West Germany. The squatters reacted by opening new squats, as the old ones were evicted. Following the mass arrest of squatters in Freiburg, demonstrations were held in their support in many German cities. The day was dubbed Black Friday following a demonstration in Berlin at which between 15,000 to 20,000 people took to the streets and destroyed an expensive shopping area. It was during this protest that the black bloc tactic of anonymity (with black mask and clothing) was adopted. The German media labeled them der schwarze Block ("the black block"). The use of the tactic spread to the Netherlands and throughout Europe and was quite successful in the 80’s. The black block is still used today in Germany, but it is worth noting, that activists refer to them as "riot tourists" who come from the suburbs to the city when there is a protest, then hop back on the train and return home, leaving the communities that they "protested" in to clean up the mess.
There are several issues to consider when thinking about the transferability of black bloc tactics to the U.S. in 2011 but the main question I have is have these tactics of property destruction been successful in the U.S. to this point and if not why not? Can anyone argue that they have had the kind of impact they had in Europe in the last 10 years, as they have been consistently utilized in protest after protest since the Seattle WTO? I would argue that the success of black bloc tactics at mass protests in the U.S. in this period (1999-2011) has been a zero sum game. I think that there are several reasons why that is. 1. Black bloc is easily infiltrated by agent provocateurs. 2. The media narrative shifts focus to these tactics away from the message of the movement too easily. 3. There has been a consistent lack of discipline of targets of property destruction, with small businesses, and community resources being targeted (in poor communities like Oakland), rather than corporate interests in wealthy communities (like, say NYC). Also, there is not currently a vibrant radical culture in the U.S. which can help every day people gain a vocabulary for this kind of resistance to actually bring 20,000 people out onto the street to resist in this way. It always remains a small fringe of people. . Also, in the US, because all of our major media outlets are corporate owned (in Europe many are non profits or state owned), there is an automatic tendency for journalists to capture the spectacle of violence which makes for great television. Also, you haven’t seen the success of the black bloc replicated really, since the mid-80’s (before the corporate hegemony and globalization that we see today) though it is continuously used again and again.
In the U.S., part of the lack of success of black bloc tactics is the culture of coercion by anarchists practicing this tactic in mass actions. As someone who has participated in organizing for demonstrations, it feels as if the point of bringing property destruction to non violent organized events has been to convince everyone that THIS is the way to protest, rather than recognizing, that many people do not want to be associated with these tactics for very very valid reasons. There is a general lack of boundaries and respect on this front to people who may not be able to get arrested, or who have had traumatic experiences with the police.
I also want to comment on anarchist culture and how it can often be self-defeating. There is often a high romanticizing of political violence and “riot porn” within anarchist circles , with countless videos that romanticize the tactic to a Hollywood like reality. Here’s just one example: http://www.crimethinc.com/blog/2011/11/06/oakland-general-strike-footage/. There are many gender/ power dynamics attached to the use of violence in groups which I’ll save for another writing, but the masculine centric culture of black bloc anarchists has to be stated. How welcoming is this tactic and the culture attached to it to people who may not identify as male, or white? As a queer woman, I often feel alienated being around “riot” energy and it makes me just want to avoid it…the opposite of participate. http://riotporn.blogspot.com/ is a popular site where riots, regardless of their political affiliation or purpose, are romanticized around the globe. I point this out, because it greatly illustrates the erotic fetishism of the tactic, the masculine nature of black bloc culture and how these tactics are often romanticized with a fraternity like zeal with little or no regard for the actual strategy utilized. It deserves a critique. With this masculine centered eroticism of property destruction, there also appears to be a general sense of entitlement around ownership of a protest event.
The “noise” volume of property destruction will always trump a non violent peaceful protest in the eyes of not only the media, but also fellow participants and those watching on the outside, no matter how large the numbers. That is a fact. The question is, then, is there any room for property destruction in a movement? I would argue yes. There are many examples in U.S. history of property destruction being done somewhat successfully. The Earth Liberation Front was successful at destroying a wild horse slaughter house that the local community in Oregon had spent years trying to close down. With a simple act of property destruction, the struggle was over, and the slaughter house never re-opened. The Weather Underground went on a fairly successful and extensive bombing campaign against the US. Government in protest of the Vietnam war for almost 15 years. These are large scale examples of clandestine groups that have practiced property destruction somewhat successfully, but who have also paid the price with imprisonment, assasination or needing to go underground for an extended period of time. Here is another more small scale example of a great use of property destruction:
The Ronald Reagan statue which has been promoted in the main stream media as a “beacon” of liberty on the west coast like the Statue of Liberty, was brilliantly re-sculpted to be leaning left. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/11/07/vandals-leave-reagan-statue-leaning-left/
I think the underlying strategy that the black bloc needs to consider is allowing time and space for peaceful protest to occur. When property destruction is brought to a mass action without consensus or understanding of the participants, it is coercive, and undemocratic. There are also a number of factors that must be considered. When practicing these tactics it’s important to ask these questions in relation to strategy: Is this the best use of resources? Is this an appropriate target? Is there a better target? Is this a good location or just a convenient location? Is this a good time to do this? How will this effect other allies who are involved? How can the media spin this against the movement and how can we effectively spin it back around? I hope the conversation on this topic can continue, and that respect and intelligence prevail. For the first time in a number of years, I have hope that change can actually occur, and that visionary people with good hearts will prevail.