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Knocking the Boots? A Response to Mr. Riley Regarding the Bay and the Black Bloc
An engagement with some of the ideas and critiques put forward by Boots Riley.
What follows is not an attack on Boots Riley’s recent facebook update, I’ll leave that to the hundreds of others. I’m not from, nor do I live in Oakland, I wasn't even at or participated in any of the actions last weekend, (Feminist Vigilante March into the ‘Decolonize the New World Actions’), however I've been out to most of the major actions in Occupy Oakland’s recent history (and been going to the bay for different events for a decade) and have many friends involved in the anarchist, Occupy, and the radical labor movements and have been very inspired by many of the actions that have come out of it. Boots brings up some interesting questions and points in his recent post; however, perhaps we are missing some of the bigger questions and possible debates that we could be having revolving around the black bloc, it’s influence, and the relation between those not involved in social movements and revolutionary militants.
The concerns that Boots brings up can be articulated into two basic points: 1.) People aren't into the tactic of black bloc. People do not understand the tactic, and thus it is detrimental. 2.) We lack the context for our actions to have a larger reverberation.
While I want to address these things, the questions that we should be asking, as anarchists and more broadly as revolutionaries and those against the present order are much bigger. Is there ever a right time for such actions? Are such actions sometimes just a militant version of activism that cost us more than we gain? Do we lack the context for our actions to carry weight? And moreover, why is there such a lack of proletarian fight back in the US? Is it simply the fault of the revolutionaries or are there bigger issues and forces at work?
As to the concerns that Boots brings up, obviously the number of militants in the streets as ‘black bloc’ is small, and generally in the bay always have been. At the same time, there is no doubt that black bloc (a blanket term we will use here for anyone in masks that acts illegally, engages illegally with property, and is confrontational with the police) has made a large impact despite its small size on the street. In the bay area, the black bloc itself is also nothing new. As the recent ‘anti-colonial march’ on Saturday pointed out in its call-out, it drew inspiration in part from the black bloc that was formed in 1992 against Columbus Day in SF, one of the first in North America.
A trip down memory lane first…
During the era of anti-globalization, some black bloc actions were able to not only create dialog and discussion around the use of violence and tactics within the movement, but in some instances, push the actions of militants and activists out of the terrain of the summit and the protest, and into partially generalized conflict between people outside of the protest movement and the State. This includes when people in Seattle, as well as many militants, fought police in Seattle during the WTO meetings in November of 1999 in response to a state of emergency curfew that included National Guard troops, as well as in places like Genoa and Prague, where residents joined militants in fighting the police and joined in the looting of shops as activists stood by to guard the windows of the corporations. During the anti-war period in the US, black blocs were able, at times, to again have the same type of effect on the movement, challenging the liberal and Leninist currents, not only over tactics, but also over organization. Militant actions sometimes were able to move discussion on the war into a critique of capitalism as well as tactics, as anarchists often targeted recruiting stations and corporations directly tied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In SF, black bloc actions also again, sometimes, were able to move anti-war events away from just being large marches and rallies, into actual street conflicts that hit specific targets, (as well as many other capitalist businesses) such as recruiting stations, embassies, and the INS building. While obviously this did not stop the war, it did give rise to a feeling of militancy and momentum as tactics were escalated within large masses of people. This culminated with the large scale disruption of San Francisco as the US ‘officially’ invaded Iraq in 2003.
In the bay, we saw the black bloc again return within the riots and rebellions in the wake of the police murder of Oscar Grant as well as within the student occupation movement of 2009 – 2011. This of course is not to mention its use in a variety of other instances, be it in clashes with white supremacists ala Anti-Racist Action, or in demonstrations against police brutality across the country.
When Occupy began, we saw the black bloc’s return, largely in response to the camps across the country being raided as part of an attempt by the Department of Homeland Security and the Obama Administration to destroy the Occupy Movement. In Denver, St. Louis, North Carolina, Atlanta, NYC, and especially in Oakland, the debate over ‘black bloc’ raged.
I bring all of this up to point out that the black bloc tactic, especially in the bay area, is nothing new. This isn't to argue that “people” are “into” it, in one way or the other - I don’t think we really can have that debate in a completely definitive way. We can talk about when the tactic has been more useful however, and in what context it has been used, to different degrees of success in a variety of ways. Sometimes it has been as an intervention into wider movements, such as in the anti-globalization, anti-war, and Occupy periods, in which sometimes it was able to not only help foster a deeper critique of capital and tactics, but also to generalize, at times, deeper and more conflictual struggle with the State. An example of this would be the tens of thousands (I was there, I seen it), that participated in black bloc led breakaway marches in 2001 – 2003 during the anti-war period in SF. In some instances, the bloc played simply a defensive and strategic role, such as the wearing of masks during the student occupation movement to avoid police surveillance and for protection on the barricades and in defense of buildings or in the wake of Occupy encampment evictions. In others, the bloc was an auxiliary force in a larger rebellion, such as during the Oscar Grant riots, although its role was often over publicized, (sometimes by anarchists themselves), or overly demonized by the Left, non-profits, the media, and the State. We should proceed with a critique of the black bloc in this light. All tactics and the context they are used in need to be held up and examined, especially when they have been used in a variety of situations and in different instances, contexts, and movements, over a period of several decades. Within Occupy, while the actions that have occurred by those “in black bloc” have never involved more than several hundreds or thousands, there is no doubt that there has been a radicalization process for many, mostly new to social movements, in part because of ‘black bloc’ type actions that is completely unrivaled. The rebellions that occurred and led up to the General Strike on November 2nd, in part grew out of the experiences of many people through the eviction of the camp and a very real taste of street fighting and an attempt to defend/reclaim Oscar Grant plaza and later, appropriate a building. While few that donned masks, engaged with the police, and broke the law during those nights probably thought of themselves as ‘black bloc’ or anarchist is besides the point – in doing the actions they became part of that current as they saw a need to rebel in a certain way and do it anonymously. By January 2012 in Oakland, there was an escalation of tactics and militancy leading up to the “Move-In Day,” although clearly the numbers that we had on November 2nd were not present.
Also out of these militant actions, we saw the rise of T.A.C., or the Tactical Action Committee, who also helped popularize the black bloc tactic through weekly ‘Fuck the Police’ marches, as well as the growth of a radical squatting scene in West Oakland, the degree in which I have not seen in any major metropolitan city in the US. TAC also was a large part of carrying on such tactics into the Central Valley, participating with others from Occupy Oakland in clashes with police and Neo-Nazis in Sacramento, CA in February of 2012 and in demonstrations against the police murder of James Rivera Jr. and Luther Brown Jr. and others in Stockton, CA in the Spring and early Summer.
Also, I believe that the actions that followed both the police murder of Kenneth Harding Jr. as well as the recent shooting of the young man in the Mission District are very much worth noting. Within hours of Kenneth Harding’s murder, a march of several hundred formed in the Mission District, mainly as ‘black bloc,’ and marched and targeted banks and other capitalist institutions. This solidarity action was followed up by other marches and other actions, (as well as supporting actions being carried out by those in Bayview where Harding was killed). This activity helped to create a link with militants within the Bayview neighborhood and anarchists living in the Mission District and in Oakland. As someone who saw this solidarity, it is important to realize that it was through these actions themselves that this connection was created. (This of course is also not to downplay at all the very radical actions of those living in Bayview who took action themselves very quickly, targeting police as well as transit lines.) These events were followed very rapidly by actions surrounding the murder of a homeless man while on BART, which culminated in street actions and clashes which all saw a version of generalized ‘black bloc’ type activity with often minimal anarchist involvement. In July of 2012, protests in both SF and the Mission District were called in solidarity with the unfolding revolt against the police in Anaheim, which used ‘black bloc’ type tactics and destroyed property. In the Oakland march, participants targeted a bar frequented by police. In the case of the recent actions in the Mission District just weeks ago, anarchists were also the chief initiators of two nights of street actions which targeted banks, yuppie businesses, and the police station. These actions came hot on the heels of a pre-May Day militant march in April that also attacked businesses on Valencia Street, becoming a very real indicator that anger over gentrification had not washed away in the 1990’s with Kevin Keating’s posters.
In these instances, black bloc type actions helped to express solidarity and expand sites of resistance. They sought to draw people in and create a situation in which their rage could be expressed. It helped to create a set of consequences for the police, just as with the riots that followed the murder of Oscar Grant, that hopefully will dissuade police from carrying out such actions in the future as well as put them on the defensive. And, it also helped to create a link for others through action between the nature of the police in this society and their role within capitalism and as part of the process of gentrification and white supremacy. Lastly, ‘black bloc’ type actions have also been an ongoing facet of militant feminist, queer, and trans revolt in the bay as well. As the recent actions at Pride, against the H.E.A.T. conference, and the “feminist vigilante street marches” have shown, such tactics are clearly not been just the domain of straight white males as many would claim. Feminists and revolutionary queer and trans militants have also sought to foster militant responses to the murder of women, queer, and trans people, such as Brandy Martell, a black transwoman, who was killed in Oakland and left to die by police. In early May of 2012 in Oakland, a militant march and “Gender Strike Street Party,” comprised of many in black bloc, which was to remember Brandy and also call attention to CeCe McDonald, a black transwoman in jail for killing a Neo-Nazi attacker, was organized in Oakland that held the streets for hours and successfully gathered hundreds from the nearby Art Murmur while police looked on from the sidelines. This use of Art Murmur was again revisited in August as the city attempted to crack down on the street party by making people apply for permits. Anarchists responded by again calling for a street party which held the streets for several hours and ended with the attacking of the Obama HQ office.
These developments: the growth of TAC, the spreading of the tactic outside of the anarchist ghetto, and the use of the black bloc by anarchists as expressions of revolutionary solidarity and as intervention into the tensions of everyday life, are much more interesting and exciting than the destruction of bank windows in any of the “official” marches or actions that occurred during the Occupy period.
Thus, one can make the claim that ‘everyone’ isn't into the black bloc. Obviously, some people are, they keep happening! A better question is, what are the conditions and contexts for which they make the most sense and are able to actually spread and generalize revolt? Obviously, this is always changing and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it is offensive and sometimes it is defensive. Sometimes it is part of something else and sometimes it is called for solely us.
Clearly, large amounts of people outside of established radical circles aren't flocking to the black bloc, but nor did those outside of the Left to the SF ANSWER march on the same day as the Sunday anti-war and anti-capitalist march that targeted bank windows. Again and again, militants and revolutionaries of all stripes ask the question of ‘where is the rage?,’ and ‘where is the action?’ only to be surprised when a riot kicks off in response to a police shooting or workers occupy the state capitol.
As anarchists, we are trying to engage in actions which bring people in and help give confidence and inspire forms of organization and methods of action. This is not always easy. But in the end, at least in the bay area, we need to ask ourselves in what ways have we been effective, and in what ways have we not? Have we allowed the relatively high number of anarchists in one place in the US to let us slip into inaction when it comes to engagement of those outside of our circles? Are we more interested in just organizing ourselves than those we face similar conditions with, possible affinities, or (maybe now) live around?
The numbers involved in each action as well as the outcome greatly affect how the ‘black bloc,’ or any antagonistic and confrontational proletarian force, is perceived. For instance, if on Sunday during the anti-colonial/war/capitalist march called for by Afghans for Peace, similar such actions would have occurred across the country, in which similar groups of several hundred would have converged, likewise targeting banks and capitalist property and fought the police, many would speak of a new rising fight-back and a return to an anti-war movement that in the face of Obama has seemingly forgotten that thousands in the Middle East are dying through military occupation, bombings, and now more than ever, drone strikes. If this context would have been different, those in the streets of Oakland would be seen as part of a return to a new militancy that sought to stop the war that much of the Left forgot about; complacent with the election of a President that simply continued the slaughter brought on by Clinton and Bush before him.
Imagine if across the US, similar actions such as the ones that were attempted in SF around Columbus Day were attempted throughout the Americas? Those 20, who with their mug shots plastered in the corporate press comprise a variety of gender and racial backgrounds, would be seen as heroes – with support and donations flowing their way.
But we cannot side step the statement made by Boots without taking it seriously, even if we do not agree with it. As he writes, “The use of the blac[k] bloc tactic in all situations is not useful. As a matter of fact, in situations such as the one we have in Oakland, its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary.” Clearly the use of black bloc is all situations has not been useful, which is why it has not been used in every situation, (i.e., anarchists are involved in a variety of actions). The point moreover, is that the tactic has not always been successful, both in generating involvement from outside the hardcore militants and in accomplishing its goals during various actions. But, to write off the black bloc completely is to write off over a decade of action in the bay that has seen the generalization of struggle, the deepening of conflict, and the inclusion of a variety of participants at times.
As the recent weekend of actions in the bay area have shown, anarchists, especially when they use the tactic of the black bloc on their own, often are isolated and easily contained and repressed by the State. While the actions over the weekend were praise worthy in the fact that they were an attempt to respond to calls for solidarity and involve the anarchist movement in anti-colonial struggles (especially when so much of the Left and ‘the working class’ refuses to support such struggles or even keep their torch lit), ranging from indigenous people to those in Afghanistan, it also shows the degree in which anarchists have few supporters (although a very large influence) in the streets outside of a radical hardcore.
Boots points out a difference in context between how the anarchists in Greece are seen as opposed to those in Oakland, by stating that those in Athens are from the areas in which they riot and are part of “militant campaigns” that happen throughout the year. But of course, anyone who knows anarchists well, even if they do not political or tactically agree with them knows that most anarchists are involved in publishing and propaganda, (AK Press, BayofRage.com, the Anarchist Bookfair, Little Black Cart, etc), the running of social and community centers (the Holdout, Bound Together Books, the Long Haul), and organizing work, ranging from action against foreclosures to Copwatch to squatting homes. Clearly, anarchists have also been very much involved in Occupy Oakland and have helped to push it in a direction that other camps have not. But moreover, the context of Greece is much different from Oakland, ranging from the history of the military dictatorship, the no-go zones for police on campuses, to the crack epidemic made real by the US government and the realities of the racialized order of US capital.
Despite the differences, it is worth noting by reading through, “We Are An Image From the Future,” a book written by Greek anarchists after the 2008 insurrection, that according to some, tactics that were used solely (or at least by and large) by anarchists prior to 2008 were picked up by others after the outbreak of the December 2008 revolt. According to the authors, it was the continuous and committed actions of anarchists throughout the years and in a variety of struggles that led to their actions having wider support and resonance within Greek society (and hey, looting grocery stores and giving shit away doesn't hurt).
Clearly, where there has been fire, anarchists have sought to bring gasoline. The argument that anarchists in the bay area have not been involved in ongoing struggles in the area is obviously false. The degree to the quality of this involvement is open for debate that I will leave to those who live in the area.
For many young people, both non-black youth from the bay area and Oakland itself, both from the working class or outside of it, as well as the young black youths from Oakland that I have met through Occupy Oakland - black bloc tactics have created a vortex in which many of us have the ability to meet in struggle. Hopefully out of these situations, other struggles, organizing, and action can continue. On the other hand, for many within the Left, the black bloc has been alienating. As for the ‘mainstream’ Americans, or those within Oakland that find themselves in agreement with the Occupy Movement yet still put off by the black bloc, ‘vandalism,’ or people wearing masks, I ask people like Boots Riley what kind of actions could be carried out which pull these people into political action yet still would represent a real challenge and contestation with the State and capital? While clearly, not everyone is at that point, we still most ask ourselves what struggles will get more people off the couch or away from their phones if not what we already have been doing.
Black bloc has alienated many, but it’s unclear if these people would support revolutionary action to begin with, or if the working-class or poor participants (largely youths) that have been drawn in by the militant actions of Occupy outweigh those that have been alienated by it (largely less radical and older). Perhaps we will never know. But we can start to and engage in projects that attempt to meet people where they are at, and attempt to speak with conditions and frustrations that we both feel together. For those interested in such a project we are often faced with a catch-22. We want to foster self-organization and direct action, but most people are often only interested in movements that can benefit them and get them things. We have to find the projects and struggles which do both.
For myself, a bigger question for anarchists everywhere, but especially those in the bay area, is why have we not played a larger role in the struggles that have broken out that were inspired directly by the Occupy Movement itself? I am speaking to the battle to occupy the farm near UC Berkeley, the occupation of public schools, and also the attempt to squat and form a library in East Oakland. Clearly, anarchists have been very involved in these struggles along with others since their beginnings, but if we are seeking to create situations in which more militant actions can have greater support it would seem that it would be here, in which the desire of people to take and hold space and use it in their own interests (at times) against capital, that we can find the greatest possibility.
Two recent conversations I had with two anarchist comrades, both recent residents of Oakland, one a woman of color and the other a white male, are telling. The former, when asked if they were still excited by Oakland and its revolutionary possibilities as when they moved there over a year ago replied to a conversation they had had with a comrade in T.A.C. before May Day after they were asked if they were excited about the upcoming day of action. The comrade from T.A.C., who was heading off to help open a squat in East Oakland replied, “It’s just another day.” My friend commented that it seemed we were putting all of our energy into, “These big days of action,” as opposed to something deeper that was based around ongoing organizing and struggles. The latter friend later commented, “I’m sick of basing how good something is on the level of property destruction.”
These sentiments bring up an old tension: do we put more energy into larger events that are designed to bring in large bodies of people to do xyz, or do we spend our energy into organizing, infrastructure, or ‘educational’ campaigns that may involve smaller groups of people? Personally, I would like to see larger events or ‘days of action,’ come out of the struggles and organizing that we are doing on the ground, and the daily practices of class struggle we are engaged in throughout our lives. We need to build our capacity to defend our squats and radical spaces when they are evicted and attacked by the police. We need to build our capacity to respond to the State when it murders and attacks people. We need to build the networks of solidarity and support that strengthen working-class self-activity and direct action. We need to build or ability to grow our own food and solve our own problems outside of the State. ‘Black bloc’ type activity will be a part of all of these, sometimes offensively, and sometimes defensively, as the battle for control over the streets and territory in poor and working class areas will become more and more contested.
For those that were arrested both on Saturday and also took to the streets on Sunday, I have nothing but solidarity and support. I support those that took militant action just as I do the ILWU workers who destroyed EGT grain or those that looted Footlocker during the riots over Oscar Grant. To support proletarian action is to support proletarian action. The degree in which more and more people will be brought into revolutionary actions and situations is much more up to all people to come into conflict with class-society and their own conditions, than it is to the ‘revolutionaries’ who wear the titles of ‘activist’ or ‘anarchist.’ If we are able to meet these others and link up with them and aid their struggles, making them ours, is up to us.
Clearly though, for anarchists seeking a strategy which spreads tactics and ideas of self-organization and direct action without simply trying to “make people into anarchists,” we do need to think hard about how we go about such a project. We should be wary about trying simply to organize ourselves and only speak to each other – for it is exactly when we reach outside of our radical ghetto that we become the most powerful and the most influential – as well as the most subversive. Many will agree with me that there is more possibility in attempting to expand and deepen the existing struggles and tensions within class society, than an endless progression of days of action called for and attended by ourselves alone.
Having said that, to the comrades facing jail time and fines, beaten by the SFPD, can we give them anything but love and support? Slandered in the media, demonized by much of the Left, and cast out by former comrades, these people heeded a call for a day of action in solidarity with Native and anti-colonial struggles and decided to risk their freedoms and take to the streets. Such a desire is as noble as it is revolutionary. For those that question their tactics, I ask only what you would suggest in their absence.
Black bloc type actions will not cease – they will continue; across the world, and especially in the bay area. More and more, proletarian activity, as it comes into conflict with the State and its police forces, will continue to look more and more like black bloc activity, although more and more, hopefully it will refuse to identify as such. At the same time, more and more, those engaging in such tactics will care more about defending territory and neighborhoods than breaking the cars of someone within them. We will care more about looting grocery stores than trying to find the one bank window on the street that will break. We will care more about physically taking out the infrastructure of the State than we will about symbolic property destruction. We will spend more energy defending what we have from the State while at the same time expanding our occupations, squats, gardens, forms of organization, and associations. If we are to continue in our revolutionary project, this will be something forced on us by present conditions at one point or another. The question is: can we ready ourselves now for what is to come?
More and more, riots and full on rebellions will be a recurring response to police violence and repression and collective acts of rebellion will become more conflictual and seek ways to stay anonymous. For revolutionaries, we must seek to deepen these situations, to make them more subversive, and connect the seemingly disconnected nodes of class struggle that exist. We will not be able to call for the day in which the halls of power are stormed, but we can help to create the affinities and relationships which can help us maneuver in the coming terrain. As the economic and ecological crisis deepens, the need for total social revolution and the complete destruction of capitalist civilization is needed now more than ever.
Someone that has not yet run out of bullets, but will still continue to grab rocks.