Although the black bloc tactic has been around since the 1980s, it was the Seattle anti-globalization protests of November 30, 1999 that lent it the high profile it would enjoy for an extended period. Around this time, anarchism had become rather trendy as this article from the Style section of the April 4, 2000 Washington Post would indicate:
“Is this the Anarchist Soccer League?” asks the girl with the pierced lip and eyebrow. She catches the eye of a guy whose black T-shirt identifies him as “Poor, Ugly, Happy.”
He informs her that, yes, this is the regular pickup game of the Anarchist Soccer League, held on Sunday afternoons amid the minivan-and-merlot enclaves of upper Northwest Washington.
She surveys the dusty field near Woodrow Wilson High School, where 30 players have amassed to kick a ball around to promote physical fitness, camaraderie and the defeat of global capitalism. They’re mainly college-age men and women–energetic, fairly decent players. They know how to cross and dribble. They wear cleats and shin guards. “It looks too organized to be the Anarchist Soccer League,” the pierced girl says dismissively. She adjusts the black bra under her white tank top, wondering whether to join in.
“I need a cigarette,” she decides, and roller-blades off to find one.
But soon she’ll return to get into the game. She’s a punk rocker, a supporter of an activist group called Refuse & Resist. She wants to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted cop killer.
Her name is Barucha Peller. She wears Abercrombie & Fitch pants and carries a Nine West wallet. She’s not entirely sure that she’s an anarchist–”I’m 17, too young to pick any ideology”–but she definitely doesn’t like The System.
In some respects, the black bloc tactic used by anarchists is something like a team sport, with young people (mostly white males) in uniform fighting over territory with other men in uniform—the cops. Breaking through a fence, stopping a meeting from taking place, inciting the cops to wade in and beat up peaceful protesters in order to educate them how “rotten the system is”—all this amounts to a GOAL in soccer.
For a good introduction to the black bloc tactic, I’d recommend Daniel Dylan Young’s article Masking Up And The Black Bloc: A Pre-Seattle History on Infoshop.org, a key anarchist website run by Chuck Munson, a ubiquitous presence on the Internet who goes by the nom de guerre Chuck 0. Young explains that the tactic was cooked up by European autonomists, a radical movement inspired by the writings of Antonio Negri, the Italian ultraleft Marxist and co-author of “Empire”, a book that ironically praised the penetration of global capitalism into the Third World, as long as it was done with the consent of the penetrated. As disgraced weatherman Tex Antoine once put it: “With rape so predominant in the news lately, it is well to remember the words of Confucius: ‘If rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.’”
Here is the key passage in Young’s article:
From the beginning the West German state did not take kindly to young Autonomen, whether they were occupying nuclear power plant building sites or unused apartment buildings. In the winter of 1980 the Berlin city government decided to take a hardline against the thousands of young people living in squats throughout the city: they decided to criminalize, attack and evict them into the cold winter streets. This was a much more shocking and unusual action in Germany than it would be in the U.S., and created much popular disgust and condemnation of the police and government.
From December 1980 on there was an escalating cycle of mass arrests, street fighting, and new squatting in Berlin and throughout Germany. The Autonomen were not to be cowed, and each eviction was responded to with several new building occupations. When squatters in the south German city of Freiburg were mass arrested, rallies and demonstrations supporting them and condemning the police state’s eviction policy took place in every major city in Germany. In Berlin on that day, later dubbed “Black Friday,” upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 people took to the streets and destroyed an upper class shopping area…
In response to violent state oppression radical activists developed the tactic of the Black Bloc: they went to protests and marches wearing black motorcycle helmets and ski masks and dressing in uniform black clothing (or, for the most prepared, wearing padding and steel-toed boots and bringing their own shields and truncheons). In Black Bloc, autonomen and other radicals could more effectively fend off police attacks, without being singled out as individuals for arrest and harassment later on. And, as everyone quickly figured out, having a massive group of people all dressed the same with their faces covered not only helps in defending against the police, but also makes it easier for saboteurs to take the offensive against storefronts, banks and any other material symbols and power centers of capitalism and the state. Masking up as a Black Bloc encouraged popular participation in public property destruction and violence against the state and capitalism. In this way the Black Bloc is a form of militance that mitigates the problematic dichotomy between popularly executed non-violent civil disobedience and elite, secretive guerilla terrorism and sabotage.
With all due respect to Young’s well-researched article, this does not sound that much different from SDS Weathermen “trashing” that occurred a good fifteen years earlier in the USA. Property destruction was supposed to be an insurrectionary act, a kind of litmus test for whether you were a genuine revolutionary rather than reformist Trots with their peaceful and legal antiwar demonstrations.
From what I can gather, a shift took place in the late 1980s when the modern anti-globalization movement took shape. From that point on, the anarchists would employ the tactic from within the mass protests, like a kind of parasite. These protests were intended to be peaceful and legal like the 1960s antiwar demonstrations. At least back then and in the Autonomen protests in the 1980s, those who wanted to fight the cops went off on their own. At Seattle and elsewhere, including Toronto this week, the trade unions and NGO’s only sought to call attention to rotten trade agreements like WTO rather than get caught up into violent sporting events with the cops that would leave their members beaten and arrested.
There was a certain rethinking of the black bloc tactic when a youthful protester was killed in Genoa in July 2001. It was one thing to throw a riot and get hit by a rubber bullet or tear-gassed. Getting killed was another. This is not to speak of the usual round of beatings and arrests that a working class demonstrator sought to avoid.
But more to the point, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon redirected the movement away from street theater and the propaganda of the deed and in the direction of serious and focused mass antiwar demonstrations. For several years the left was successful in mounting huge protests that limited the power of the warmakers to some extent. For example, Turkey denied the use of its territory to invasion forces.
It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze the shortcomings of the antiwar movement, but I would be remiss if I did not mention several important factors:
1. The Shi’ite leadership collaborated closely with imperialism.
2. The Sunni opposition was religiously sectarian and failed to project a revolutionary alternative to Baathist restoration.
3. The jihadists were even more sectarian than the Baathists and drove the Shi’ites even further into collaboration with the USA.
4. The antiwar movement in the USA was divided between the CP and its allies on one hand and the Workers World Party on the other. The first camp tail-ended the Democratic Party while the second maintained a tight control on its own “coalition” in order to preserve a narrow “anti-imperialist” perspective.
5. There was no draft, nor was there wartime austerity.
Given all these factors, it is remarkable that any resistance to the war was mounted at all.
During this period, the anarchists went into hibernation except for the occasional foray into one gathering of the imperialist ruling class or another. Fences were assailed, Starbucks windows were smashed, rocks were thrown at cops but world imperialism kept on its merry way.
Moving forward, we find a new opportunity for anarchist street theater when Greece was struck by a terrible financial crisis that forced working people into the streets against the austerity drive. We can expect such protests to proliferate given the almost unanimous consensus of the ruling class to follow Milton Friedman type solutions.
When the Greek black bloc contingent threw a fire bomb into an Athens bank resulting in the death of three workers, there was a soul-searching that hopefully would retire this form of machismo politics once and for all. On http://www.occupiedlondon.org/blog/, a repository of anarchist reports from Greece, a penetrating critique was posted just a few days after the tragedy. It said:
Some people during the last general strike march, seeing 200,000 protestors roaring in rage and some even trying to storm the steps to Parliament, could only think of a means to perform their own petty identity as the vanguard of militancy. For that is what this cult has at its core: rituals of performativity, rituals of sustaining and reproducing the equilibrium of “toughness”, of “strength”, of “militancy”, of “fist-readiness”, or what may the symbolic order of rebel-masculinity consist of. Violence, so abstractly demonised by the bourgeoisie, is only a functional component of this process – not the objectified problem but the effect of an acutely problematic relation. A relation of competition for the most “advanced”, the most “dynamic” action, the most aggressive and seemingly uncompromising “attack”, the most one-dimensional being-in-the-world. What connects all these performances of “revolutionary singularity” is not their violence per se, but the vainglorious competitive culture of militaristic machoness. The establishment of a gendered hierarchy of “will” to the exclusion of the open mass-struggles that are developing throughout the country: a new Stalinism.
While this retreat from the madness that resulted in the death of three workers must be welcomed, there is still an unresolved contradiction in anarchist circles that persists to this day. It centers on the role of revolutionaries. In anarchist terms, it is clearly a self-mandated mission to inspire the non-radicalized mass of society into action through exemplary actions. Even if the Greek anarchists have renounced firebombing, there is still a nagging sense that they are in the business of “the exemplary deed”.
An article dated June 16th recounted an anarchist action against a supermarket:
On 14/06/10 we stormed into a super-market of the chain Masoutis on M.Kyriakou street, we took basic need goods (olive oil, pasta, milk etc.) and destroyed the anti-theft systems and the surveillance camera while we also smashed the cashiers and burnt all the money they had inside.
From the beginning we had decided that the goods of the appropriation would be distributed among the comrades who participated, not outside the super-market. With this choice of ours we want to make clear that this, and other practices aim not at promoting some of us as saviours of the society – rather, we want society itself to familiarise itself with such practices and to embrace them without waiting for the “revolutionary” philanthropist/ friends of the poor. Especially in a period like this one, where the rottenness of the present system is pushing it toward collapse. As for the term “Robin Hoodies” (in Greek: Super-market Robins) we believe it consists another typical attempt to twist the meaning of such actions by Mass Media, which present comrades as some sort of elite stealing for the poor. In result, the distribution of the goods is presented in a way that refers to the narcosis and the passivity reflected in the thinking “someone will think-act-take care of us”.
With all due respect to the anarchist comrades, this will not address the burning issue of hunger in Greece as the austerity drive mounts. It will take powerful mass actions to make sure that the bourgeoisie does not slash the social safety net—number one—and then to make steady encroachments on the state power to expand spending for working class needs, including jobs, housing, medical care and food. If it shows itself incapable of meeting those needs, then workers councils should move forward to replace the state with one that is so capable. This will take the spread of revolutionary consciousness and a tightly organized combat party to move all of society together against its sworn enemy, the rentiers and imperialist hangers-on—as well as the rotten social democratic politicians who are keeping the infernal thing going.
Finally, a word or two about the black bloc anarchists in Toronto who through its idiotic provocations gave the cops an excuse to beat and arrest 900 people. While this is likely not the last intervention from this crew, it certainly will serve a useful purpose by alerting the broader radical movement about its reactionary function. Whether or not they are cops in disguise is immaterial. Willy-nilly, they are doing just what the cops want them to do and they have to be stopped. Maybe the next mass anti-globalization protest will have some beefy trade unionists to keep this riff-raff in line.