(Second in the series of posts on the black bloc. The first is here: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/shining-a-light-on-the-black-bloc-part-1-italian-autonomism/)
Although clearly influenced by Italian autonomia, the German autonomen differed in two major respects. First of all, it made much less of an attempt to link itself with the Marxist tradition, even something as heterodox as Toni Negri’s “refusal to work” brand. Secondly, it was much more of a “scene” or a life-style and more particularly a kind of blend of the punk sensibility with ultraleft militancy—sort of half Sid Vicious and half Mark Rudd circa 1970. A rather unappealing mixture in my view.
The other major difference, of course, between the Italians and the Germans is that the latter group gave birth to the black bloc tactic that has become fairly ritualized ever since its introduction in the early 80s. The tactic had always been around in one form or another since the late 70s at least but it took German ingenuity to effectively patent it.
Ironically, it was the German cops who first coined the term referring to the “Schwarzer Block” in a raid in Frankfurt on July 28, 1981 against squatters and other “subversives”. The cops did not view the schwarzer block as a tactic, but as a group even if was ill-defined. In fact it was so ill-defined that charges were eventually dropped against those arrested.
But as pointed out earlier, the tactic predated its naming by the cops and its enshrinement as a permanent tactic by the autonomen. In the late 70s, a wing of the radical movement donned helmets, masks and black clothing when they went out to fight neo-Nazis and the cops. It should be mentioned at this point that such activists had little use for exploiting peaceful demonstrations. There was such a deep hatred toward the German state in this period that the black bloc tactic could summon thousands of activists into battle. Only a few years earlier the Red Army Faction, led by Baader and Meinhof, could count on support that the American Weather Underground could only fantasize about. Fully one out of four Germans supported their activities and one out of ten said they would hide an RAF member from the cops.
Despite his proud identification with autonomism, Georgy Katsiaficas’s treatment of the German movement is decidedly ambivalent in “The Subversion of Politics”. He views the widespread choice of black as a “style” preference rather than an indication of any kind of deep ideological affinity with anarchism:
The black leather jackets worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by others signalled less an ideological anarchism than a style of dress and behavior — symbols of a way of life which made contempt for the established institutions and their U.S. “protectors” into a virtue on an equal footing with disdain for the “socialist” governments in Eastern Europe. Black became the color of the political void — of the withdrawal of allegiance to parties, governments and nations.
In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the clash between “mods” and “rockers” in Britain a decade or so earlier, the German left became a battleground between the punkish black leather favoring Mollis (those who threw Molotov cocktails) and the more laid-back hippy types called Müslis, after the breakfast cereal.
The primary arena for struggle by the “molli” faction was defending squats. In places such as the Kreuzberg neighborhood of West Berlin, thousands of empty apartments and stores had become occupied by the autonomen and turned into both places to live and cultural centers embodying their values. On a much smaller scale the same thing happened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan around the same time.
Serving as morality police in Kreuzberg, autonomen activists punished any and all violators of the group ethos as Katsiaficas points out:
In response, autonomous groups seeking to preserve the independence and character of their neighborhoods intensified their attacks on yuppie entrepreneurs, leading to a widespread perception of the Autonomen as little more than neighborhood mafias (Kiezmafia). Seeking to create a “dead zone for speculators and yuppie-pigs,” groups waged a concerted campaign against gentrification in Kreuzberg. They vandalized upscale restaurants catering to professionals — in some cases throwing excrement inside — torched luxury automobiles costing in excess of $40,000, and repeatedly damaged businesses they deemed undesirable.
They were also as set in their ways about culture as the Taliban. When a small theater called Sputnik decided to show the film “Terror 2000”, a low-budget anti-Nazi satire, a group of activists sprayed the projectionist with teargas, and used butyric acid to destroy a copy of the film, which they considered “sexist and racist.” Afterward, they threatened to return and “destroy everything” if the movie was ever screened again.
Katsiaficas is rather mealy-mouthed when it comes to this incident, writing “I find it difficult to fault completely those who attack neo-Nazis and films like Terror 2000 in which gratuitous violence and sexual objectification reproduce within the movement the very values which it opposes.”
I wonder how he would react if some hard-core Albanian Maoists took it upon themselves to visit Dr. Katsiaficas’s office and spray him with teargas because they objected to his autonomist deviations. In general, I don’t think it is very useful for leftists to use violence to suppress ideas they find objectionable.
Apparently, the Kreuzberg autonomists had a big thing about “politically incorrect” movies. In a “Letter from Europe” devoted to the Kreuzberg scene that appears in the November 28, 1988 New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer reports on another incident:
The Eiszelt is a little theatre on the Zeughofstrasse that shows underground movies , and last spring it was showing a movie called “Fingered,” directed by a Lydia Lunch, which some Kreuzbergers considered pornographic and some sexist and some violent—although apparently not too pornographic or sexist or violent to have shown a few weeks earlier at a theater in town. Twelve masked men and women broke into the Eiszeit during the movie’s run to deal with “Fingered”. They destroyed the projector, and the film in the projector (which turned out to be some other movie), and then they emptied the cash register and fled.
Supposedly the cash receipts were funneled to either a lesbian feminist or anti-imperialist group, but nobody knew which one.
Mayer goes into considerable depth describing the events leading up to the excrement attack on the “upscale” restaurant mentioned in passing by Katsiaficas. You might get the impression from his use of this word that it was one of those joints reviewed in the NY Times with the $200 per person tasting menu. In actuality, the restaurant—called Maxwell—had much more in common with the sort of places opened up in Park Slope by a husband-and-wife team.
In the case of Maxwell, the husband was Hartmut Bitomsky whose values were decidedly opposed to the Style section of the NY Times. His wife Brigitte loved to cook and decided to open a place on the Oranienstrasse, a main drag in Kreuzberg where autonomist values had to be followed to the letter. Not long after Maxwell opened, the Bitomsky’s discovered that they were on a hit-list. They didn’t have to worry about their lives, but their right to open a restaurant was being decided by the morality police.
Twenty years before the Bitomsky’s opened Maxwell, Hartmut was occupying in protest the German Film and Television Academy in West Berlin which he and seventeen other students renamed the Dziga Vertov Academy in honor of the Soviet documentary filmmaker. He was expelled for his efforts.
That did not prevent him from becoming a major figure in the left film world. He wrote what Mayer described as a book of “Marxist aesthetics” on film that was titled “The Redness of the Red in Technicolor” and began making decidedly uncommercial films in Berlin. Becoming obsessed with “German images” like forests, superhighways and blond braids, he reworked them into a film critique of Nazi totalitarianism. His best known work is “B-52”, a documentary on the bomber that the NY Times reviewer described as follows:
”B-52” has grimly detailed accounts of other broken-arrow accidents in Greenland and Spain. A tour guide talks about the Spanish one while showing off a portion of a bombshell at a museum, and a civilian investigator is seen still checking water samples in Goldsboro for signs of nuclear contamination more than 30 years later, mentioning ”a small piece of a nuclear weapon they were unable to recover.” There are horrific stories about the bomber’s use in Vietnam by veterans of that conflict. When Mr. Bitomsky isn’t being glib and uses his interviews to subtly tear down the wall of propaganda about the plane’s efficacy, ”B-52” is absorbing and clear.
None of the black leather clad morality enforcers cared about any of that. All they knew is that Maxwell typified the Schicki-Micki threat to Kreuzberg, a term that means Mickey Mouse chic. It can be likened to “gentrification” in New York and particularly the “yuppie” threat to the Lower East Side in the 1980s that the local counterparts resented even though they never threatened to drive any restaurants out of the neighborhood. In fact, I was friendly with a French chef named Bernard Leroy, who opened a restaurant on Avenue C, the Lower East Side’s equivalent of Oranienstrasse. (He also had a show on WBAI at the time, when it was still very listenable if not compelling radio.) In 1988, the very year that Mayer filed her report, the NY Times reviewed Bernard’s restaurant:
Slum chic may be the next fad in French bistros, what with the success of Bellevues, the Gallic diner on a tawdry block of Ninth Avenue near 37th Street, and now Bernard Organic French Cuisine, at Ninth Street and Avenue C, a scary, drug-plagued neighborhood that makes the Port Authority Bus Terminal’s environs look like Scarsdale.
The creation of the 31-year-old French-born Bernard Leroy, the year-old restaurant is packed nightly, testimony to the resoluteness of trend-seeking Manhattan diners. Mr. Leroy says he uses organic produce and meats ”as much as possible,” doing most of his shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket. He worked at restaurants in France before moving to New York 10 years ago and taking jobs at the caterer Glorious Food, the SoHo Charcuterie and La Petite Ferme. He chose the Avenue C location because, quite simply, ”I could afford it,” he said.
I believe that most local denizens welcomed Bernard into the neighborhood. Maybe that’s a function of their not having been indoctrinated into proper autonomist values. As far as I can remember, they were also big fans of Lydia Lunch, a resident of the neighborhood, as well.
Brigitte Bitomsky’s sole intention in opening Maxwell was to allow people to eat healthy food, like crisp vegetables and fresh fish with interesting spices, an offense in some eyes equal to nuclear power or gang rapes. The restaurant had one room with seven wooden tables and thirty wooden chairs, simple enough. Their mistake, however, probably was using linen tablecloths and napkins, which surely betrayed support for American imperialism.
They opened for business on Christmas of 1985.
In the summer of 1986, the Bitomsky’s figured out that they had become the “enemy”. After furious fighting between the cops and the “mollis” on May Day and in ensuing months, things had become polarized between the hard core left in Kreuzberg and just about everybody else. On one side you had the autonomen in black leather, on the other side you had people who drove SUV’s, Ronald Reagan, the neo-Nazis and Brigitte Bitomsky’s restaurant. People would stop Hartmut on the street and ask him about the ratio between wages and profits in the restaurant, or its “infrastructure”.
Late one night when there were only four customers in the restaurant, nineteen men and women clad in black leather and wearing Doc Martens stormed into the restaurant, started throwing beer cans and turning over furniture. The Bitomsky’s first reaction was to think that they were dealing with neo-Nazis. Some people who ran a soup kitchen down the street told them that they had been victims of the Redskins, a hard-core autonomist gang. They were advised to offer them payoffs, just as if they were characters in “The Sopranos”.
The Redskins came back on Sunday and instructed the Bitomsky’s that they were going to stand trial. They were denounced by an autonomist Vishinsky who demanded to know: “What are you doing in Kreuzberg? You are destroying the infrastructure of Kreuzberg”. Yes, the poached tilapia was certainly a threat to humanity.
Brigitte told Mayer what happened next:
It was hot, and August, and we had only four customers—plus Hartmut, sitting by the door, waiting, and, of course, the whole world watching. But they took us by surprise when they came. You see, we were watching for motorcycles and boots and bomber jackets, and this time it was different. There were only three of them, to begin with. Three men with dark sunglasses and woolen caps pulled low on their foreheads—and carrying buckets. Three men carrying three buckets full of shit and emptied the shit in my restaurant and then they vanished. At that moment, it was all over. We cleaned up and closed the restaurant for good. Who would ever want to eat at Maxwell again?
I will conclude with Kastiaficas’s insightful take on the blind alley that this movement had marched into. Keep in mind that he is one of the foremost defenders of autonomism in the academy, along with John Holloway.
No matter how heroic its members, the existence of an oppositional movement does not necessarily mean that a new psychological structure has emerged which stands in contrast to the unconscious structures of the old social order. By themselves, combativeness and a constant willingness to fight, are not revolutionary attributes — indeed, they are probably the opposite. Even at a moment when the Autonomen were the only public force in Germany directly to oppose the fascist wave of violence which swept across the country in 1992, fights broke out among those who went to Hoyerswerda to stop the pogrom. Internal dangers are all the more real since there are elements to the Autonomen containing within them the seeds of aggression and destruction. “Punk rules,” once a popular slogan, has counterparts today in equally absurd ideas: “Germany-all downhill now” and “Fire and Flames.” The pure nihilism present to some degree in the movement is expressed in a variety of ways. Indications like the combat boots and black leather jackets worn by many militants can be disregarded as superficial, but equally obvious characteristics of the scene merit attention: a scathing anti-intellectualism, an overt and often unchallenged “male” process of events, and random violent clashes among members of the scene. To put it mildly, the movement often fails to establish peaceful and supportive community, and it also contains a dose of German national pride. Both the Greens and the Autonomen have been widely criticized for focusing too much on the German movement’s needs and not enough on the international movement. On these levels, they have not broken with some of the worst dimensions of their cultural tradition.
When you keep in mind that these are the very people who are widely regarded as the inventors of the black bloc tactic, some deep thinking about its role in mass protests has to take place.
In a series of posts to follow, I will take a close look at what happened in Seattle in 1999 and other landmark battles involving the black bloc.