Black bloc

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A black bloc group in a feeder march near the World Bank, in Washington, D.C. in 2009. Some black bloc protesters wear hoods, allowing their faces to be viewed, while others use such items as scarves, dark sunglasses or masks to conceal their faces as much as possible.

A black bloc is a name given to groups of protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items.[1][2] The clothing is used to conceal marchers' identities, and hinder criminal prosecution, by making it difficult to distinguish between participants. It is also used to protect their faces and eyes from items, such as pepper-spray, which law enforcement often uses. The tactic allows the group to appear as one large unified mass.[3] Black bloc participants are often associated with anarchism and they use multiple forms of violence when they gather at a protest.

The tactic was developed in the 1980s in the European autonomist movement's protests against squatter evictions, nuclear power and restrictions on abortion, as well as other influences.[1] Black blocs gained broader media attention outside Europe during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, when a black bloc damaged property of GAP, Starbucks, Old Navy, and other multinational retail locations in downtown Seattle.[1][4]

History[edit]

West German origins[edit]

An anti-fascist black bloc in Germany

This tactic was developed in response to increased use of police force following the 1977 Brokdorf demonstration.[5][6][7]

Black bloc illustration

On 1 May 1987, demonstrators in Berlin-Kreuzberg were confronted by West German police.[8] After this, thousands of people attacked the police with rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. The riots at the May Day in Kreuzberg became famous after the police had to completely pull out of the "SO 36" neighborhood in Kreuzberg for several hours, and rioters looted shops together with residents.[9]

When Ronald Reagan came to Berlin in June 1987, he was met by around 50,000 demonstrators protesting against his Cold War policies. This included a black bloc of 3,000 people. In November 1987, the residents were joined by thousands of other protesters and fortified their squat, built barricades in the streets and defended themselves against the police for nearly 24 hours. After this the city authorities legalised the squatters residence.

On 1 May 1988, radical left groups organised a May Day demonstration through Berlin-Kreuzberg, ending in riots even heavier than the year before. The police were attacked with steel balls fired by slingshots, stones, fireworks and Molotov cocktails. On 2 May, headline of the Berlin newspaper BZ was "Beirut?? Nein, das ist Berlin!" (Beirut?? No, it's Berlin!). The riots finally became a tradition in Berlin-Kreuzberg and have recurred every 1 May since, but never as fatally as in the first two years.[10] When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund met in Berlin in 1988, the autonomen hosted an international gathering of anti-capitalist activists. Numbering around 80,000, the protesters greatly outnumbered the police. Officials tried to maintain control by banning all demonstrations and attacking public assemblies. Nevertheless, there were riots and upmarket shopping areas were destroyed.[11][12]

21st century[edit]

Part of a black bloc in Hamburg during the G20 summit

In the period after the Berlin Wall, the German black bloc movement continued traditional riots such as May Day in Berlin-Kreuzberg, but with decreasing intensity. Their main focus became the struggle against the recurring popularity of Neo-Nazism in Germany. The "turn" came in June 2007, during the 33rd G8 summit. A black bloc of 2,000 people built barricades, set cars alight and attacked the police during a mass demonstration in Rostock.[13] 400 police officers were injured, and also about 500 demonstrators and activists. According to the German Verfassungsschutz, the weeks of organisation before the demonstration and the riots themselves were amounted to a revival for the militant left in Germany. Since the "Battle of Rostock", traditional "May Day Riots" after demonstrations every 1 May in Berlin, and since 2008 also in Hamburg, became more intense, and violence of the autonomen against police officers and political enemies at demonstrations of radical left groups have dramatically increased.[14]

On the day of President Donald Trump's inauguration, black bloc groups were present among other protests in Washington D.C. and other places. The groups engaged in vandalism, rioting, and violence.[15][16] At least 217 were arrested and six police officers sustained minor injuries, and at least one other person was injured.[15][17][18][19][20]

In February 2017, an event at the University of California, Berkeley by commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was cancelled by college administrators after protestors of a black bloc broke windows, shot fireworks, and caused a light fixture to catch fire.[21] The cancellation of the event brought mainstream attention to anarchism and black bloc tactics,[22] and led to a larger conversation about the role of violence in protest movements.[23]

International development[edit]

North America[edit]

Black bloc members spray graffiti on a wall during the Iraq War Protest in Washington D.C., on March 21, 2009.

The first recorded use of the tactic in United States of America occurred at the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. on 17 October 1988. Over one thousand demonstrators—a small number consisting of a black bloc—called for the end to U.S. support for the right wing death squads in El Salvador.[24] A black bloc caused damage to property of GAP, Starbucks, Old Navy, and other retail locations in downtown Seattle during the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations.[25] They were a common feature of subsequent anti-globalization protests.[26]

During the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, a black bloc riot damaged a number of retail locations including an Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, Adidas Store, Starbucks and many banking establishments.[27][28]

Brazil[edit]

During the June–July 2013 mass public demonstrations, a group of people who identified themselves as "Black Blocs" started attending demonstrations, especially those held across the street from governor of Rio de Janeiro State Sérgio Cabral's residence and the state government palace.[29][30] Police face accusations of infiltrating the movement and, at times, acting as agents provocateurs by starting confrontations. Many leftists claim that video footage shows an infiltrated police officer throwing a molotov cocktail that wounded a riot policeman, although this has been denied by the police and hasn't been proven until today (2017).[31] Protester violence occurred regularly during the Brazilian protests (particularly the week of 17 to 21 June) even when not linked with the black bloc, or with police infiltration.[32][33]

Despite the denunciations by media, police, and even some activists, the black bloc tactic persisted in the movement. By October 2013, "The mask-wearers were welcomed by the protesters who wanted to wreak havoc during manifestations...Indeed, this sense of solidarity amidst the demonstrations, this shared manning of barricades, inspires a common determination to fight against the fear of repression." According to a report by two Brazilian leftists published in Al Jazeera, this coincided with a revival in the breadth of the street protests that had not been seen since its early days in June.[34] On 10 October, the Rio teacher's union (Sepe) officially declared support for the recent black bloc actions, stating that the bloc were "welcome" at their demonstrations. Postings on teacher Facebook groups praised bloc participants as "fearless."[35][36]

Europe[edit]

A group of about 400 black bloc demonstrators took part in the 2011 London anti-cuts protest where they attacked various high end retail outlets; according to journalist Paul Mason this may have been the largest ever black bloc assembly in the UK. Mason says some of the participants were anarchists from Europe, others were British students radicalised after participation in the 2010 UK student protests.[37] A black bloc protested the opening of the universal exposition Expo 2015 in Milan.[38]

Amongst hundreds of thousands of protesters, protesting the G20 Summit in Hamburg Germany were thousands of violent black clad rioters who vandalised the city day and night, mostly night [39]

Egypt[edit]

On 25 January 2013, on the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, black blocs made an appearance in the Egyptian political scenes where they have reportedly[40] attacked various Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and government buildings and stopped traffic and metro lines in more than 8 cities.[41][42][43][44][45] A group of young protesters, who identified themselves as the "Black Bloc", have marked the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution by blocking the tramway tracks in Alexandria on Friday.[46][47][48] Egyptian Prosecutor General Talaat Abdallah ordered the police and armed forces to arrest any participant in the Black Bloc, pointing out that the group was carrying out "terrorist activities"[49] and is considered by the government and under the new Constitution a violent radical outlaw group.[50]

Police infiltration[edit]

On occasion, police and security services have infiltrated black blocs, apparently for purposes of investigation. Allegations first surfaced after several demonstrations. At the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, among the many complaints about the police[51] there was mention of video footage which "suggests that men in black were seen getting out of police vans near protest marches."[52] In August 2007, Quebec police admitted that "their officers disguised themselves as demonstrators" in Montebello. However, the officers purportedly did not engage in violence, and claimed that they were carrying rocks because other protesters were doing so. They were identified by genuine protesters because of their police-issue footwear.[53][54] According to veteran activist Harsha Walia, it was other participants in the black bloc who identified and exposed the undercover police.[55]

There is no evidence that the black bloc tactic is particularly vulnerable to infiltration, however, as investigatory – and even agent provocateur – activity has taken place regularly among completely nonviolent, non-"black bloc" campaigns. In 2003, the Oakland, California Police Department infiltrated a group of demonstrators protesting police brutality and the war in Iraq at the port; subpoenaed private comments by Captain Howard Jordan indicate that his plan was to steer the march away from the police station in order to avoid confrontation. In internal documents, Jordan mentioned this strategy was common in other police departments, including San Francisco and Seattle."[56]

Tactics[edit]

When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights … After N30 [30 November], many people will never see a shop window or a hammer the same way again. The potential uses of an entire cityscape have increased a thousand-fold. The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of spells—spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them. Broken windows can be boarded and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come.
ACME Collective, quoted in Paris (2003)[57]

Tactics of a black bloc primarily include vandalism of private property, rioting, and demonstrating without a permit. Tactics can also include use of defensive measures such as misleading the authorities, assisting in the escape of people arrested by the police ("un-arrests" or "de-arrests"), administering first aid to persons affected by tear gas, rubber bullets and other riot control measures in areas where protesters are barred from entering, building barricades, resisting the police, and practicing jail solidarity.[58][59][60] Property destruction carried out by black blocs tends to have symbolic significance: common targets include banks, institutional buildings, outlets for multinational corporations, gasoline stations, and video-surveillance cameras.[61]

There may be several blocs within a particular protest, with different aims and tactics.[62] As an ad hoc group, blocs often share no universally common set of principles or beliefs[62] apart from an adherence to—usually—radical left or autonomist values, although some anarchist groups have called for the Saint Paul Principles to be adapted as a framework in which diverse tactics can be deployed.[61] A few radical right-wing groups, like some of the "autonomous nationalists" of Europe[63] or the Australian so-called "National-Anarchists"[64] have adopted "black bloc" tactics and dress.

In 2000, some months after the Battle of Seattle and the A16 protests against the IMF in Washington DC, the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective (based out of rural Vermont), called for Black Bloc activities to be coordinated on the tactical level, through the temporary election of street officers democratically empowered to make fast tactical decisions, especially concerning movement, while in confrontation with state police forces. This collective also called for Black Bloc actions to entail reserve groups, who could be called into a clash by these elected officers. These proposals were mapped out in the first edition of the pamphlet Communique on Tactics. The pamphlet was controversial within the anarchist community. Some anarchists attacked this approach be being too formal and bordering on Leninist in structure. The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective countered that the direct election of tactical officers was historically in line with the CNT and FAI anarchist militias during the Spanish Civil War. Of those early segments of the anarchist scene that agreed, in principle, with these assertions were the Barricada Collective (Boston, MA) and Columbus Anti-Racist Action (Ohio). The Barricada Collective, in their publication of the same name, published the pamphlet, and also wrote their own essays calling for a more nuanced and more militant use of the Black Bloc in the North American anarchist movement.

In July 2001 the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective would go on to produce a second edition of the Communique on Tactics[65] pamphlet in cooperation with Columbus ARA. This second edition further refined the proposal to suggest, among other things, that large Black Blocs, composed of numerous affinity groups, could reach a further level of tactical sophistication by each affinity group further specializing their capabilities (i.e. offense, defense, recon, etc.) and by investing coordinating ability to the elected officer core. This pamphlet, like the first, was debated among anarchists. Aspects of these tactical reforms were field tested with some success at the Festival De La Pueblo 5 May March in Boston in 2002, and the siege of the Lewiston Armory (in opposition to a failed neo-Nazi organizing meeting), Maine, 2003. Both these actions were organized largely by the Northeast Federation of Anarcho-Communist (whom the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective and Barricada were then affiliated).

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]