By Steven Fake
In the wake of the G8/G20 economic summit protests in Toronto, Canada this past weekend, black bloc demonstrators have once again sparked discussion on the left and hysterics in the corporate media. Closely linked to anarchism, the continued popularity of the black bloc tactic colors the reputation of protesters, particularly anarchists, and merits a response with greater clarity from anarchists.
The black bloc phenomenon reputedly emerged out of Germany in the 1980s. It is predominantly a youth movement and no doubt only marginally within the influence of even other anarchist currents. Nonetheless, a more cohesive critique of the impact of black bloc tactics from within the more serious currents of anarchism will only aid in diminishing the phenomenon.
There is no doubt that black bloc protesters are sincere and on the right side of the larger issues. However, their failure to seriously engage with the broader movement over the utility of their tactics is indicative more of a subcutural identity clique than a continuation of the serious organizing carried out by, for instance, the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s.
Democracy requires discussing tactics in a format that ensures accountability to others organizing the demonstrations. Instead, the code words “diversity of tactics” are often used to cloak a range of actions that inevitably impact all activists involved in protests.
Granted, if the existing political climate in North America were far more radical, and wide swaths of the general population understood destruction of corporate bank facades as an act of political opposition to class exploitation, the tactic would not be harmful. However, it is quite evident we are not in such a period.
Masked faces simply alienate the very people that must be organized. It does not help that masks also facilitate infiltration by the police. The context is important. In the Chiapas region of Mexico, concealing one’s identity may well be a canny response to police repression.
Of course, one need not accept the breathless portrayals on television of violent nihilists. There is no doubt that the corporate press leap upon the property damage and intimidating garb of the black bloc to run lurid tales of looming violence. That the commercial media are not impartial is hardly a surprise – all the more reason to avoid giving them easy targets to demonize.
To take one of the more restrained assessments in the press, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized last fall, in the wake of the Pittsburgh G20 summit:
“Sadly, for all the good-hearted protesters who sought only peaceful means to exert their constitutional right to dissent and make points worthy of respect, a smaller element evidently came just for the sport of raising hell, or so it can be inferred from the scattered acts of mindless vandalism that took place Thursday. That pointless behavior emphatically proved that the security precautions taken for this summit were not over-reactive, they were simply prudent.”1
While the generally abysmal portrayals of protesters in the media must be refuted, the task is not aided by granting public relations gifts to the forces of corporate rule.
The noninterference of the police in property destruction – much remarked upon in Toronto – is a clear indication of its utility for the elite. Many observers have noted the usefulness of images of destruction in the media for justifying the $1 billion spent by the city of Toronto on “security” measures. Lest there be any doubt, the Toronto Police Department declared: “All you have to do is turn on the TV and see what’s happening now. Police cars are getting torched, buildings are being vandalized, people are getting beat up, and [so] the so-called ‘intimidating’ police presence is essential to restoring order.”
As the famed author and activist, Naomi Klein, observed, the police strategy consisted of “allowing what happened on Saturday [in Toronto] to happen with almost no intervention; and then… using that inaction as justification for scooping up hundreds of other activists, beating up journalists, just going on a rampage. Now, it they were serious about getting the people who had broken the windows, they would have done the arrests there at the time.” Pittsburgh witnessed a similar pattern: property destruction on the night of Thursday, September 24 – and mass arrests of individuals not connected to Thursday’s vandalism the following night. Thus the property destruction is used as justification for later assaults and detentions of protesters, journalists, and bystanders at random.
The history of police infiltration and provocation within black blocs amplifies the point: the tactic is a godsend to the city governments hosting these economic summits, and ultimately the “masters of the universe” crafting economic policy for the globe.
Moreover, even putting aside strategic considerations, the unorganized property destruction characteristic of many black bloc actions is often hard to defend. In Pittsburgh, the Rand Corp./ Software Engineering Institute building on Fifth Avenue and Craig Street, housing Defense Department-funded research facilities, was not the only edifice left with broken windows. Also damaged were a Quiznos Sub shop, quite possibly owned on franchise by someone who could ill afford the hundreds of dollars required to replace store front windows, and the Oakland institution, Pamela’s Diner, among many other businesses. The Pamela’s co-owner, Michele Mazzella was quoted as saying, “It had to be people who aren’t from the area, people who don’t know us.”2 Very likely, she was right.
But why would such destruction even be contemplated without assessing the most appropriate targets or ensuring cohesion among the participants? It is true that all of the damaged properties were objectionable to some degree since none of the targeted businesses practiced workplace democracy. Yet, if it seems quite likely that even the employees would be mystified by the vandalism, it is evident that such actions are counterproductive. Graffiti advocating workplace democracy would at least convey an unambiguous message.
During the Pittsburgh protests, pedestrians could frequently be overheard deriding the demonstrators for the property destruction. In this depoliticized era, seeing a group of black clad youth charging down the street is unlikely to evoke sympathy or even comprehension from most onlookers.
Of course, parenthetically it should be noted that the biggest expense for many local businesses was the summit itself, as the city terrified many businesses downtown into boarding up, and the militarized area was transformed into a ghost town.3
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs within the circles that contribute to the black blocs. In preparing for the Pittsburgh protests, some anarchist voices expressed the need for greater focus on long term organizing within local communities.4 Indeed, within Pittsburgh, there was an ambitious outreach campaign in a few neighborhoods. Yet, generally, there remains among many a striking insularity, reflected not only in group social dynamics but in the failure to seriously consider outreach to the broader public. Frequently, this kind of outreach never even seems to occur to those who identify as anarchists. Tabling, door knocking, distributing fliers – any form of outreach that permits conversations with the public – these are the tactics of groups interested in building mass movements. Instead, the rental of buses to bring a broader sector of the public to these events is left to groups like A.N.S.W.E.R.
This inward focus is one reason that no anarchist group in the United States counts more than several dozen members to its name. The lack of organization is a remarkable failure in light of the surge of interest in anarchism coming out of the Seattle WTO protest in 1999 and the doubtless significant numbers who identify as anarchist within the American left.
- Editorial, “Summit Success,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 27, 2009, B2 [↩]
- Ramirez, Chris, “Oakland cleaning up after protesters,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sept 26, 2009, A7 [↩]
- Rotstein, Gary, “Was summit good for business?” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 27, 2009, A8 [↩]
- Incidentally, the building frustration with the inadequacies of many of the protests at these elite economic gatherings has lead some dismiss the protests as “summit hopping.” This is a mistake. The protests are vital. But they can only gain vigor and effectiveness through the complimentary building of social movements at local levels. [↩]