Black Bloc and Red Square

Saturday, April 28, 2012

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By Francis Dupuis-Déri - Political science professor at UQAM and author of the book Les Black Blocs (Lux, 2007) 

For weeks now, debates have been raging over “Black Blocs,” described as “Anarchist groups” “vandals” “masked, hooded, black clad and waving black flags.” I have witnessed several incidents during demonstrations where demonstrators have insulted and physically attacked Black Bloc members in the name of non-violence.

Black Blocs can also, of course, simply march in the demonstration as union, NGO, and political party contingents do, crammed together behind their banners, following their leaders. I’ve seen Black Blocs in Montréal and elsewhere do just that, marching calmly, an expression of their radical critique of capitalism or of the State through their mere presence. But it’s usually when Black Blocs use direct action that the media notice their existence. And yet Black Blocs are not a new phenomenon. A look back on an eventful history.

Their Origin

The Black Bloc tactic first appeared in West Germany around 1980, in the “autonomous” (Autonomen) movement, whose Far-Left politics and quest for autonomy from all institutions (States, parties, unions) set them apart. The autonomous movement was made up of hundreds of squats which were true spaces for collective living and experiments in counterculture. Whenever there was an attempt by authorities to evict squats, Black Blocs, sometimes made up of over 1,000 activists, would confront the police and defend the squat.

The Black Bloc tactic then spread throughout punk, anarchist, and anti-fascist scenes. It seems that the first Black Blocs to appear in North-America were in the 1990s in the radical anti-racist scene and in mobilizations against the first Iraq war. The Black Bloc phenomenon has been getting more attention over the last ten years or so in the mass mobilizations against international institutions associated with neoliberalism and the spread of global capitalism (Seattle in 1999, The Summit of the Americas in Québec in 2001, etc.). More recently, Black Blocs have done direct actions during the G20 Summit in Toronto (2010) and in “Occupy” movement demonstrations, particularly in Oakland and in Rome.

It’s clear that the Black Bloc is not a permanent organization and that it is therefore more logical to refer to Black Blocs (plural). Before and after a demonstration, the Black Bloc does not exist.

Polemic

We are often told that Black Blocs “infiltrate” demonstrations. Black Blocs have even been referred to as the “cancer” of the Occupy movement. Through making such condemnations, social movement spokespeople are able to remain respectable in the eyes of the elite at the risk of undermining solidarity and condoning police repression and the criminalization of dissent. But such statements are also confounding in that it is unclear on what basis it can be claimed that members of Black Blocs don’t participate in social movements. In order to do so, you would have to determine who movements belong to, and what right those people have to claim such ownership.

To respond to this critique, “anarchists, amongst others” who participated in Black Blocs and who wrote the “Manifeste du Carré Noir,” published in March, 2012 in the context of student mobilizations in Quebec, declared: “We are students. We are workers. We are the unemployed. We are angry. We are not co-opting the strike. We have been part of the movement from the beginning… We don’t infiltrate demonstrations, we help organize them, and we bring them to life.”

Their detractors also accuse members of Black Blocs of having no political cause to defend, since all they want to do is “break everything.” There are obviously some who join Black Blocs without strong political convictions. But let’s not forget how many politicians work for political parties not out of conviction, but rather to seek personal profit or the glory of power.

The target is the message

It seems that members of Black Blocs are actually generally individuals with activist experience and political awareness. Members of Black Blocs do not believe that it is always necessary to resort to force in demonstrations, nor do they believe that using force is the purest form of activism.

This being said, on certain occasions, they do find it useful and justifiable to disturb social peace and express legitimate rage, not to mention that liberal “social peace” is itself inherently violent: war and police brutality, various inequalities, isolation and poverty. Who in Quebec knows that between Westmount and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, there is about a ten year gap in life-expectancy? Smashing a window? That’s not violence, then, they say, or at least it’s nothing compared to the violence of the system.

Besides a few rare communiqués, it’s through their graffiti and their choices of targets that we are best able to grasp the political thought of Black Blocs. It’s never—or rarely—“senseless violence.” Their targets are associated with capitalism (banks, multinational corporations), private and public mass media, the State (especially the police) and, sometimes, patriarchy (during the G20 summit in Toronto an American Apparel shop and a strip club were targeted by a Black Bloc which counted many women in its ranks).

Black Blocs seem, in this way, to be reiterating a statement made in the early 20th century in Britain by Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement, for whom “the argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics.” She thus justified the collective action of hundreds of activists who, in March 1911, had smashed dozens of windows in London commercial districts. After their mass arrest, one of the prisoners would say: “We tried everything—demonstrations and mass meetings—but those didn’t work.”

“Black Blocs are the best political philosophers of our time,” according to political scientist Nicolas Tavaglione, because they ask societies to decide whether the protection of material goods is worth police brutality, or whether the maintenance of social order is worth sacrificing liberty and equality.

Black Blocs are certainly anarchist, communist, ecologist or radical feminist and most of the time –according to their communiqués—against all authorities and hierarchies. In the communiqué “Pourquoi étions-nous à Gênes,” sent out after the G8 summit in 2001, Black Bloc members declared: “We are not seeking a place at the table in discussions between the rulers of the world; we want there to no longer be any rulers of the world.”

Remaining critical

I do not claim to have revealed the whole truth about Black Blocs here, nor, of course, do I claim to know all there is to know about them, and even less about their spokespeople. Black Blocs can also be criticized on moral grounds: “Peaceful protest!” (but who gets to decide what is good and what is evil?), on legal grounds: “It’s against the law!” (but who judges which laws are just?), on strategic grounds: “They’re hurting the movement!” (but who decides which tactics are “efficient” and which aren’t?)

This being said, it’s important to know that hundreds or thousands of protestors are also in favour of Black Blocs. What’s more, “violence” at demonstrations is not exclusively perpetrated by Black Blocs, as police violence is always more brutal.

Seeking to truly understand the history and actions of Black Blocs and taking the time to read the communiqués they release over the course of mobilizations can allow us to remain critical of the simplistic discourse of opinion-makers, politicians, and police, who delight in making all sorts of false and gratuitous statements about them—although I find “gratuité” to be an admirable principle.