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G8/G20 Communique: Critiquing the Black Bloc

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I can soundly bet that there activists and social progressive out right now who rant and rave about the Black Bloc but have actually never met and spoken to someone who employs or advocates the Black Bloc tactic at demonstrations. This is not good journalistic practice. If you're going to cover a story and offer an opinion, then at least know your material from a first person resource.

Perhaps this is why tactical advocates of the Black Bloc bristle at denunciations from people and organizers who are so out in left field they are right wing in the sheer force of their anger and hysteria.

There are other activists, however, who are part of the movement closer to the ground they march upon that have provided heartfelt critiques of the tactic instead of simply labelling every one involved an jerk and then riding off on their high high horse. Calling people a jerk does nothing to stimulate debate on a topic - to throw my media-two-cents in there. Here is what I have observed.  

It does take a certain amount of courage to offer tactical critique on this issue from within the often nebulous radical/militant left - there is a certain grace needed to discharge a verbal volley at close range - but it does create space for honest and constructive debate.

After all, activists who choose to employ the Black Bloc tactic [Note: this does not automatically mean they will also employ the tactic of corporate vandalism] are subject to the same need for tactical review and reflection as any other activist employing any other tactic. I am aware that the Black Bloc tactic is under heavy criticism and that this criticism cannot be ignored, I hope to pull the stingers from the bees. This group is part of what manifests as a movement whether people like it or not.

First off, this is not the time to become reactionary, either by those laying down the criticism or those taking it. Closing down completely -- which is a very human emotion when under attack -- and further isolating yourself from the movement helps no one. How can we save the world if we cannot even talk to each other?

There are questions that cannot be ignored. I'm not demanding answers like some witch-hunt, lynch-mob, I just want the people involved to be open-minded to them. How do Black Bloc participants balance the need for autonomy and the need for accountability? Does the movement have the integrity and authority to police itself? If we police ourselves, how do we keep our police from acting just like the state's police?

I'm not asking the Black Bloc to white knight the movement, ever pushing the revolution forward with a velocity and force that they hope will radicalize people. But with every would-be hero, they need to know the difference between helping and when that extra pressure is just hurting people.  

Mick Sweetman, an anarco-syndicalist blogging for Linchpin.ca poignantly provides a narrative reflection on the tactic of blocking up. In his post We need a mass movement not a black bloc, speaks about his reaction to the news of the use of vandalism by activists employing the Black Bloc technique and the corporate vandalism tactic at a Vancouver Olympic rally.   

Quote: It made me angry to see the literally years of hard work that organizers had put into opposing the capitalist and colonial Olympic Games shatter in the eyes of the public with the first broken window. It made me angry that anarchism was once again portrayed as mindless criminality. It made me angry that people who call themselves anarchists are doing the very things that keep anarchism a fringe movement instead of the mass workers movement that it has been historically.

Sweetman is correct to point out that the words "mass" and "movement" not only belong together but must be present -- that is, all of us must be present in large numbers -- to create a mathematical critical mass shift in our society.

Quote: However, just because the task before us of building a revolutionary mass movement is daunting is no excuse for trying to substitute small numbers of people in a black bloc for that mass movement and declaring, "Whoever you are, one day you will join us." as the anonymous authors of the only statement claiming to come out of the black bloc in Vancouver did. The problem with that statement is the mass movements don't have to join the anarchists, the anarchists have to join the mass movements.

We must have the courage to take off the masks, to use our names, to explain and argue for our positions, to make democratic decisions and then implement those decisions even if we are in the minority opinion. Our co-workers and neighbours aren't going to join any movement that doesn't trust them enough to step out of the shadows of anonymity and struggle shoulder-to-shoulder with them as equals.


Steven Fake, writing for Ideas and Action also expresses the wise need to understand the tactics of the Black Bloc in conjunction with the values that the majority of the movement believe in. One such value noted in Steven Fake's article Black Bloc-headed is the need for transparency and accountability.

Quote: 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 subcultural 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.


My understanding on the whole concept behind the Black Bloc tactic from speaking to its practitioners and supporters: The Black Bloc tactic works by:

-- providing defences to activists in dangerous or vulnerable situations by providing tactical, medical or logistical expertise since participants in the bloc technique often receive activist-related training.

-- providing protection by creating a physical barrier between an injured activist and the police or a barrier between a group of activists and the police. In Québec City during the FTAA protests, I witnessed the Black Bloc run up and protect an activist who was overcome by tear gas. As two Black Bloc participants ran towards the fence, they used home made shields to defend themselves against rubber bullets and tear gas canisters fired at chest level as they approach the unconscious activist, where they provided temporary first aid at the scene and then evacuated the injured activist. That was the Black Bloc in action that did not include the breaking of one window. 

-- providing a diversion to draw the police's attention and response away from the crowd towards a group that is arrest-able and willing to take the brunt of police aggression on themselves. I should note that this is not how things played out on the street during the Toronto G20 protests, thus a review of the tactic is necessary.

I do want to add that the tactic of drawing the police's attention and response towards yourself takes a certain measure of bravery and discipline to stand your ground when you put yourself out there to face the brunt of state violence -- by police baton or from being dragged through the racist, classist, judicial system. This is similar in theory to the confrontational pacifism employed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. in that both groups confronted the police(=state).

Don't be fooled into thinking that pacifism means employing a tactic of complete impotent, non-resistance to the system, both Gandhi and MLK jr. infamously challenged the ruling system with an extreme amount of bravery and discipline as they confronted the police(=state). Both men did not go around breaking stuff to make their point heard. They worked with communities from the ground up and presented a powerful, motivating message advocating change.

Another tactical difference between the tactic of Black Bloc participants and that of Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. is that the Black Bloc participants choose to cover their faces.

In a society that does not like secret police laws and secret government and board room meetings, the use of masks evokes a similar lack of transparency and accountability to the general public. Thus, hearts and minds cannot be won through anonymous statements and hidden faces.



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