Black bloc chic

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Does the Black Bloc bring violence to the protest or pose a useful threat to police aggression?

After violence broke out at the June 11 anti-G8 demonstrations in Rostock, Germany the mainstream media revelled in front page photos of unruly black-clad youths assaulting ranks of police with cobblestones and bottles. Police spokespersons reported hundreds of injuries and the slumbering masses could be forgiven for shaking their heads and wondering what was wrong with kids today. I spent the afternoon in the thick of this fray and came away with conflicting impressions of the Black Bloc's role in the greater spectacle.

They're stereotyped as an organized and violent threat to civil society grave enough to justify preemptive police raids, last-minute legislation and the deployment of vast and expensive security arrangements. Dark hints of terrorism and foreign agitators are salted into the mix by various state officials, the German Interior Minister issues stern warnings as to how they will be dealt with and walls all over Germany sprout posters inviting the citizenry to join the demonstrations and Make Capitalism History.

Don't believe the hype. The Black Bloc are more of a fashion statement than political threat, more sanctioned youthful rebellion than credible competition for a neo-liberal status quo. Surveying the mainly young crowd assembling in front of the Rostock train station around noon on the day, I saw a diverse mix from Turkish Communists to Catholic church groups to Greenpeace to Oxfam and an awful lot of young people favouring black. Some stood in groups around red and black anarchist flags chanting slogans, others looked more like teenagers on a school outing, costume notwithstanding. Black hoodies, black jeans or combat pants, black boots, black sunglasses and black scarves mingled with the more traditional keffiyahs, Birkenstocks and rainbow flags. It is the look among a swathe of east German youth these days. Large red Attac balloons hovered above the crowd with the floats and caricatures and sound trucks pumping out techno and reggae; we were all in good spirits.

The violence began soon after the crowd arrived at the Convergence Centre beside the old city port. Having kept their distance throughout the march the police had drawn up against the throng of 50,000 across a pair of access roads. The noise from a pair of helicopters actively interfered with the international speakers on the main stage. Near here an undercover police agent/provocateur attempted an arrest, supported by a small unit of riot police. (I accept this conjecture, widely disseminated on the net and well supported by photo and video evidence. I arrived at the scene seconds after it began and it gibes with what I saw firsthand.) Elements in the crowd didn't like this, bottles were thrown and the game was on. The first group of police made a ragged retreat under a hail of objects to be replaced by a larger unit charging in at a run. The crowd obligingly scattered, then reformed around the now-surrounded officers who retreated once more ... and on and on it went. It seemed to me like a game; some venerable ritual, a whiff of the gladiatorial about it, with clear rules of engagement. I thought of Uccello's painting, Battle of San Romano, the costumes, the pomp and the bloodlust.

The state, represented by its private army, held the upper hand in terms of violence and it was only a matter of time before a great stretch of the Convergence Centre had been turned into a no man's land drenched by water cannon and masked by drifting swirls of teargas, the long-planned activities on the stage and the afternoon's agenda forgotten.

The state will always win such contests. It sets the rules of engagement and stacks the deck to ensure this. The political elite are genuinely afraid of resurgent anti-capitalist ideology, as evidenced by security preparations so over the top as to be irrational. It is in their interest to paint the entire body of protesters — nuns, social workers, activists, aid agencies and environmentalists — with the same brush as the Black Bloc, as merely criminal troublemakers. A little easily controlled “violence.” –Initial police estimates of injuries proved to be wildly inflated –and a little property damage was a small price for such a propaganda coup. Against the Machiavellian Putin, Blair, et al, the Black Bloc, like the police, are simply pawns in a vicious political game.

That's my rational analysis but my feelings are mixed.

Many times that afternoon I watched police retreating in a disorderly fashion, many times I saw initially powerful charges crumble before concerted volleys of cobblestones. Frankly, before they broke out their water toys, police got their asses thoroughly kicked and I was quietly pleased. There is something revolting about the total dominance the state enjoys at such events, the high-handed way it dictates terms to the protesters, the erosion of democratic rights, of our vaunted “freedoms.“ Much to my surprise, I genuinely pitied the police that day; I could see how frightened they were beneath the Darth Vader masks. You just wanted to run up and give them a hug.

While I must continue to deplore violence for reasons both practical and ideological, a part of me is comforted by the presence of the Black Bloc. They give the crowd some teeth and ensure the police will not have an easy go of it if their machismo gets out of line. And they introduce a memorable anarchic element to protests that might otherwise be dull, formulaic and quickly forgotten. It was the Black Bloc who actually delayed the summit proceedings while the trade unions marched in the opposite direction, boarded their buses and went home, their defence of democracy done. At such events, where symbol and appearance trade places with the real, such symbolic victories count for something.

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