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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. 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. Black bloc participants are often associated with anarchism.
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. 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.
West German origins
This tactic was developed following increased use of police force following the 1977 Brokdorf demonstration by the German police in 1980, particularly aimed at anti-nuclear activists and squatters. Key areas for this development were Hafenstraße, Hamburg, and Kreuzberg, Berlin. These were social spaces occupied by dissidents who preferred to create their own social institutions based on communal living and alternative community centres. In June 1980, the German Police forcefully evicted the Free Republic of Wendland, an anti-nuclear protest camp in Gorleben, Wendland. This attack on 5,000 peaceful protesters led many former pacifists to become willing to use violent methods. By December 1980 the Berlin City Government organised an escalating cycle of mass arrests, followed by other local authorities across West Germany. The squatters resisted by opening new squats, as the old ones were evicted. Following the mass arrest of squatters in Freiburg, demonstrations were held in their support in many German cities. The day was dubbed Black Friday following a demonstration in Berlin at which between 15,000 and 20,000 people took to the streets and destroyed an expensive shopping area. The tactic of wearing identical black clothes and masks meant that the autonomen were better able to resist the police and elude identification. The German media labeled them der schwarze Block ("the black block").
In 1986 Hamburg squatters mobilised following attacks on the Hafenstraße. A demonstration of 10,000 took to the streets surrounding at least 1,500 people in a black bloc. They carried a large banner saying "Build Revolutionary Dual Power!" At the end of the march, the black bloc then engaged in street fighting that forced the police to retreat. The next day 13 department stores in Hamburg were set alight, causing nearly $10 million in damage. Later that year, following the Chernobyl disaster, militant anti-nuclear activists used the tactic.
On 1 May 1987, demonstrators in Berlin-Kreuzberg were confronted by West German police. 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-called "SO 36" Neighborhood in Kreuzberg for several hours, and rioters looted shops together with residents.
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. 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.
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. 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. In Egypt after the Egyptian revolution in year 2013 Egyptian Black Bloc Movement appeared to protest against President Mohamed Morsi policies and protect protesters from the police violence.
On the day of President Donald Trump's inauguration, the strategy was employed at Washington D.C. and at other protests. This was reported by the Washington Post, by independent people on social networks and the British online newspaper The Independent.
In February 2017, an event at the University of California, Berkeley by commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was cancelled by college administrators after members of a black bloc broke windows, shot fireworks, and caused a light fixture to catch fire. The cancellation of the event brought mainstream attention to anarchism and black bloc tactics, and led to a larger conversation about the role of violence in protest movements.
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. Other early use in the US were the Earth Day Wall Street Action in 1990 and the February 1991 protests against the Gulf War. These were initiated by Love and Rage, a North American revolutionary anarchist organization active in New York. Black blocs gained significant media attention when 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. They were a common feature of subsequent anti-globalization protests.
A black bloc element, along with other protesters, marched from the National Mall in Washington D.C. towards the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia on March 21, 2009, as part of the Iraq War protest. In the next year, 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.
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. 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). 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.
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. 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."
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.
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 attacked various Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and government buildings and stopped traffic and metro lines in more than 8 cities. 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. 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" and is considered by the government and under the new Constitution a violent radical outlaw group.
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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, amongst the many complaints about the police there was mention of video footage which "suggests that men in black were seen getting out of police vans near protest marches." 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. According to veteran activist Harsha Walia, it was other participants in the black bloc who identified and exposed the undercover police.
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."
Tactics of a black bloc primarily include violent measures such as street fighting, 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. 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.
There may be several blocs within a particular protest, with different aims and tactics. As an ad hoc group, blocs often share no universally common set of principles or beliefs 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. A few radical right-wing groups, like some of the "autonomous nationalists" of Europe or the Australian so-called "National-Anarchists" 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 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).
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- Neither Washington Nor Stowe: Common Sense For The Working Vermonter, by David Van Deusen and the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, Catamount Tavern Press, this pamphlet shows a genesis of focus from organizing Bloc Blocs to organizing towards a libertarian-socialist society in northern New England.
- The Rise and Fall of The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, 2015, this article looks at the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, why they came to take part in Black Blocs, and how they moved beyond the Black Bloc.
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