Black bloc

J20 goosestep dc

Image via Wikipedia

In the UK, the Black Bloc has gotten a lot of media coverage and blog buzz because of the March 26 anti-cuts march where they appeared. Mostly, of course, it is liberal hand-wringing, conservative hysteria and the rest of the whole usual denunciatory arsenal of the law and order party.

Myself, I think Black Bloc tactics are generally a bad idea for the movement, but the condemnations of them leave something to be desired. Here, though, are a few blog snippets that have an at least semi-intelligent criticism:

Moments of Clarity 1:

Defenders of this self-appointed elite should ponder this link. In it we see clear evidence that the Black Bloc has in fact been heavily infiltrated by and is under the influence of the police. It’s cheerleaders, sycophants and glorifiers of this group are unwitting tools of the police. How blissfully ironic! On Saturday, the Black Bloc  provided just the right context for the Met’s reprehensible and duplicitous attack on the UK Uncut actions and those peacefully protesting in Trafalgar Square to proceed. Incidentally, isn’t it an amazing and fortunate for some that this group started their actions just as Ed Miliband was about to speak; thus providing ample opportunity for the slice and splice merchants at both the BBC and Sky to work their magic. Here division is necessary; these people must be marginalised and defeated politically within this movement, they are a mixture of tools of the state and those easily duped and led astray by these people; put plainly they are poison.


My view of the Black Bloc is simple. It is a vipers nest, riddled with state assets whose sole purpose is the destruction and discrediting of this movement. The politics of the Bloc, such as they are, make this easy, as does the age demographic of its more genuine supporters.

Members of the Bloc are explicitly encouraged to conceal their identity which is as they are not an actual organisation but a mere component of a demonstration. At Saturdays demonstration we saw clear evidence that there were police infiltrators within the bloc.  Documentary evidence also exists of it on other occasions; Quebec’s police force admitted it had three officers undercover for a summit of North American leaders who operated within the bloc.[…]

The genuine activists within the Bloc are being misled and manipulated. A political struggle against this grouping is necessary if this movement is to survive and succeed.

Owen Jones:

Black Bloc tactics strike me as a militant twist on consumer boycotts: the same underlying idea (inflict economic damage), but posing absolutely no threat whatsoever to the capitalist system, however good it might make the participants feel.

Firstly, it provides a pretext for the state to crack down on basic civil liberties. For some, this is desirable: it’s long been a tactic among certain types of anarchist to encourage disproportionate actions on the part of the state in order to expose it. But in practice it just leads to repression that undermines the ability of movements to organise.

Secondly, the tactic alienates the vast majority, including most people who would otherwise be sympathetic to our aims. To me the ‘Black Bloc’ tactic strikes me as an example of what happens when activists are confined to a ghettoised radical milieu, without relating what they are doing to non-politicised people. While a poll has shown 73% in support of peaceful civil disobedience, only 3% support actions like smashing windows. To me, this is probably the least surprising finding possible. I don’t understand the rationale of a tactic that has no popular support.

Student Theory:

The right-wing press and the government play on the public’s fear.  They can so easily manipulate the actions of Black Bloc activists, portraying the protests as anarchic riots, scaring off those who want to take part.  It has already givenTheresa May an excuse to introduce draconian police powers.  This is compounded by the group’s aesthetic.  While people in the group are ‘ordinary people‘ and they believe themselves to be unintimidating – just  a person engaging in legitimate protest tactics – to the untrained eye a large group of people dressed all in black and wearing masks is terrifying.  Black Bloc wear masks to protect themselves from the Big-Brother-type surveillance that pervades British cities, but that it doesn’t make it any less intimidating and off-putting to outsiders.

My final reason against the tactic of Black Bloc is, in my view, the most serious and important. It’s a truism that violence begets violence. Someone could have gotten killed at Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. The police killed Ian Tomlinson, who wasn’t even a protester, and put Alfie Meadows in hospital.  If the rioting continues, this is almost inevitable. If young people have been involved all day in smashing windows and running rings around the police, adrenalin pumping through their veins, they will want revenge. It’s a slippery slope from property damage to violence. Like I said above, there is a strong movement for peaceful direct action at the minute. Property damage is alienating to the majority of people already; if it turns to violence against people, they will all step away – even if it was started by the police.

More fundamentally, I don’t believe violence against people is justified in this struggle. We live in a democracy (albeit a poorly functioning one, run by a tiny self-serving elite); but there are channels for resistance. This is not an oppressive dictatorship where people resort to violence as their only way out. I, personally, don’t support political violence even in these situations (I’m naturally averse to violence as an individual, but also as a product of growing up in Northern Ireland); but I really don’t see any justification for it in our situation now. While I’m sure everyone in Black Bloc on the 26th was entirely committed just to property damage and would find the idea of violence towards people (although, worryingly, maybe not the police) abhorrent; if things continue the way they are, I worry it’s only a matter of time. To reiterate, you don’t know who’s going to mask-up in future, and you don’t know what’s around the corner…

This article will not go down well. Anyone who has tried to give nuanced interpretations of March 26 so far has been derided by the right for condoning violence, and from the left for denouncing protestors.  Everyone else has sided one way or the other.  What Black Bloc has done is highlight a grey area in our thinking about protest, property and violence. We need to think deeply and critically about that, not just thoughtlessly denounce or defend.

Infantile & Disorderly:

There are echoes of this stance in the statement published in The Guardian last week, where the self-identified black bloc activists proclaimed that “Only actions count now”, and that they were giving “uncompromising opposition to capitalism an appropriate image on the streets”. The idea is apparently that smashing a bank window is symbollicaly the same as ‘smashing’ the power of the banks. But then, how can the great mass of people learn to literally ‘smash’ the power of the banks, except through their own struggle?

Emma Goldman’s position on propaganda by the deed shifted in the years after her lifelong companion,Alexander Berkmanunsuccessfully tried to kill Henry Frick, the boss of Carnegie Steel. Berkman had dreamed that following the shooting, “labor would realize the significance of my deed”, and would “be roused to strong protest, perhaps to active demand.” Unfortunately for him and for us, that was not the case. Berkman and Goldman could only watch in despair as the expected uprising failed to materialise, and Berkman was “buried alive” in prison for sixteen years.

[…]It is worth applying Berkman’s quote to the context of the ‘violence’ against symbols of wealth in London last month. With class tensions at incendiary levels, it could certainly be argued that the “social necessity for its performance” was indeed very clear to large numbers of people in the general public, even despite the mass media’s attempts at demonisation. But was it “educational”? My answer has to be a no. It did not teach anyone anything, because it did not take back any products of working class labour. In that way it differed from the fleeting occupation of Tory HQ last year, and does not represent a way forward in the class struggle, even if it were to be taken up on a massive scale. Neither was it an act of genuine resistance. Instead, it polarised opinion along already existing lines.

Phil Dickens has an intelligent anarchist response to these sorts of criticisms here. I was going to extract sections of it, but I ended up more or less cutting and pasting the whole thing, so just go and read it.

It takes in the relationship of Black bloc to Antifa, something I’ve touched on a bit before. Here I tend to half-agree, half-disagree with Phil. In Britain, the militant anti-fascist tradition, in the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s, have tended to avoid the Black bloc tactic and found more effective forms to work within. Only now that militant anti-fascism has become ghettoized within the anarchist lifestyle scene have Euro-style Black bloc tactics become prevalent.

Previously: Ya basta! Another anarchism is possible!; We need a mass movement not a black blocI’m A Better Anarchist Than YouIdiots, in France, San Francisco and ViennaPlaying at revolution/celebrity scarf-wearing.

4 Responses to “Black bloc”

  1. It is perhaps a little disingenuous of partisans of ukuncut to denounce the black bloc as infiltrated and under the influence of the police, when it took no blck bloccers at all, but instead the honeyed promises of a senior police inspector for all the uncutters to trot peacefully out of fortmans and straight into the arms of the Met.
    the creative tactics of ukuncut have in many ways broken the anti cuts movement decisively out of the “march from at b to hear benn talk” politics of the past 20 years, yet, it seems that nat its heart it shares the same pacifistic self defeatism and attatchment to gesture of the rest of the statist left. the willingness of the above commentators to leap into daily mail denounciations of anarchists who only yesterday stood shoulder to shoulder with uk uncut activists is depressing but not partically surprising for there is a great gulf between anarchism and the direct action reformism of ukuncut

  1. 1 Anarchist “facts” « Anti-National Translation
  2. 2 Looking back at 2011 « Anti-National Translation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: