by: Alex Bradshaw
The Black Bloc conversation lacks nuance. Since the recent G20 Summit recently took place in Canada, this conversation has been sparked again.
Unfortunately, the conversation from all political sides lacks vision, clarity, and understanding. From Marxists and anarchists, to thinkers ranging from the snake oil salesman right-wing conspiracist Alex Jones, to thinkers I respect like Naomi Klein, everyone seems to be getting it wrong. The conversation hasn’t made it a centimeter below the surface, and it’s really one of the most superficial arguments I’ve heard in a long time.
The so-called “Left” is something in which I loose more faith in every day as a force that will combat the spectacle of market society and capitalism, including some anarchist and Marxist comrades. In regards to their superficiality, they don’t sound much different than mainstream media or right-wing hacks when they speak of agent provocateurs, and how burning cop cars or breaking windows hurts their precious movement, for whatever that means.
Further, while the right-wing conspiracist milieu perpetuates their baseless claims of agent provocateurs donned in ski-masks, the left-wing critics continue to talk about this entity referred to as “the public.” “The public,” in itself, is particularly hard to define in our society. David Graeber explains this:
[W]hat we call “the public” is created, produced, through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action—taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings—and not others. 
If we take Graeber at his word, and I do in this regard, then we must assume that a grassroots, anti-capitalist movement that wants to see a world in which every form of domination is abolished, isn’t counted as “the public.”
Let’s forget about our perceptions of vandals perpetuating violence in ski-masks and answer a simple question: what is “Black Bloc”? One of the biggest misconceptions of Black Bloc outside of the anti-capitalist movement (but unfortunately there are still many misperceptions on the broader “left”) is that it is a tendency of anarchism, that it is a movement or a group, or that they are “violent.” Uri Gordon, Israeli professor and anarchist, writes:
A black bloc is an ad hoc tactical formation in which affinity groups and individuals cluster together, themselves against identification and to maintain a symbolism of anonymity as promoted by the EZLN (Marcos 1998). The tactic originates with the anti-fascist scene and first appeared in the United States during the protests against the Gulf War in 1991. 
Gordon’s perspective, both as someone who has studied the global anti-capitalist movement extensively and participated in it, is particularly good; he mentions both the Western European Autonomen social movements, and solidarity with the Zapatistas.
It may be worthwhile for some to consider the roots here, which are, in fact in the Western European Autonomen movement. While the movement didn’t specifically identify as “anarchist,” the Autonomen movement was anti-authoritarian, anti-statist, and anti-capitalist, and largely influenced the anarchism of present day. The most thorough work on the subject is perhaps Georgy Katsiaficas’ “The Subversion of Politics,” in which he discusses early Black Bloc formations as a counter to neo-fascism. Katsiaficas is a scholar who has done extensive work looking at the Western European Autonomen movement, which inspired both the Black Bloc tactic in the anarchist movement, and the trend to reclaim public space, and restore abandoned buildings, or squats.  Katsiaficas explains here the hidden history of the Autonomen, which may explain at least some of the confusion in regards to this tactic. Here he describes here an experience he had at MIT. Many seem to be in the dark (no pun intended) on the notion that this movement exists, or existed. Hence, the confusion in regards to the Black Bloc:
In 1989, after I made a detailed presentation at MIT to several hundred people on the Autonomen, which included slides and copies of their magazines. One member of the audience confronted me with the charge that I had invented the whole movement, contending that the events I described were simply part of [German left-wing political party] the Greens. 
In the photo section of “The Subversion of Politics,” the unofficial history of autonomous movements in Western Europe, there is an image of police seemingly about to clash with a sea of ski-masked donned Autonomen, which extends outside the borders of the image. This is an image of an anti-Reagan demonstration in Berlin, Germany, in 1987.
Katsiaficas also mentions an action standing in solidarity with an Autonomen woman, who was killed when cops chased her onto the highway, where she was struck by a car. Katsiaficas wrote that the Black Bloc, in the German city of Gottingen, “was two thousand strong, and when the peaceful demonstration ended, they attacked the police, ninety of whom were injured…”  This event occurred in 1989. To summarize, the Black Bloc tactic has been used for some twenty-plus years, has its origins in the anti-authoritarian autonomous movements in Western Europe that claimed their autonomy both from the social democratic, statist Left, and neo-fascism and capitalist society, and is also a homage to the anonymity promoted by the EZLN (The Zapatista National Liberation Army) .
There seem to be two main points of contention. I’ll primarily focus on the many upon many conversations I’ve overheard, participated in, and heard of from others, primarily amongst liberals and leftists. The two points of contention focus upon the issue of violence, and secondly, that the tactic doesn’t work, hinders progress in the movement, and invites agent provocateurs.
The issue of violence has been addressed ad nauseam in radical circles, but, for what it’s worth, it should probably be mentioned that the Black Bloc is largely nonviolent, in its North American variants vis-a-vis the Western European version for which Katsiaficas spoke, and this is for good reason. Graeber points out that in most large European cities there are active fascist movements. They see anarchists, almost as much as immigrants, as their natural enemies. To be both openly anarchist and to live by a code of nonviolence, therefore, means to be willing to take one’s life into one’s hands on a daily basis—or at the very least, to know that one will probably be quite regularly beaten up. In the US [for example], most anarchists are lucky enough to live in places where they are relatively insulated from such dangers So, where a certain degree of violence is, in Europe, more or less expected, in the US [as in Canada], Black Blocs have been able to develop what might be considered the most aggressive possible version of nonviolence…Black Blocs do not attack living creatures. However, they are willing to empoy much more confrontational tactics than other activists: for example, linking arms to push back police lines, or…carrying along chain-link fences to push against them; erect practicing “unarrests” by snatching back arrestees from police lines and cutting off their cuffs. 
It seems that any credible definition of violence would largely concern physical coercion of others, which the Blac Bloc rarely takes part in, other than in occasional uses of self-defense when comrades are attacked by cops. Peter Gelderloos highlights the real violence committed, and obscured by burning cop cars and windows broken, during the G20 summit:
RBC can fund gentrification and oil drilling, British Petroleum can kill their workers and destroy the Gulf of Mexico, border guards can murder immigrants, cops can torture youths, the normal functioning of the Canadian economy can murder over three times as many people through workplace “accidents” as are claimed by homicides, but if protestors smash a bank window or light a cop car on fire, they are denounced as violent. 
This is a blatantly obvious observation for people who only perpetuate destruction against property, or against others in self-defense, but Gelderloos’ sentiment needs to be echoed in these most interesting of times, when the spectacles’ self-destructive, suicidal mission to exterminate and displace humans, while consuming the planet and shitting it out in the form of short-term gains, continues unquestioned, and black bloc tactics are still continuously critiqued as being violent. I don’t want to be so banal as to suggest that those who use the Black Bloc tactic are unwilling to participate in violence; the overwhelming majority of those that participate most likely are not pacifists, and acknowledge violence as a potential tool in the toolbox. But to make the claim that they are inherently violent, meaning that they attack unprovoked individual, using force to bring about physical harm, is farcical.
So, what about this question regarding it as being counter-productive, and a tactic that doesn’t work? We’d have to question what these critiques are asking. Are they asking if Black Bloc tactics alone can bring the spectacle to its knees, bring about total liberation, the abolition of domination and oppression, and a decentralized, free society? If this is what they mean by the tactic not working, they’d be correct. I’d give Black Bloc critics this, so as long as they realize, in the same vain, that general strikes, occupations, blockades, propaganda by deed, voting, marching, and signing petitions, also do not work according to this definition.
The Black Bloc tactic certainly works wonders, on the other hand, if one’s definition of “working” involves making a mockery of the spectacle, symbolically abolishing private property, committing creative sabotage, finding unity in anonymity with fellow alienated comrades who help to reclaim public space and find autonomy, and make an honest leap towards self-liberation. I have a feeling the critiques from the left, in particular, didn’t have this in mind, though.
The Black Bloc tactic deserves a serious look from all quarters of resistance; those involved manage to be autonomous pirates in a cityscape that has redefined desire to mean monetary gains, passion to mean obeying the rules, and meaning-as-commodity.
For the time they don black masks or bandanas, they get the opportunity to democratize the monoculture of the city streets, and expropriate not the means of production, but that stolen desire, the burning passion, and lost meaning. In the heat of the moment, if this is how we define it “working,” this tactic seems to go above and beyond.
1.David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography, Oakland, AK Press, 2009.
2.Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, London, Pluto Press, 2008
3.It should be mentioned that the early punk rock movement in Western Europe embraced squatting, too, and probably influenced the Autonomen movement and the anarchist movement, as there were/are many punk rockers involved in both movements.
4.Georgy Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life, Oakland, AK Press, 1997.
6.I wouldn’t go out on a limb and say that everyone participating in the Black Bloc tactic in the US or North America is consciously standing in solidarity with the Zapatistas, but the EZLN has certainly had a broad impact on the anti-capitalist movement, particularly the anti-authoritarian milieu in US and Canada.
8.Peter Gelderloos, “Supporting the Prisoners of the G20 Police State,” available at http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20100707g20