What does ‘Black Bloc’ mean?
Blog by East Bay Radical
From early on in the course of Occupy Wall St., the media has made a habit of describing any gathering of people wearing bandanas as a “black bloc protest”. Some people forget, or worse yet never realized, that black bloc existed as a tactic long before the Occupy Movement was even a twinkle in an AdBuster employee’s eye.
The tactic was born out of a transition that many of us have struggled through. One dark day in 1980, German police forcibly evicted a group of proto-occupiers known as the Free Republic of Wendland. The brutality of German police pushed hundreds of protesters previously dedicated to pacifism to look to alternative means of resisting state oppression. Following several more mass arrests, 20,000 protesters dressed in all black took to the streets and devastated a high-end shopping center.
Although black bloc contingents began appearing at American protests as early as 1989, the general public saw these tactics in action for the first time almost a decade later at the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle. Anarchist protesters smashed the windows out of corporate retail outlets like Gap, Starbucks, and Old Navy and their destruction of the property of a multi-billion dollar corporation was met w/ “less-lethal” violence against human beings by police.
For almost 40 years, black bloc has been a part of the tactical planning at large scale left-wing protests. In many cases members of a black bloc have engaged in offensive tactics such as destroying corporate or police property, but the overall purpose of black bloc has always been defensive in nature. The black bloc exists as a protective barrier, to shield mainstream protesters from the life-changing pain of police brutality; the very same pain that caused many of them to shed the veneer of pacifism and to don the black mask they now wear. While occasionally windows are broken, black bloc participants primarily spend their time engaged in de-arrests, shielding protesters from projectiles, administering medical aid, and using force to stop police from brutalizing or killing the innocent.
Many have asked why, if someone isn’t doing something they’re ashamed of, would they cover their face. To even have to ask this question shows an immense degree of naiveté on the part of the asker. The reality is that many of the actions black bloc participants engage in are illegal and could result in serious jail time. The same kind of jail time served by members of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960′s and dissenters against the First World War. The law isn’t always right and it is the duty of a free citizen to refuse to obey an unjust law. It is considered assaulting a police officer to take his/her baton away when he/she is beating a man already helpless and bloody on the ground. I pity anyone who would, in that situation, bow to the law and turn a deaf ear to the judgment of his heart.
While anyone can join in with a black bloc, there is a difference to those who have been involved with protest actions for a while between a “black bloc action” and a bunch of kids playing dress up and smashing windows for fun. Black bloc offensive actions target corporate and police property, and very few would damage personal property such as someone’s home. Black bloc actions are generally 95% defensive, and 5% offensive. Smashing a window can be a powerful statement, but it falls low on the list of priorities when compared to stripping the tools of police oppression of their power through medical care and the use of shields and barriers. All this, of course, must be considered in the context of the situation, namely: nothing you do to a man covered head to toe in armor and pointing a grenade launcher at your face should be considered “offensive”.
First, I would like to note that this article is not intended to be comprehensive, nor should it be construed as an attempt to write a “Rules of Black Bloc”. When it all boils down to it, black bloc does ultimately refer solely to a level of anonymity and its corresponding “dress code.” The purpose of this article is to inform people that there is a tactical tradition inherent in this as well that goes deeper than the clothes you wear to the action. Black bloc means you wear BLACK. It means you cover your face and don’t wear clothing that is identifiable. By joining in offensive/defensive actions while wearing clothing that is not solid black or in any way stands out from the crowd, you endanger not only yourself but everyone with whom you are claiming to hold solidarity. Beyond this “dress code” though is a 40 year history of organized and, frankly, professional tactical actions that, while not a necessary component of black bloc, are nonetheless an integral part of our collective history as resistors of capitalism, the bourgeois, and the oppressive mechanisms born from these systems.