Thoughts on the black bloc
, a singer-songwriter, writer and longtime activist, discusses the tactics of the movement in the wake of headline-grabbing protests at the Vancouver Olympics.
I LOVE a good riot. The distant sound of things breaking, the smoke billowing from whatever is burning, the young men and women busily smashing whatever they can find into fist-sized pieces, launching the objects over the heads of their fellow rioters (if all goes well) and into the ranks of the black-clad police with their Ninja Turtle armor, translucent plastic shields and their array of far more sophisticated weaponry.
I love the scent of tear gas (if I'm just on the outskirts of the cloud)--it's exhilarating, the scent of possibility, of the situation's volatility, the thrilling uncertainty. The excitement of seeing the barricades get lit on fire, knowing that no police vehicle, no matter how well-armored, is going to drive through that.
They're going to have to put the fire out first, and until they manage to get some big hoses to the scene (which might require the participation of the fire department, which might not want to participate), this is our block. Maybe the police even retreat a couple times under particularly heavy volleys of rocks and bottles, the crowd surges and cheers. Meanwhile, the more experienced rioters stay busy gathering wheelbarrows full of more things to throw at the cops, knowing they'll be back soon.
My neighbor says it's because I'm an Aries, but whatever it is, if I find myself in the midst of such a situation, the memories are all fond ones of the rush and the togetherness of the moment. It's a warm, fuzzy feeling, really.
However, most people in most of the countries with which I'm fairly familiar--the U.S., Canada, England, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Japan--don't feel that way. For most people I meet, riots are scary things, and they don't care or notice much whether it was a chain store's windows smashed or a local one, whether only SUVs were torched or hybrids, too, whether any passersby got hurt in the process or not. The major news outlets don't pay much attention to what the underlying reasons for the rioting is--just enough about the situation for people to associate the riot with the cause and the cause with scary people who aren't like them.
I've been home in Portland over the past couple weeks, not in Vancouver for the Olympics and the accompanying protests that tend to materialize when a gigantic corporate event and the international media covering it rolls into (and over) the town. By European standards, the event the media was focusing on sounds like it was a pathetic little riot, a few smashed windows and overturned newspaper boxes, but it managed to attract the lion's share of Canadian and even international media coverage, as usual--it's sensational, but more than that, it serves the purposes of corporate media outlets that, for political reasons, want to make most protesters look bad, and don't want people going out to rock the boat in the first place.
BY MY informal count traveling around, I'd say that most people in many countries are afraid to go to protests, even if their sympathies are with those protesting. They're afraid of what they've heard in the media about how things get out of control. They'd rather avoid lines of police in riot gear, and they feel unsafe at the thought that what they believed was going to be a nonviolent event might suddenly get scary when a small group of people decide to start throwing rocks through store windows.
Some of the rock-throwing anarchists (as opposed to the far more numerous non-rock-throwing variety of anarchists) will now ask: Who cares? Who cares if lots of people are afraid to come to protests because of us? They're "liberals" anyway (anyone who doesn't support your right to riot is a liberal, in case you didn't know).
But here's the thing: We need a mass movement, and contrary to what certain popular primitivist authors like to say, a few thousand dedicated people are not going to accomplish much of anything, let alone revolutionary change, without the support of a mass movement.
That is, whatever tactics you're using to organize resistance groups of any kind, the tactics need to be ones that don't completely alienate the general public (very much including the "liberals"). And the general public tends to be freaked out by groups of people committing acts of violence (or forms of property destruction that seem violent to them).
In recent decades, lots of people in lots of places have embraced all kinds of militant and often effective tactics--strikes, bus boycotts, sit-ins, building takeovers, nonviolent civil disobedience of all kinds. Those of any political persuasion who would say that tactics like these are universally ineffective are simply ignorant.
Equally, there have been some pretty darn effective movements that have employed violence around the world over the past few decades and centuries, and you'd have to be an extremely ideological pacifist not to recognize that. But these movements that have employed violent means have used a lot more than rocks. It takes a pretty desperate situation (say, Cuba in 1959) for movements like that to garner popular support, and there's not a serious guerrilla movement anywhere that wouldn't admit that the fish need the sea in which to swim, or they quickly die.
In the context of most modern, relatively well-off countries, it seems quite evident that rioting--even if it's not much of a riot--only impedes anyone's efforts at building a movement. It is, in fact, a much-used strategy of the police, as we've seen time and time again certainly throughout North America, Europe and elsewhere. I have no doubt that the first rock thrown is thrown by an undercover cop at least half the time in most situations.
I also have no doubt that most of the young people participating in the black bloc and advocating for "diversity of tactics" (translation: "don't tell me not to throw rocks, you oppressive, ageist liberal carnivore!") are well-meaning people doing a lot of good work in their communities when they're not throwing rocks through windows. But whether or not they want to believe it, when they start throwing rocks during a march they are doing exactly the same work as the police provocateurs--I mean literally, not figuratively.
Black bloc: Doesn't this make you wonder about what the fuck you're doing?
First published at Songwriters Notebook.