Black Bloc tactics weaken our struggle

Sarah Levy writes from Portland on the debate about the Black Bloc and May Day.

WAEL ELASADY'S Socialist Worker article about the Portland protests on May Day ("Hard facts about Portland's May Day 'riot'"), describing the police attack on a 1,500-strong march and the actions of the Black Bloc, provoked responses in Readers' Views to SW ("The Portland police were at fault") and at other websites.

As someone who also participated in the May Day march, I want to take up several arguments in those responses that are put forward in defense of the Black Bloc's actions.

The first line of argument is that the Black Bloc was simply acting in defense of themselves and the wider march by fighting back against police and "creating diversions" to allow other marchers to escape. In an SW Readers' View, K.A. writes: "The reason Black Bloc uses the tactics it does is to create massive diversions. The police...would have arrested a lot more if Black Bloc had not started a fire on the intersection of Morrison Street and 4th Avenue."

The idea that the Black Bloc was only acting defensively--K.A. states that one can of Pepsi thrown at police was "the extent of the projectiles"--is contradicted by Black Bloc activists' own account of what happened that day, both in the form of a promotional video posted at Facebook and the article "May Day in Portland: A Report-back and Response to 'Socialist Worker'" at ItsGoingDown.org.

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The video shows clearly at 0:47 that smoke bombs were thrown at a line of police blocking the Morrison Bridge, before police revoked the march permit (you can see the rest of the march pass by in the video). The ItsGoingDown.org article describes the Black Bloc breaking windows with projectiles and throwing "Pepsi cans, rocks and smoke bombs," all before the permit was revoked.

As Wael wrote in his article, none of this justifies the police decision to shut down the march and fire tear gas and concussion grenades at protesters, putting more than 1,000 people in danger. If the police hadn't escalated the confrontation, Wael writes, the march would have ended peacefully.

But we should recognize that the actions of the Black Bloc were not merely defensive--and that they gave the police the pretext to attack, with the justification that the cops were "protecting" the march and bystanders alike from violence. Had the Black Bloc not provoked police, it would have been more difficult for the cops to disband and attack the demonstration while portraying themselves as the "good guys."

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NOT ONLY did the Black Bloc put people in unnecessary danger on the march itself, but their actions across downtown Portland continued long after the demonstration had dispersed--and showed a disregard for the safety of ordinary people, contrary to their claims. This can be seen in their own video, for instance, when they throw a smoke bomb into a crowded Target full of bystanders.

Such "diversions" as setting fire to newspaper stands and breaking windows, far from helping people get away from police, just created a more dangerous situation, both for protesters trying to flee safely and for Portland residents who found themselves caught up in the chaos--all while police were charging down streets and threatening that "anyone remaining in the vicinity risked arrest."

The Black Bloc's tactics did not make it easier for people to get away. Rather, they made it more likely that innocent people would be subject to arrest and repression.

Furthermore, the video and the ItsGoingDown.org account of the day make it clear that the Black Bloc's primary objective was not protecting the march. The anonymous author(s) of the ItsGoingDown.org article described the May Day march as a "glorious riot." Arguing against Wael's conclusion that the actions of the Bloc left our side weaker, this article states:

Anarchists not only fought back, but fought back with such intensity that we won, all our goals were realized. The police were scared, those who needed to get out safely did so as best as possible, and we went on the attack. It was an offensive push that succeeded...All over the world anarchists are yet again inspired by Portland anarchists specifically. We showed yet again that you can fight back, and that you can win, even with smaller numbers.

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NOT ONLY does this statement show that the Black Bloc saw their action as offensive, but it also reveals an assessment of the day that is completely disconnected from reality.

Beyond the arrest of 25 people, the police were able to get away with canceling official approval for a march of 1,500 people in the middle of the demonstration. That is a further encroachment on free speech that could set a dangerous precedent.

Additionally, the way the media portrayed the day--almost entirely ignoring the bulk of activities before the riot and all the other marchers, while focusing only on the Black Bloc--has given the mayor and the police an excuse to ramp up their attack on protesters for next time.

Since May Day, Portland's Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler has directed the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office "to pursue harsher charges and penalties for repeat offenders arrested at protests and riots." This comes as Republican lawmakers across the country are introducing bills to restrict free speech and crack down on protests.

So what "goals" were "realized" on May Day? The police and politicians must be thrilled with this new excuse to further criminalize protesters and dissent. Far from weakening or "scaring" the police, Black Bloc tactics strengthened their hand.

Beyond the criminalization efforts now underway, the message to larger numbers of people who want to support immigrant rights and social justice is that even if a march has been explicitly organized to be safe for families, this might not be the case if the Black Bloc decides to act unaccountably. It will, of course, be harder to draw those larger numbers to demonstrations in the future.

Right now in the U.S., immigrants are afraid to even try to obtain food stamps. But the Portland May Day march advertised to this vulnerable community--which we hope to mobilize in larger numbers in the future--that there may be an even greater risk in showing up to a political demonstration.

This is why I believe Wael is right to say that the left must be sober and understand how the day set us back in Portland.

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AS RADICALS and revolutionaries, our tactics need to be informed by a strategy that can win.

Some situations may call for militant activity to defend ourselves and our cities from the police or the far right. But in these instances, the tactics we use must be connected to a wider strategy, as well as well as an assessment of the political context and balance for forces.

For the Black Bloc, it seems that physical confrontation is the goal in any situation, regardless of context or the broader aims of the moment. This past May Day, at a time when we face the urgent question of how immigrants and their supporters can defend vulnerable communities, this was particularly damaging.

The Black Bloc put the rest of the marchers at risk after it had been democratically decided that this demonstration, including the Black Bloc, would not provoke police so that immigrants, their family members and a disabled contingent could feel safe.

The Black Bloc's self-conception as an autonomous force--acting without accountability to anyone else, and yet on behalf of marchers to defend them, as the various statements cited above suggest--is elitist. It consigns other participants to the role of spectators at best, because the direction of a demonstration is decided by a minority.

The Readers' View by K.A. claims that without the Black Bloc, our choices are to "passively accept unjust arrest or simply [not] assemble at all." But this leaves out the alternative of mass mobilization and mass direct action.

Yes, our side faces the question of defending itself from police, even in mass marches. But we are in a better position to hold our ground and prevent police from dividing and attacking us if we have numbers and unity on our side, rather than groups of protesters separating themselves off and acting autonomously with a "diversity of tactics."

If anything was demonstrated on May Day, it was that rather than being "more democratic" because people do whatever they want, the principle of "diversity of tactics" is a recipe for a small minority of people to dictate the direction of the day or an action.

To make a priority of mass action requires democratic organizing to figure out goals and a strategy, which can be discussed, adjusted and agreed on, and to which participants hold themselves accountable. This will take real organizing work, but it is necessary to carry out a united struggle that has the best chance of winning.

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IN PORTLAND and across the country, these tactics are now a matter of open debate. We can't dodge this discussion and only focus on our collective rejection of and protest against the violence of the police. Rather, we need a debate about what strategies and tactics will take our movement forward and what will set us back.

Criticizing the tactics of the Black Bloc isn't "sowing divisions." It is part of a wider discussion the left needs to have. If we ignore this debate, it won't go away--instead, it will be dominated by law enforcement and political leaders who want to paint all protesters as violent and give more power to the police.

We need to show that there is an alternative to, on the one hand, accepting the police and mainstream media version of events--and, on the other, resigning ourselves to the tactics of a minority of the movement, which a majority understands to be counterproductive.

How we act today, tomorrow and next year matters. Our side will have to grow in order to defeat Trump, let alone capitalism, and so whether marchers and onlookers and sympathizers feel emboldened or demoralized at the end of the day matters. The point is not to play at revolution, but to figure out how to build the size and capacity of our side so that we can one day win.