[URBAN NOTE] Derek Hawkins of the Washington Post on the resurgence of the “black bloc”
Derek Hawkins’ Washington Post article describes how the “black bloc”, anarchist rioters who riot in their identity-hiding all-black uniforms, is making a comeback. I’m decidedly not impressed by this, not least since I remember what they did to downtown Toronto during the G20 protests in 2010, and how the black bloc rioters went out of their way to undermine peaceful protesters. Looking to the cowards too afraid of revealing their identities to meaningfully commit to change would be a terrible, terrible mistake.
An oft-cited history of “black bloc” tactics by Daniel Dylan Young of A-Infos, a multilingual anarchist news and information service, suggests that the practice has its roots in Germany in the late 1970s. At the time, hoards of young people had taken residence in vacant buildings in inner cities, setting up cooperative houses in the bowels of abandoned warehouses and tenements. Similar communities cropped up in the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere in Northern Europe.
In 1980, however, the city governments began to crack down. German authorities evicted and arrested thousands of squatters that winter, triggering protests across the country, one of which turned violent in Berlin, with rioters destroying an upscale shopping area, according to Young.
“In response to violent state oppression radical activists developed the tactic of the Black Bloc,” Young wrote in 2001. By masking up in black, he wrote, activists “could more effectively fend off police attacks, without being singled out as individuals for arrest and harassment later on.”
The tactic spread to Amsterdam and other cities with large squatter populations. Toward the end of the decade, protesters were making wide use of it. In summer 1987, when President Ronald Reagan delivered his famous “tear down this wall” speech in West Berlin, he was met by tens of thousands of protesters, including a 2,000-person “black bloc,” as the New York Times reported then.
It’s not clear exactly when “black bloc” tactics crossed the Atlantic, but two large protests in 1990 — one in Washington against the Gulf War, the other in San Francisco against Columbus Day — were both disrupted by black-clad groups that destroyed downtown property, according to Young.
The tactic was hardly ever more visible than it was during the massive protests against the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. Demonstrations began peacefully, but several hundred “black bloc” activists — described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time as “masked anarchists wearing black” — smashed windows, looted stores and vandalized buildings. The confrontation, dubbed the “Battle in Seattle,” delayed the start of the meeting and cast a shadow over the proceedings.