The Black Bloc: Behind the Mask

Liz Highleyman

(Scheduled for publication by Sept. 2001; cancelled due to 9/11 terrorist attacks and cancellation of International Monetary Fund meeting)

Branded as "thugs" and "hooligans," they have been reviled by government and police officials and are the bane of moderate activists. What does the black bloc have to say for itself?

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called them a "travelling anarchist circus." Countless commentators have branded them "hooligans" and "thugs." They burst into the nation's consciousness in Seattle two years ago in a spray of broken glass and tear gas. Widely blamed for the violence at last month's G8 meeting in Genoa, which culminated in the death of a young activist, their presence is being used to justify building a nine-foot fence around the White House before next month's International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting.

They are the black bloc, a group of mostly young, mostly anarchist activists who have shown up like clockwork at large antiglobalization protests during the past two years. The escalating level of property destruction, police confrontation, and violence at each successive demonstration has given rise to mounting costs, and has led many in the antiglobalization movement to question the bloc's role. While government officials and fellow activists alike call for increased discipline, the black bloc is unlikely to be tamed.

Distinguished by their bandanas, balaclavas, and head-to-toe black clothing, the black bloc is not really an organization, but rather a tactic. It is made up of a small affinity groups - usually 5-10 or so trusted friends. While there are always a few "summit hoppers," most black blocs consist primarily of local people. "No matter where the world's corporate rulers go," says Shawn Ewald, an animated 31-year-old activist from upstate New York, "there are at least a couple hundred anarchists and anti-authoritarians that live near enough to show up and get in their face."

The classic black bloc style and tight marching formation were developed by leftist activists in Germany in the early 1980s, and imported to the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the black bloc really burst onto the U.S. radar in late 1999 in Seattle, during protests against the World Trade Organization. A couple hundred masked, black-clad protesters - out of about 50,000 total -- smashed bank and chain store windows and redecorated the city's Christmas-lit shopping district with anticapitalist slogans and anarchy signs.

Coming out of the stultifying political climate of the Reagan and Bush pere years, many young activists had gotten sick of "protest as usual." Mostly in their teens through thirties, few black blockers remember the glorified 1960s; they grew up on a diet of well-choreographed rallies, permitted marches, and planned mass arrests. After years of traditional activism, Chuck Munson, a seemingly mild-mannered 36-year-old librarian with a penchant for baseball and science fiction, had enough of protests that were "too much civil and not enough disobedience." As Webmaster for, Munson has unwittingly become the public face of the black bloc, largely because he is one of the few willing to speak openly to the press. "The disempowerment of activists got so bad in the late 1990s that they wouldn't even bother to take to the streets if they didn't have a permit," he remembers. "It was this timidity that turned me on to the militancy of the black bloc."

"Like a lot of people prior to Seattle, I had gotten very sick of the whole spectacle of hundreds of people standing around waving signs, chanting, and being ignored," concurs Fence (an action alias; many black blockers choose not to use their real names), a long-time New York City activist. "I felt that mass demonstrations had to become much more confrontational and aggressive if we were going to get our message through." Unlike traditional civil disobedience protesters, the black bloc doesn't see any nobility - or use -- in turning themselves over to the police in orchestrated arrests. As fences and armies of police keep protesters ever more isolated from their targets, black blockers find the traditional tactics of a bygone era less than inspiring.

Breaking a few windows can be a great way to liven up a dull demo. But don't accuse the black bloc of being testosterone-fueled thrill-seekers bent on destruction for its own sake. There is a well-considered method to their seeming madness; black blockers know whose property they are destroying, and why. Banks and oil companies often become targets, as do retail outlets that sell sweatshop merchandise and fast food chain restaurants that contribute to the global monoculture. In Seattle, black blockers used rocks, crowbars, newspaper boxes, and eggs filled with glass-etching solution to attack corporate storefronts such as Niketown and Starbucks, leaving nearby "mom and pop" businesses untouched. Most black blockers steer clear of damaging small shops, homes, and cars (although some are less discriminating when it comes to luxury autos and SUVs). But when the real street fighting begins, all bets are off. If the bloc needs a barricade, they're unlikely to debate whether the broken street furniture or the flaming dumpster belongs to the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.

Do black blockers really believe property destruction will bring about the revolution? "In my opinion, the main way to hurt corporations is, and always has been, going on strike," says James Hutchings, an anarcho-syndicalist who participated in the first large Australian black bloc protesting the World Economic Forum last September. "But in the context of protests that don't involve strikes, property damage hurts them more than no property damage." Munson believes that the value of property destruction lies in its impact on a corporation's image. "Contemporary capitalism makes profits off selling brands, not actual products," he argues. "Window-smashing can't be recuperated or co-opted by capitalism. McDonalds is not going to come out with a Happy Meal with a plastic black bloc figurine."

Others aren't convinced. Christopher Hayes, a 21-year-old New Jersey anarchist, has participated in black blocs in the past but has come to question their usefulness. Today, he plays the role of a thorn in the bloc's side. "The government and businesses can withstand these attacks forever," he asserts. "Kids go to a designated city, march around, chant, spray paint anarchy signs, and break shit. This accomplishes nothing. All the broken shit is insured. It is fixed the next day, the anarchy signs are power-washed away within a few hours. The businesses and government carry on the next day just as they always have - unaffected."

Besides property destruction, the black bloc is best know for its eagerness to confront the police. Although blockers generally disavow actions that injure people, on-duty police are different story. As enemy troops defending the status quo, the police come under fire because they get in the way. "Since the police are the violent face of capitalism -- the guard dogs for the rich -- they are on the front lines," says Munson.

Due to its propensity for "fucking shit up," the black bloc is often characterized as a group of young white men - not so different, really, from soccer hooligans or neo-Nazis. "There is this bullshit image of the black bloc as a clueless crowd of angry white boys who don't even know what they're protesting against," frets Robin Banks (an action name), a midwest anarchist who has participated in actions in England and the U.S. But appearances can be deceiving. "In my experience, the black bloc has always been almost equally male and female. And contrary to popular opinion, women are almost always on the front lines, being just as militant and confrontational as men," says Banks. "It's incredibly sexist to think that women would be intimidated by this tactic," Ewald concurs. "Some of the bravest and fiercest black blockers I've encountered have been women." But the presence of women does not make the bloc immune to sexism. Aruna (who asked that her last name not be used) is a soft-spoken 19-year-old South Asian student from New Jersey who has participated in black blocs but sounds like she's ready for something new. "The worst part is guys who think that because they're anarchists, they're not sexist," she laments. "But then they do things like listening to other guys more often than asking girls what they think, or insisting on always doing a black bloc instead of trying something else."

The young and white stereotypes are more on target, in part due to the black bloc's traditional association with the punk rock scene. "It's the nature of young people to be more militant," says Lyn Gerry, who at 45 is significantly older than the average blocker. "People get beaten down as they get older and learn to settle for less." Says Aruna, "Young people are more optimistic and not as jaded. They feel that if they engage in action that is a little more militant, they'll start to see changes." As the intensity level of protests increases, will the bloc become less rather than more diverse? Although she participated in black blocs last spring in DC and again this past April in Quebec City, Gerry feels like it's becoming physically impossible for her to keep up. "As a middle aged woman, I'm not in shape to be making infantry charges, to be pursued by cops, or to climb walls," she worries. "It's becoming a game for 20-year-olds." But Ewald, who works with the Independent Media Center and edited Anarchism in Action, a how-to manual for radical activists, insists that everyone has a part to play. "A 20-year-old will be able to scale a fence better than a 40-year-old, but the 40-year-old can be a medic or a communications person," he says. "Confronting the police is just one of the things we do as a black bloc, and it's not always necessarily the most important thing."

The black bloc has come under much criticized for its tactics. Moderate activists fear that militant actions will cause stepped up state repression and endanger nonviolent protesters. In Seattle, some went so far as to physically defend Niketown and the Gap from the black-clad rock throwers (and from the local youth who came to grab the liberated sneakers). But the black block rejects the time-worn moral debate about violence versus nonviolence, contending that vandalism against property cannot be compared to the violence against people committed by corporations, the state, and the forces of law and order. Says Hutchings, "The media treats property destruction as being the same thing as destruction of people. This is pretty much in keeping with the values of the people who run society -- that their property is worth more than everyone else's life."

Critics also charge that property destruction takes attention away from "the real issues." According to Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, "It was the nonviolent protest that stopped the [Seattle] WTO meeting in its tracks, and that was the big newsuntil the window-smashing diverted the media's attention." Black blockers sneer at this analysis. "The corporate media are not really oriented toward explaining complex issues," says Munson. "They would not pay attention if there was no element of conflict, violence, or property destruction." Hutchings agrees. "Let's put it to a practical test," he suggests. "How much media attention is given to these issues now? Quite a lot. How much used to be given to them? Virtually none. What's the difference? The emergence of the black bloc and similar groups."

The black bloc laid off the property destruction and played a largely defensive role at the IMF/World Bank protest in April 2001, thus raising its credibility in the eyes of many more moderate activists. But the real turning point for the bloc came this past April at the Summit of the Americas protest in Quebec City. For the first time, some of the key organizers adopted a "diversity of tactics" model, complete with red, yellow, and green zones so protesters could choose their own level of confrontation and risk. Quebec was also the first time authorities built a fence around a meeting site, giving protesters an obvious, vulnerable target. On the first day of action, the black bloc, the "white overalls," and other militant activists attacked and breached the fence. Police let loose with tear gas, water cannons, dogs, and plastic bullets, which only had the effect of enraging the crowd. By the end of the second day, protesters of all persuasions - along with many local residents -- were standing their ground, cheering the bloc on, and lobbing their own tear gas canisters and rocks at the cops. "Police batons and tear gas," notes Munson, "have the magical effect of turning many moderates into instant street fighters." According to Cindy Milstein of the Institute for Social Ecology, "The widespread hatred of the wall and all it embodied meant that those who took a leadership role to bring it down stepped not only into the limelight but gained the respect and admiration of other demonstrators, much of the local populace, and a healthy cross section of the broader Canadian public."

But darker times lay ahead. On July 20, the antiglobalization movement got its first martyr when police shot and then ran over 23-year-old Italian activist, Carlo Guiliani. Wearing a black balaclava and a white tank top, Guiliani was not dressed in the typical black bloc manner, but friends and family described him as an anarchist and an idealist. The following night, at a sleeping space arranged by the Genoa Social Forum (a coalition of several hundred nonviolent protest groups and NGOs), nearly 100 activists were savagely beaten, leaving the walls covered in blood and the floor littered with teeth.

The violence in Genoa was widely blamed on the black bloc - or at least a group that looked like the bloc. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the police accused the GSF of harboring members of the black bloc. Their evidence? Some black T-shirts, helmets, pocketknives, bottles, and old construction tools. The events mboldened those who sought to split the antiglobalization movement into 'good' and 'bad' protesters. "I don't happen to agree with some of the demonstrators, but there are people who want to put their point in a peaceful way. But there also are thugs, like football hooligans, who have no legitimacy," European Commissioner Chris Patten told the BBC. "People who come to a conference like this, with black balaclavas to pull over their faces, are not here to make a serious argument. Beating up hamburger shops is not a legitimate part of debate."

As the initial grief and shock subsided, activists began to question what had really happened. Somehow, a masked group dressed in black always seemed to appear in the midst of peaceful protesters - sometimes burning cars and attacking other protesters -- just before the cops let loose with tear gas and truncheons. And somehow, the black faction always seemed to get away, ignored by the police. Rumors began circulating - later backed up by photographic evidence - that masked, black-clad people had been seen coming out of police vans and crossing police lines unimpeded. It was not long before many activists were convinced that police provocateurs - and perhaps neo-fascist elements as well - were using the black bloc's distinctive style to discredit the movement.

Black blockers acknowledge that their Achille's heel is the ease with which the bloc can be infiltrated -- or, more accurately, imitated. "The black bloc tactic has overwhelmingly demonstrated that it is incredibly susceptible to cop infiltration," says Ewald. "Even if we take every precaution, I think our fellow protesters will assume we've been infiltrated anyway. And can we blame them?" As movement veterans caution newcomers with tales of U.S. Cointelpro operations and the "strategy of tension" in Italy, activists have grown increasingly wary of agents provocateur. "The state is effectively offering the nonviolent protestors a deal: get back in your cage and we stop hitting you," says Hutchings. "That is, we will target all sections of the movement until you deal with the people who are starting to become a threat. Unfortunately, the black bloc can't do very much about this."

After Genoa, the antiglobalization movement is at a crossroads and the role of the black bloc is foremost on many minds. Some old-school organizers -- especially those who saw the damage wrought by ill-considered adventurism in the 1960s and 1970s - are afraid that property destruction and police confrontation will drive people away from the movement. "If we can't guarantee peaceful, creative demonstrations, workers and official trade unions won't join us," fears Susan George of ATTAC France. "Our base will slip away, the present unity -- both trans-sectoral and trans-generational -- will crumble." But others are not so sure. "I thought people would only come to a mass action if it had clear nonviolence guidelines, but people came to Quebec City anyway," says Starhawk, a matronly witch who is a best-selling author as well as a veteran direct action trainer. "I thought high levels of confrontation would lose us popular support, but we had the strongest support ever from the local people. I thought people new to direct action would be terrified by the level of conflict we experienced. But by the second day, more people were ready to go to the wall. By the third day, they were demanding better gas masks."

While there have been numerous calls for responsibility and discipline, there have been few suggestions as to how organizers might go about restricting actions they don't approve of, especially without themselves resorting to the violence they claim to abhor. Some of the most vociferous criticisms of the black bloc center around the idea that they refuse to adhere to guidelines democratically agreed upon by a majority of protesters - guidelines which prohibit violence against people, property destruction, and even angry speech. Some of the more idealistic organizers seem to believe that if only they could get the black bloc to the table, they would be able to hash out a common agreement on tactics. Others don't want to limit militant tactics so much as they just want to make space for other demonstrators to do their own thing. "We need the black bloc, or something like them. We need room in the movement for rage, for impatience, for militant fervor," Starhawk asserts. But at the same time, she says, "Some tactics are like the loud-voiced guy in the meeting: they take up all the available space and make it impossible for anyone else to be heard."

But the black bloc rejects claims of ownership of demonstrations or the streets in which they occur. With their "more radical than thou" attitude and lack of patience for moderate tactics they see as "liberal" or "reformist," black blockers argue that of course those who want to smash capitalism and the state will use different tactics than those who want to give corporations and governments a more friendly face. "If we don't feel that these institutions are legitimate," says Fence, "we should act like they're not."

With yet another IMF/World Bank protest coming up in a few weeks, black blockers are considering what to do next. There are no apparent plans to give up the black bloc en masse, since blockers have no intention of giving up the sense of solidarity, mutual aid, and collective action they experience as part of the bloc, nor the visible manifestation of anarchist identity - what Munson calls "the anarchist equivalent of a gay pride march." But that doesn't mean the black bloc can be counted upon to behave in the future as it has in the past.

Some revolutionary anarchists want to turn up the heat. Lady (an action name), an anarchafeminist and member of Anti-Racist Action, is considered by many a key black bloc strategist. She is working on a book about the North American black bloc and, with three members of the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, recently released a pamphlet proposing improved tactics and organization. "I believe we should continue to fight by any means necessaryIt is through the militancy of our fighting that we will truly show the seriousness of our solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the worl," she says. "I personally am not interested in hanging up my boots because yeah, they're gonna get stepped on, and yeah it might really hurt, and yeah, I might not make it out of these boots alive." Lady and her comrades suggest electing tactical facilitators to enhance speed and mobility, establishing affinity groups with specialized tasks (e.g., offense, defense, communications, medics), physical training, increased internal political education, and ultimately, preparation for working underground -- but insist on doing so in an antiauthoritarian manner that does not compromise anarchist principles..

But does the movement need "special forces"? After Genoa, some anarchist activists are asking whether such confrontational tactics are cost-effective. "Most black bloc actions really only serve the purpose of making people feel that they are doing something effective," says former black blocker Hayes. "It makes people feel that they're really sticking it to capitalism, or the cops, or the World Bank, or whoever," he says, "but, they're not. They're risking arrest and injury for very little accomplishment." "Complete idiocy," is how Ewald characterizes the push for greater militarization. "The black bloc is not a revolutionary fighting force," he says. "Going head to head with the state is insanity, a recipe for a massacre." Milstein, a thoughtful young scholar who is becoming known as a new theoretical voice for the anarchist movement, also takes a wary view. "These direct actions are not yet, and perhaps will never become, insurrections," she cautions. "Viewing them as such could lead to the use of tactics that would be potentially suicidal for this still-fledgling movement -- as the historical examples of the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction show. Lady's contempt for such arguments is clear. "All great battles include bloodshed, and it is by this blood that they are also won," she says. "I will not delude myself by thinking that some beautiful people in the movement are not going to be killed. I know they are, and they already have. This saddens me, yet moves me even further to the beliefs which I live by today. Suicide means you want to die. I do not want to die, I want to win!"

Writing after Seattle, author Alexander Cockburn said, "Once in a generation you can catch the ruling class off guard. Then you spend the next 20 years paying for it." But black blockers don't plan to wait around for another 18 years. They recognize that to be effective, they must rely on the element of surprise. Breaking windows and throwing rocks at cops no longer cut it, they fear, and the bloc has become a culture or an identity rather than a tactic. "We cannot afford to be predictable," warns Ewald. "There are other ways to be just as militant as the black bloc tactic has proven to be. I think we can come up with new strategies and tactics that will be just as effective." Aruna agrees "The old tactics are not working anymore," she says. "Now they know what we're doing and they are much better armed. There is no point in trying to do to them what they're doing to us."

"Creativity is our greatest weapon," says Banks. "If the black bloc plants guerrilla gardens at one action, and launches fireworks at another, and broadcasts pirate radio at yet anotherthe police can't possibly anticipate everything we can come up with." Some think certain elements of the black bloc take themselves too seriously, and suggest tactics that incorporate humor and absurdity: dance blocs, clown blocs, Spock blocs. And in an unusual twist on "trashing the town," a black bloc faction calling itself the Garbage Liberation Front broke off from a protest march in Buffalo this past spring and headed through the streets of poor neighborhoods picking up trash.

"The black bloc succeeds when it takes the cops by surprise," says Banks. "If the black bloc does nothing but property destruction or cop-confrontation, then the police will develop a strategy to deal with it. If we fight as army versus army, then we will lose. But if we fight like a chaotic ocean always lapping against an immovable rock, then we will win, just as the ocean always wins."

Liz Highleyman [] is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

© 2002
Liz Highleyman --