[Note: Some links are to PDF files]
I have been doing some reading on the Black Bloc tactic since the G20 in Toronto because I did not know the reason(s) for the vandalism, and I thought I should learn more before forming an opinion. Further, I had heard many politicians and journalists concluding that the tactic was incomprehensible, ineffective, immature, and so forth. Before making conclusions such as these, I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt and look into the reasons that they articulate for their behaviour.
A number of journalists (including Jon Stewart around 6:30, click here for the video if your are reading from the USA) commented that they were unable to discern the message of the march because there were too many messages. An example comes from the Canadian news site The Mark, where commentator John Stapleton writes in his piece, “The 2010 G20: The Day the Music Died?”
After a week of searching, I have no real idea who the leaders of the protest are or if we can even talk in those terms. There certainly seems to be neither a claim to leadership nor an overall narrative to articulate their goals or an assessment of the results. Few seem interested in assuming this leadership except to speculate on the motives of police and other security officials. In the 1960s, various groups and their leaders in Toronto and especially in the United States wrote books and articles, made public speeches in town halls, and met with media to carefully and meticulously articulate demands to distinguish the differences between sectors and groups. Back then, you knew in detail what the Students for a Democratic Society, the Chicago Seven or “Danny the Red” wanted. The “Weathermen” and the FLQ had visible and very public leadership, and that leadership appeared to have as much access to the mass media as it wanted.
Now we are left with the distinction that anarchists and everybody else want very different things, but I don’t know where to go to obtain the tracts, the manifestos, or the books that would give me more than half a page on the different motives of violent vs. non-violent protest.
Really? After a week of searching Stapleton could not come up with any writing describing the reasons for the protest? Because it took me about 1/2 an hour to find a number of descriptions about why the G20 protests were occurring, and why some people support using the Black Bloc tactic (including an assessment of its results). What I could find included some descriptions of the way the groups are organized, which details why they specifically avoid leadership and hierarchy. It also includes descriptions of why the various affinity groups avoid talking to the mainstream media, preferring instead to use alternative media and the internet to get their messages across. What I found also included some full-length books, available for free download, that detail the history behind the Black Bloc tactic and what those who use the tactic mean to achieve through its use.
(Note: I was only searching for information about groups that support the use of the Black Bloc tactic, so most (though not all) of the links above focus on that. Many other members of the various protest groups either do not support the tactic, or believe the tactic has its place but would not use it themselves. Information about the structure, beliefs, mandates and proposed alternatives from these groups is also easily obtained through a Google search. One place to start is this website, which provided a place to coordinate the various affinity groups, and links to publications detailing the views of some members of the protest groups. Although not all of these groups are anarchist groups, many of them eschew hierarchical leadership and prefer horizontal, decentralized modes of organizing and are also suspicious of the slant taken by mainstream media.)
The main point of Stapleton’s article is that there is no music to accompany the protests, that too was easily found by searching YouTube. I came up with bands like Test Their Logik, testament, the Dead Prez, Keny Arkana. I had never heard of any of them before attempting a search. He might not like the music, but it is hard to argue that it does not exist or that it is not political. Stapleton also complained that there was no concert arranged for the protest. This also turned out to be false (although from what I can gather from the internet the concert never did happen because all of the artists were detained/arrested by the police at the time it was supposed to occur).
So what is going on here? Are these journalists incapable of doing a Google search? Don’t they have research teams to do this work for them if they are too busy? It did take me longer than 1/2 hour to actually read all of the links I posted above, but it did not take long to find them.
I am not going to summarize all of the linked information, but reading the descriptions of those who support the use of the Black Bloc tactic made me rethink the post that I wrote before about “Classism and Reporting on Toronto’s G20.” In that post, I thought that the use of “middle class” to distinguish good protesters from bad protesters was really problematic because of the classist undertones of the description (I still do). After reading the linked information (especially the linked book), I now think that eliciting this kind of reporting might be part of the intent of those using the Black Bloc tactic and perhaps shows that the tactic is somewhat effective from their perspective.
I want to be clear that I am not supporting or opposing the Black Bloc tactic with these comments. Personally, I would never engage in vandalism, but I am not offering comment on those that do. Further, I intend to offer no evaluation of the beliefs expressed in the linked documents. I am neither affirming nor denying the truth of the expressed views, nor am I commenting on the reasonableness of holding such views. My only intent with these remarks is to say that if you accept the beliefs articulated in the above links, then there might be reason to believe that the use of the Black Bloc tactic is effective. For this reason, the use of the Black Bloc tactic is not incomprehensible or unintelligible (although there might be independent reasons to oppose its use).
So, it seems to me that some of those who have written about the Black Bloc tactic believe that the current state of advanced consumer capitalism is deeply unjust. They outline a number of injustices that occur at both national and international levels (sweatshop labour, income inequalities within and across nations, the concentration of wealth and resources among a few individuals, environmental degradation that more severely affects poorer nations and poor communities within wealthy nations etc.).
They also believe that much of this injustice is enabled, upheld, and enforced through brutal, violent means. They point to the various wars and the unequal policing of poor, racialized, and indigenous peoples. They think that for many in the middle- and upper-class, this violence and brutality is hidden from view. Middle- and upper-class people, they say, don’t often experience targeting by the police, and so remain unaware of the mundane experiences of people from working-class backgrounds, racialized individuals, and indigenous persons, experiences that include random searches, police harassment and brutal arrests. It seems that part of the reason to use Bloc tactics is to force a police escalation in the use of force against middle class people so that they become aware of how the police are experienced by marginalized members of society.
Another function of the Black Bloc is to push the protest at hand towards a more militant and socially comprehensive direction. Largely this was achieved by the Bloc positioning itself at the forefront of the demonstration and subsequently forcing an escalation between the State forces and the protesters. Simply by resisting arrest, refusing to remain on sanctioned parade routes, challenging police barricades and by actively directing its anger at corporate targets, the Bloc ensured that such an escalation would ensue.
The purpose of such escalation in part lies in the belief that such conflict necessarily results in the unmasking of the brutal nature of the State. The subsequent brutality of the opposing police/military force is revealed. The idea is that by showing the larger population the violent means by which the status quo is maintained, a significant number of people will become further radicalized by this physical and visual demonstration of the nature of the State. [From The Black Bloc Papers, pg 12]
If I have correctly interpreted these views, and one of the reasons that some people support the use of Black Bloc tactics, then it seems like the tactic is effective. They were able to elicit an extreme reaction from the police against the peaceful protesters who might not even have been aware of the Bloc or the anarchist movement. Paikin was right, middle-class people were experiencing the use of police force in ways that shocked them.
I think it is interesting that Paikin’s classism in his reporting might actually further the aims of those using Black Bloc tactics. His classism unintentionally conveys the message that we do expect, and perhaps accept, brutal treatment of working-class people that we would not expect middle-class people to endure. Paikin’s shock at his experience of this treatment exposes, what I believe these writers would consider, the naiveté of the mainstream media.
The tactic was also effective to the extent that it encouraged me to find out about the reasons for the use of the Bloc and what these people hoped to achieve through their vandalism. Before Toronto’s G20 I was aware of movements against global capitalism, environmental movements, feminist movements and so forth. But I had never heard of the Black Bloc and I thought the anarchist movement pretty much died out with Bakunin.
Looking into these writings has also left me with some questions. For example, why were so many mainstream journalists willing to admit that they could not find any information about the messages of the various protest groups at the G20? I did not find it even remotely challenging to find this information for myself, and I have no connection to activist groups, so it is not as though I relied on some contacts that were unavailable to the journalists. I just used Google, Twitter, and YouTube to track down this information. All of that is freely available to journalists. The whole research and writing of this post has taken me 3 hours (which includes the reading). How hard could it be for them to do the same? Are they admitting professional incompetence? Are they unable to understand these new forms of social mobilization? Are they incapable of understanding the new media made available through technologies like the internet and cell phones? What exactly do these numerous journalists hope to convey to their readers with these statements of ignorance and inability to track down pretty basic sources of information?
There are also many other questions one could ask about the use of the Black Bloc tactic. [ETA: I don’t want to give the impression that these questions are not already being asked within Anarchist communities. Anarchists and other members of diverse social movements are already debating these questions with one another. Here is a (video) example. Here is another (text) example. And another (text) example.] For example, even if it does seem to have been effective to some extent, we might wonder whether an alternative tactic could be more effective and less destructive. Antonia Zerbisias noted in the Toronto Star today that there was a marked difference in the reaction to the protest among those who followed the news on Twitter and those who followed the news from more typical sources (e.g. the CBC). Perhaps other tactics would have reached a wider audience? Would it be desirable to reach a wider audience from the perspective of those who use the Bloc tactic? Or is the experience of police brutality integral to the message of Bloc tactic supporters? Is it better to sacrifice breadth for depth in their view? Which view is better or are a number of views equally legitimate?
Another example, is at least one person said the group using the Bloc tactic wanted to protect the other protesters by diverting police attention (and guns) from these other groups. But does the use of the tactic create the danger? If so, then how is that better than the “protection rackets” used by the mob? If your tactics are the same (or similar) to those use by the people you oppose, then how do you know whether you are on the side of the good? When I look at the G-20 coverage I am struck by how similarly the Black Bloc and the Police look and behave. Both are dressed all in black to appear as a unit, both wear masks to obscure their faces, both suddenly dart in a particular direction with no warning in order to create fear and confusion. The main difference seems to be that the Bloc attacks property, whereas the police attack people. Oh yeah, and only one has the support of the government. Even the police that are undercover cops look like the Black Bloc once they have removed the black to fade into the crowd… really very similar tactics… But if that is true, then mightn’t there be a problem with the tactic? Are the reasons behind a tactic enough to justify its use? This question applies equally to Bloc actions and police actions.
A further example, some protesters who oppose Bloc tactics said they felt their messages were drowned out by the vandalism. Do the use of these tactics enable or detract from the ability of others to have their voices heard? If it makes it more difficult for some groups to have their concerns recognized as legitimate, then how does that square with the Bloc’s supporters explicit statements against domination and commitment to egalitarian horizontal mobilization?
Like I said above, it is not my intention in this post to take a stand on these issues. But I welcome comment and discussion.