Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Critique of the Black Block

The Black Block began as a tactic used by anti-nuclear activists in Europe in the 1980's. For all practical purposes, it came to be known in the US with the 'Battle of Seattle' in November 1999 against the World Trade Organization.

Hundreds of black clad Anarchists smashed windows of corporate stores like Starbucks and the Gap. They created barricades in the streets using fire.

Today, the Black Block as a serious tactic is dead.

It could be argued that it worked for a time, raising consciousness of many over issues of sweatshops and corporate control. It set a new standard for militancy in leftist protests.

There can be little serious debate about it's effectiveness in protests today.

Every major demonstration seems to include more young people who wish to live out their fantasies of smashing bourgeois culture by organizing and participating in a block. And every one of those protests is marred by poorly planned militant actions that accomplish little, and dozens of arrests by undercover police which cost the movement money and time.

Even the Battle of Seattle Block deserves some skepticism about it's practicality. Who was more effective in advancing the cause of social justice? The Black Block which caused some property damage? Or the Direct Action Network which organized and shut down the WTO's meeting?

Few American Black Blocks have even matched the militancy of their European or South American cousins. While in Europe fistfights erupt between anarchists and neo-nazi's, and in South America, molotov cocktails are thrown, Black Blocks in the US simply do not have the organization, material supplies, and the guts to even match the politicized soccer riots of Europe.

Then there is the alienation that the Black Block tactic causes between those participating in it and the community. It's not that militancy is naturally alienating to community groups and progressives, it's that Black Blocks have never attempted to reach out to the community. The only thing many ordinary people would know about the Black Block is the chaos they create and the fear they can spread.

I remember at one anti-war rally, a bloc split off from the main march and began to create disruption of Washington DC. There were dumpsters being pushed into the streets, spray paint being left on McDonalds stores, and the police were tailing them. I remember watching a mother and her two kids waiting at the bus stop, terrified of these masked kids. They must have looked like a gang.

Compare that to the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, where the revolutionary armies gained the support of the people by providing medical help, education and policies which improved the lives of community members. Those community members then understood why the guerrilla's were fighting. Likewise the Zapatista's in Mexico, who spent over a decade gaining the trust of the people of Chiapas before launching their rebellion. Try telling that to the impatient kids who make up Black Blocks.

I'm not trying to chastise those who engage in militant actions, it just seems to me like the Black Block is not effective at all. Effective actions are part of a long term strategy which the Black Block certainly does not have. Effective actions are built on mutual trust which is developed over time through struggle. The planning of many Black Block actions are almost always rushed, with little time spent building trust, thus leaving many opportunities for police infiltration. Even if the planning goes well, once out on the streets, it is ridiculously simple for undercover police to done a black mask, slip into the crowd, and disrupt the action. Effective actions also require a leader, someone who is trusted to make the right decision in a moment of crises. Black Blocks have no leaders, and the result is simply confusion.

I would recommend that instead of wasting time with Black Blocks, that American Anarchists organize in their communities. Help build unions, feed the hungry, create independent non-corporate media. If you build structures like that, the time will come to fight, but it will be with the support of the community.

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