This is a translation of the article “Black Bloc et carré rouge” by Francis Dupuis-Déri – professor of political science at l’UQAM and author of the book Les Black Blocs (Lux, 2007). This article was originally published in french on the website Le Devoir.com on April 28 2012.
Given our current political situation in Quebec with the student strike, this article is particularly pertinent. The majority of the daily student protests have been peaceful, but some have not, and these events have led to many discussions on the role of direct action in political struggle. This article addresses the tactics of the black blocs, putting them in the context of police violence, as well as systemic violence.
The Black Bloc and the Red Square
by Francis Dupuis-Déri
For weeks debates have been raging over the subject of the Black Bloc, defined as ‘anarchist groupuscules’, ‘vandals’, ‘masked and wearing only black, waving black flags’. During protests I’ve seen protesters angered and take physical action against black bloc members in the name of pacifism.
On some occasions, a Black Bloc may march with protesters, following the flow of the demonstration, like other contingents, union, non governmental organizations and political parties, grouped behind their banners and their leaders. Often when I’ve seen Black Blocs in protests in Montreal or elsewhere, they were generally marching calmly, expressing, with their presence alone, a radical critique of capitalism and the state. It’s only when a Black Bloc passes to direct action that the media recognize their existence. The Black Bloc is not a new phenomenon, here’s a look at the movement’s history.
Black Bloc tactics appeared in West Germany around 1980, at the heart of the ‘autonomous’ movement, a far left group who’s distinguishing feature was it’s autonomy from institutions (political parties, state, unions). The autonomous movement included hundreds of squats, which were the location of various forms of collective living and counter-cultural experimentation. When authorities began trying to evict squatters, Black Blocs, sometimes as large as one thousand people, confronted the police to defend the squats.
The Black Bloc tactic has since been diffused throughout anarchist, punk and antifascist groupings. It appears that the first Black Blocs appeared in North America during the 1990’s among radical antiracists and in mobilizations against the first war against Iraq. Black blocs have also received attention in large mobilizations against international institutions associated with neoliberalism and the globalization of capitalism (Seattle in 1999, Summit of the Americas in Quebec in 2001, etc.). More recently Black Blocs used direct action at the G20 Summit in Toronto (2010) and in the protests of the Occupy movement, in particular in Oakland and Rome.
The Black Bloc is not a fixed organization, and it is preferable to refer to them as Black Blocs (plural). Before and after a protest Black Blocs do not exist.
It is often said that Black Blocs ‘infiltrate’ protests. Black Blocs have even been referred to as the ‘cancer’ of the Occupy movement. With these condemnations, the speakers of social movements are aligning themselves as respectable in the eyes of the elites at the risk of eroding solidarity, and legitimizing police repression and criminalizing dissidence. Their statements are also questionable, on what base can it be stated that the members of Black Blocs are not participants in the social movements? First it would have to be determined who the movement belongs to and by what right they can claim it for themselves.
To continue with this critique “anarchists and others” who participated in Black Blocs and who signed “The Black Square Manifesto”, distributed in March 2012 within Quebec’s student movement declared: “We are students. We are workers. We are unemployed. We are angry. We are not infiltrating the strike. We’ve been part of the movement from it’s beginning. […] We are not infiltrating protests, we help to organize them, we create them.”
Black Blocs have also been criticized for not having a political position and wanting only to damage property. For sure some people join Black Blocks without strong political convictions. Let us not forget that many members of political parties are lacking in convictions and are there to profit from personal glory and power.
The Target is the Message
In fact the members of Black Blocs are generally individuals who have experience in political activism and political opinions. Members of Black Blocs do not believe that they must always resort to violence at protests, nor that their tactic is the purest form of activism.
That said, on certain occasions, they consider it useful and fair to interfere with social order, and to express a legitimate anger, considering that the liberal ‘social peace’ comes with it’s own violence: wars and police brutality, diverse inequalities, exclusion and poverty. Did you know that the difference in life expectancy between Westmount and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve is 10 years? Breaking a window? That’s not violence, or at least it is negligible compared to the violence of the system.
In the absence of fairly rare public statements, we can understand the politics of the Black Bloc through their graffiti and their targets. They never – or almost never – act out mindless violence. Their targets are associated with capitalism (banks and multinational firms), large public and private media installations, the state (in particular the police), and sometimes patriarchy (at the G20 summit in Toronto, an American Apparel store and a strip club were targeted by Black Blocs (who counted among them many women).
The Black Bloc seems to have taken in early twentieth century affirmation of Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the suffragettes in England for whom “The argument of the broken window is the best on the modern world”. With this statement she was justifying the actions of hundreds of activists who shattered tens of windows in London’s commercial district in 1911. After mass arrests one of the prisoners stated : “We tried everything – protests and assemblies – but they got no results”.
According to political scientist Nicolas Travaglione “Black Blocs are the best political philosophers of the moment”, because they ask society to choose between the protection of property, and police brutality, or between the maintenance of social order and liberty and equality.
Black Blocs are anarchist, communist, ecologist or radical feminist, and most often – according to their statements – against all hierarchy and all forms of authority. Black Blocs do not have a leader and do not want one. In the statement “Why we were in Genoa” released after the g8 Summit in 2001, members of the Black Bloc declared “We are not looking for a place at the heart of discussions between the masters and the world; we do not want there to be masters of the world”.
I don’t pretend here to have said all that is true about Black Blocs, or to know everything about the subject, and even less to speak for them. We could criticize Black Blocs on moral principals : “On reste pacifiques!” (but who decides what is right and what is wrong?), according to law “It’s Illegal!” (but who judges rightfully?), by political strategy “it’s killing the movement” (but who decides if it is effective or not?).
That said, hundreds or thousands of protesters are also in favour of Black Blocs. Not to mention ‘violence’ in protests is not only perpetrated by Black Blocs, the violence of the police is always more brutal.
Finally, trying seriously to understand the history and actions of Black Blocs and taking the time to read their official statements released throughout protests allows us to stay critical in the face of simplistic opinion makers, of politicians and police who like make false claims.