Black Bloc

A black bloc is a tactic for protests and marches where individuals wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items. The clothing is used to conceal marchers’ identities, allow them to appear as one large unified mass, and promote solidarity.

The tactic was developed in the 1980s in the European autonomist movement’s protests against squatter evictions, nuclear power, and restrictions on abortion among other things. Black blocs gained broader media attention outside Europe during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, when a black bloc damaged property of GAP, Starbucks, Old Navy, and other multinational retail locations in downtown Seattle.

According to the ACME Collective (an anarchist organization), ‘When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights … After [November 30], many people will never see a shop window or a hammer the same way again. The potential uses of an entire cityscape have increased a thousand-fold. The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of spells—spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them. Broken windows can be boarded and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come.’

Tactics of a black bloc can include offensive measures such as street fighting, vandalism of corporate property, rioting, and demonstrating without a permit, but mainly consists of defensive tactics like misleading the authorities, assisting in the escape of people arrested by the police (‘un-arrests’ or ‘de-arrests’), administering first aid to persons affected by tear gas, rubber bullets and other riot control measures in areas where protesters are barred from entering, building barricades, resisting the police, and practicing jail solidarity. Property destruction carried out by black blocs tends to have symbolic significance: common targets include banks, institutional buildings, outlets for multinational corporations, gasoline stations, and video-surveillance cameras.

There may be several blocs within a particular protest, with different aims and tactics. As an ad hoc group, blocs often share no universally common set of principles or beliefs apart from an adherence to–usually–radical left or autonomist values, although some anarchist groups have called for the ‘Saint Paul Principles’ to be adapted as a framework in which diverse tactics can be deployed.

The black bloc tactic developed in response to an increased use of police force following the 1977 Brokdorf anti-nuclear demonstration by  in 1980. In 1980, the German Police forcefully evicted the Free Republic of Wendland, an anti-nuclear protest camp. This attack on 5,000 peaceful protesters led many former pacifists to abandon non-violent methods. In the ensuing months, the Berlin City Government organized an escalating cycle of mass arrests, followed by other local authorities across West Germany. The squatters resisted by opening new squats, as the old ones were evicted. Following the mass arrest of squatters in Freiburg, demonstrations were held in their support in many German cities. The day was dubbed ‘Black Friday’ following a demonstration in Berlin at which between 15,000 and 20,000 people took to the streets and destroyed an expensive shopping area. The tactic of wearing identical black clothes and masks meant that the ‘autonomen’ were better able to resist the police and elude identification. The German media labeled them ‘der schwarze Block’ (‘the black block’).

On May 1, 1987, a peaceful peoples fest in Berlin-Kreuzberg was attacked by West German police. In response to the unprovoked attack, thousands assaulted the police with rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. The riots became famous after the police had to completely pull out of the so called ‘SO 36’ Neighborhood in Kreuzberg (home to Berlin’s punk rock movement) for several hours, and rioters looted shops together with residents. The following year, radical left groups organized a May Day demonstration through Berlin-Kreuzberg, ending in riots even larger than the year before. The police were attacked with steel balls fired by slingshots, stones, fireworks and Molotov cocktails.  The riots became a tradition in Berlin-Kreuzberg and have recurred every May 1st since, but never as fatally as in the first two years. When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund met in Berlin in 1988, the autonomen hosted an international gathering of anti-capitalist activists. Numbering around 80,000, the protesters greatly outnumbered the police. Officials tried to maintain control by banning all demonstrations and attacking public assemblies. Nevertheless, there were riots and upmarket shopping areas were destroyed.

In the period after the Berlin Wall, the German black bloc movement continued traditional riots such as May Day in Berlin-Kreuzberg, but with decreasing intensity. Their main focus became the struggle against the recurring popularity of Neo-Nazism in Germany. The ‘turn’ came in 2007, during the 33rd G8 summit. A black bloc of 2,000 people built barricades, set cars alight and attacked the police during a mass demonstration in Rostock. 400 police officers were injured, and also about 500 demonstrators and activists. According to the German government, the weeks of organization before the demonstration and the riots themselves amounted to a revival for the militant left in Germany.

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