Last Tuesday, an army of left-wing radicals descended, in a violent May Day rampage, upon the city of Seattle. They smashed shop windows, vandalized banks, and even carried out a number of unprovoked assaults on innocent people who were sitting in their cars. So bad was the chaos, that Seattle mayor Mike McGinn went on television and announced that he would use his emergency powers to expand police authority to subdue the “anarchist or Black Bloc type individuals” who were now infesting his city, just as they have previously infested other cities in the U.S. and Europe.
Who exactly are these “Black Bloc” individuals cited by Mayor McGinn? Black Bloc is not an organization, but rather a protest tactic employed by anti-capitalists and anarchists. Clad in black helmets, black ski masks, and black garments to conceal their faces and whatever distinctive clothing they may be wearing underneath their dark coverings, Black Bloc radicals make their presence felt by participating in all manner of left-wing demonstrations against free-market capitalism and Western culture; they generally are far outnumbered by fellow protesters who, while likeminded, are more traditionally attired. Because the Black Blockers so carefully hide their identities, they are often able to engage in criminal behavior—most notably property destruction—with impunity. In instances where they are pursued by police—whom they contemptuously regard as nothing more than “guard dogs for the rich”—fleeing Black Bloc protesters typically shed their dark coverings and blend into the crowd.
The animating core belief of Black Block, as explained in the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective’s Black Bloc Papers, is that “private property—and capitalism, by extension—is intrinsically violent and repressive and cannot be reformed or mitigated.” Lamenting “all the violence committed in the name of private property rights,” the document charges that “corporate private property” in particular “is itself infinitely more violent than any action taken against it.” By this logic, the destruction of a storefront window can be redefined and justified as the laudable creation of “a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet.”
The origins of Black Bloc can be traced back to about 1980 in West Germany, where black-masked countercultural radicals calling themselves “Autonomen” (Autonomists) demonstrated against such despised targets as Western popular culture, conservatism, patriarchy, traditional gender roles, nuclear energy, and capitalist “greed.” They channeled their efforts chiefly toward the destruction of property belonging to corporations and financial institutions, because of their significance as symbols of capitalism.
In June 1987 a contingent of some 3,000 Black Bloc demonstrators were among the 50,000+ marchers who swarmed the streets of Berlin to condemn the policies of the conservative, pro-capitalist U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, who was visiting the city at that time. Berlin was again the scene of Black Bloc tactics fifteen months later, when demonstrators protested against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings which were being held there.
The first organized Black Bloc initiative in North America took place on October 17, 1988, when a relatively small number of black-clad protesters were among the 1,000+ demonstrators who convened outside the Pentagon to demand an end to U.S. intervention in the El Salvadoran civil war; the rally was organized by the communist Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
On Earth Day in 1990, Black Bloc militants were among a crowd of some 2,000 demonstrators who gathered on Wall Street in New York City to protest the allegedly anti-environmental practices of major American corporations. The protesters’ goal, as one supporter put it, was “to shut down business-as-usual in the heart of the capitalist beast.”
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