March 26 saw this country’s biggest demonstration since the Iraq War. Over 500,000 people marched through the streets of London, shutting down the capital, to protest the government’s ruthless austerity measures. A small group of protestors, known as Black Bloc, broke away from the main march and engaged in direct action including smashing the windows of banks and the Ritz hotel, and throwing paint and smoke bombs. The police retaliated with violence, and riots ensued in Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.
The right and the mainstream press have branded the Black Bloc “thugs”, “hooligans” and pariahs. The liberal left bemoans how they “ruined” the otherwise peaceful protest for everyone else. The radical left denounces any criticism of the group, espousing solidarity and unity, and defending their “legitimate anger.”
None of these narratives is accurate nor adequate.
Whether you agree with Black Bloc or not, we need to discuss their actions, try to understand why they did it, critically engage with it and then make a decision. Knee-jerk reactions whether from the right or the left are useless. Let’s start a conversation about this…
Property damage: the theory
The right argues property damage is violence. The left argues it isn’t violence.
For the right, property rights represent the fundamental cornerstone of a civilised society. The argument, dating back to John Locke, is that if property is privately, rather than collectively owned, it will be better cultivated and more productive. This will improve society for everyone.
For the left, property rights are the bane of any civilised society. They prevent human beings engaging with each other as human beings, rather than as owners, producers and consumers. We must abolish private property, the argument goes, so that we can all own the earth’s resources collectively; generating freedom for those who have been oppressed by the capitalists’ monopoly over property.
So for those on the right, an attack on property is an attack on society. For the left, an attack on property is legitimate and justifiable.
What’s the answer?
Well, there isn’t one. It’s up to you to decide what you think. The point is, however, in a liberal capitalist society where the majority believe in property rights, an attack on property will be interpreted as an act of violence. The question for the left is, do their opinions count or are principles more important?
The practice: a self-defeating tactic?
An important point to remember in all this, is that Black Bloc is not an organised group – it is a tactic. Anyone who dressed in black and masked-up on March 26 was a member. While clearly targets had been picked in advance – The Ritz for it’s connotations of capitalist hierarchy, the banks for causing the current economic crisis, Starbucks for its globalised corporate greed and banality, Anne Summers for its profiteering co-option of sex and its misogynistic advertising – the members of the group were not coordinated.
This lack of coordination, for me, is one of the fatal flaws of the Black Bloc tactic. Anyone could take part in it. While the left argue that everyone in Black Bloc was politically motivated, there is no way of knowing if this is true. Unfortunately (at the risk of sounding like a right-wing reactionary) there are people who enjoy smashing stuff and engaging in violence against other people. To believe that people will only get involved in property damage for political purposes is naïve. There is no way of knowing if such people will turn up ready for Black Bloc, and their actions (if ill-considered or simply out-of-control) could seriously damage the credibility of the anti-cuts movement. I’m not saying that this happened on March 26; but now that Black Bloc is not just a tactic known among left-wing radicals but is very prominent, it could easily be hijacked on future demonstrations. Everyone wears a mask – so there’s no way of knowing.
We saw on the November 10th demonstration, where 50,000 students marched through London, how the media focused on the actions of one person – Edward Woollard who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof at Millbank. One person’s ill-judged violent act stole the headlines and has etched itself on the public consciousness, firmly entrenching itself as the narrative of that protest. In other words, it only takes one person to destroy the movement. It could even be (and would likely be) an agent provocateur…
A second problem comes back to the theoretical discussion: what’s more important – the opinions of the majority or Marxist or anarchist principles? Black Bloc defences of their tactics take the following line: all successful movements of resistance have used violence. Look at the Suffragettes, smashing windows, even using bombs, or the violence of The Chartists or the Poll Tax riots. Popular opinion didn’t matter then – it came later – and they were vindicated.
While I have sympathies with this argument, I’m not sure it applies now. Many people are getting active against the cuts – 500,000 marched in London and thousands more have been involved in UKuncut actions, university occupations and local anti-cuts groups. There is an appetite for protest and direct action at the minute; it doesn’t need a vanguard to kick it off. When the cuts start to bite, more and more people will want to engage in these already abundant activities. Violence, whether it is property damage, could scare them off.
What we need now is a mass movement. And we need a mass movement that involves the centre left and the right. Why did the government do a u-turn over selling-off forests? Because conservative constituents were against it. Why are they now back-tracking on the NHS reforms? Because traditionally conservative doctors are opposing it. Everyone, whether red, blue, yellow or non-affiliated, has good reasons for being against the cuts. Getting everyone involved and out on the streets will stop them. Violence – whether you consider it violence or not – will alienate all but the most committed activists.
The right-wing press and the government play on the public’s fear. They can so easily manipulate the actions of Black Bloc activists, portraying the protests as anarchic riots, scaring off those who want to take part. It has already given Theresa May an excuse to introduce draconian police powers. This is compounded by the group’s aesthetic. While people in the group are ‘ordinary people‘ and they believe themselves to be unintimidating – just a person engaging in legitimate protest tactics – to the untrained eye a large group of people dressed all in black and wearing masks is terrifying. Black Bloc wear masks to protect themselves from the Big-Brother-type surveillance that pervades British cities, but that it doesn’t make it any less intimidating and off-putting to outsiders.
My final reason against the tactic of Black Bloc is, in my view, the most serious and important. It’s a truism that violence begets violence. Someone could have gotten killed at Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. The police killed Ian Tomlinson, who wasn’t even a protester, and put Alfie Meadows in hospital. If the rioting continues, this is almost inevitable. If young people have been involved all day in smashing windows and running rings around the police, adrenalin pumping through their veins, they will want revenge. It’s a slippery slope from property damage to violence. Like I said above, there is a strong movement for peaceful direct action at the minute. Property damage is alienating to the majority of people already; if it turns to violence against people, they will all step away – even if it was started by the police.
More fundamentally, I don’t believe violence against people is justified in this struggle. We live in a democracy (albeit a poorly functioning one, run by a tiny self-serving elite); but there are channels for resistance. This is not an oppressive dictatorship where people resort to violence as their only way out. I, personally, don’t support political violence even in these situations (I’m naturally averse to violence as an individual, but also as a product of growing up in Northern Ireland); but I really don’t see any justification for it in our situation now. While I’m sure everyone in Black Bloc on the 26th was entirely committed just to property damage and would find the idea of violence towards people (although, worryingly, maybe not the police) abhorrent; if things continue the way they are, I worry it’s only a matter of time. To reiterate, you don’t know who’s going to mask-up in future, and you don’t know what’s around the corner…
This article will not go down well. Anyone who has tried to give nuanced interpretations of March 26 so far has been derided by the right for condoning violence, and from the left for denouncing protestors. Everyone else has sided one way or the other. What Black Bloc has done is highlight a grey area in our thinking about protest, property and violence. We need to think deeply and critically about that, not just thoughtlessly denounce or defend. This is my first tentative attempt at doing that. I hope to simply start the debate and I intend to write more on this as it develops.