Black Bloc: A Self-Defeating Tactic?

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.



Filed under Democracy, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

26 responses to “Black Bloc: A Self-Defeating Tactic?

  1. Medic

    Regarding what *could* have happened in Trafalgar Square, the violence wasn’t just limited to property and police, but medical crews were on the receiving end of it as well. There were large delays in evacuating injured protesters to hospital simply because it wasn’t safe to bring any kind of vehicle close enough for fear of flying bottles etc.

    As someone on the ground treating patients on scene, there’s only one side I was afraid of, and sadly that was the side we were risking our own safety to help.

    • Hi,
      Thanks for your comment. I think it’s really essential that we hear all sides of the story, including those that either the left or the right don’t want to hear. It sounds like being a medic in Trafalgar Square that night was an impossible and frightening task. It’s a real shame that you experienced violence from the people you were trying to help. Hopefully, protesters will learn from the experience…

  2. J

    Agree this is an issue of tactics. My own problems with it are that it is insufficiently targeted, that there is no political language through which most outsiders can interpret the action as political, and that it is a sign of resignation to being an activist led movement. When you have more people with you it becomes unnecessary and we need more people with us.

  3. Pingback: Violence 3 « To Future Humans

  4. This is an excellent article, well done for sticking your neck out to abuse from both sides. We need more like this.

  5. Thank you for this brave and thoughtful response.

    I have suggested that people adopt something similar to the Saint Paul Principles of unity to prevent infighting. The principles as they stand need updating to suit networked movements because it is practically impossible for all discussion to remain internal when so many of the anti-cuts movements organise openly through social media and blogs (I plan to write more on this soon.) Personally, I believe you have managed to tread the fine line here with some verve and that you have managed to question the effectiveness of tactics without denouncing fellow activists.

    Protest needs to be effective. Infighting weakens us – hence calls for unity – but debate over the efficacy of tactics is essential if we are to resist the vicious ideological reforms being foisted on the country.

    We definitely need a mass movement. These debates are painful and risk splitting groups from one another but if they can be carried out with the tact and honesty with which you have displayed here then I think they can only make us stronger. Thank you for writing this.

  6. Lisa Ansell

    Hi. I agree with many of your points.

    I think that people have to accept that there are some people who are just out to smash stuff up. I am not violent, dont accept violence in my life, and dont commit acts of violence. I think that people have to start evaluating behaviour on its own merits, and not because their political ideology demands solidarity.

    I also think the focus on direct action in terms of disruption and disruption is generally blinkered. Having spent frightening nights in a house as a child, when riots took place on our estate- I can say that often the needs of wider communities, especially women, the elderly, children and families are ignored in the self righteousness of violent direct action and expression of rage. In fact, without direct action to support people, assist people in organising- direct action to bring people together-violent protest and destruction is just empty rage. And not helpful. Unfortunately the people willing to mask up in black are often not so enthralled by the idea of direct action which takes time, legwork, and commit to direct action that has a long term effect.(Not all-that would be unfair)

    That said I can’t condemn the blacbloc tactic. Firstly because like you say, blac bloc is a tactic- carried out by often unconnected individuals. I might condemn the actions of some within it- using it as an opportunity to smash stuff up regardless of ’cause’. But to be honest I see merit in it as a tactic especially in the anti-cuts ‘movement'(such as it is). I agree with Emmeline Pankhurst re: the language of the broken window pane in these circumstances. Secondly because I witnessed a ‘blacbloc’ vandal, pass through a police line showing his badge- and witnessed very athletic looking blacbloc people carrying out crimes with police watching and were not challenged. There was clearly an issue of agent provocateurs on Saturday. Agent provocateurs are also a very effective tactic, when seeking to neutralise the threat posed by people organising.

    I also think the reason that disruptive direct action is increasingly preferred by some, comes right down to the ineffectiveness of protest in our current system. If you grew up knowing that two million people can march against a war that hadnt actually been declared, and then be roundly ignored- I can see why protest on the terms of the establishment might appear to be no protest at all. THis piece in the FT struck me as being particularly pertinent.

    What worries me about Blacbloc is this. It was expected. Everyone knew about it- yet the major playes in Saturday’s march- ie Labour were very keen to conflate the actions of UKUncut with a blacbloc tactic- as were the wider media. And all of a sudden everything outside a quiet peaceful march is offered as evidence of extremism.

    The problem with this ultimately- is that while the mainstream majority need to be onside- -it ignores the reason the cuts will be effective and go ahead with little opposition. The cuts are aimed at those who are marginalised, powerless, and outside the mainstream majority. The reason taht welfare dependence was necessary was that the mainstream majority dont give a shit about these people, and would quite like to turn away while those people are sacrificed to protect more mainstream services.

    The problems facing those affected by cuts to social care, cuts to children services, cuts to welfare benefits-are problems of political consensus. Not a problem of a coalition government. The biggest march they could have used, is now framed as a march for a Labour alternative to teh Condemns. THis is not the first time Labour have done this- and in the same way Ed Miliband announced he was ‘progressive champion’ after Netroots- this weekend he was very successful in co-opting opposition to the cuts as Labour capital.

    And somehow in condemning the actions of a few individuals, condemning Blacbloc has turned into quite a disgusting media smear, perpetuated by leading Labour figures against UKuncut.

    Saturdays march was a failure. It shouldn’t have been. Half a million people turning out should never have been a failure. But it was.

    The march was used a) to justify an application for harsher police powers. One which was ready to go first thing Monday morning, even though there were only 14 arrests outside the arrests of UkUncut people from Fortnum and Masons.

    b) the march was used as a power struggle by Labour. They have now framed the march as ‘their march’-a march for a Labour alternative to the Condemns. With various labour ‘activists’ shouting loudly that Labour organised the march- and those for whom the fight against cuts is actually a fight against Labour- this ensures they wont be heard. Because their voices are too divisive. The thing they need is too extreme. Like UKUncut. The biggest impediment those of us for whom the cuts issue is not about party politics, but about what is being cut- has been Labour and their supporting blogosphere doing this to us. And this weekends March has made that problem a lot worse.

    Re: the forests. Many of us realised weeks before the forests issue, that there was not a single cabinet minister who could articulate an argument to defend the selling off of forests. Not one. We did however realise there would be a climbdown on the day the Welfare Reform bill was published. Which there was.

    I do think you are right in your last paragraph. We urgently need to look at how we analyse these situations. Not just in terms of Blacbloc. But all of it. We need to critically engage. This not a left/right issue. We have to critically engage with everything that is happening, inside and outside the anti-cuts movement, inside and outside Westminster- and inside and outside the debates that are being played out in relation to what is happening.

    THis means not assessing everthing in terms of our political allegiance or ideology.

    Great post. Sorry for rambling comments.

    • Thanks Lisa.

      You mention that the people who are being most affected are the powerless and the marginalized; and the services that help them will be cut, whilst other more mainstream services will be saved. I couldn’t agree more, and have written on that here.

      But you also say that the people who are frightened by disruptive or violent direct action are women, the elderly, and families…

      So why would Black Bloc be a good tactic to help them? As we’ve both argued, Black Bloc is disorganized and disruptive, so I’m not sure they do provide the best tactic for fighting on behalf of the most marginalized…

      If it is a problem of political consensus, wouldn’t it be better for Black Bloc participants to spend their time talking to the most marginalized members of society, finding out what they need and advocating on their behalf in a way that they endorse?

      Just a thought…

      I agree with you completely on Labour, and really liked your article on how they hijacked the protests. I’ve been baffled by Ed Miliband’s tactics so far – failing completely to get behind any of the protests. And then he shows up to the biggest one and claims it for himself?! Labour are pro-cuts, are about as likely to clamp down on tax avoidance as the Tories, and they bloody well introduced tuition fees in the first place. Ed Miliband should have either supported the movement sooner and got behind it’s demands, or stayed out of it. He’s not providing any kind of alternative and it’s wrong for him to try to hijack our ideas and actions.

  7. Pingback: Black bloc: a psychological perspective « Another angry woman

  8. stavvers

    Wrote a quick thingy about a psychological effect which probably comes into play with black bloc tactics, inspired by your very marvellous post.

  9. Chris Whitrow

    Your post articulates almost exactly my own thoughts regarding the events of 26th March. I would stress particularly the importance of winning the propaganda war: our opponents want to associate us with violence – it doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘mindless’ or not – and we should not give them that satisfaction. Nor should we give them the satisfaction of seeing us dissolve into bitter infighting, of course, but we can be constructively self-critical.

    ‘Suffragette tactics’ can work occasionally, but this is 2011, not 1911. The Suffragettes did not have to contend with instant mass media and rolling news, dominated by TV images. Fortunately, we now have our own mass media, such as Youtube, Twitter, etc. We need to mobilise this in order to challenge the official narrative and expose its mendacity. To a degree, we are already doing this quite effectively, but we need to do more. In the age of viral video, the ‘Andrew Lansley Rap’ turns out to be a far more effective protest tool than donning masks and throwing paint bombs.

  10. Pstborg9

    It depends on what you want.On the one hand we have a reasonably good system which you can(perhaps rather scurrilously)use for your own ends,or you can install yourself,ultimately as rulers and do what?(unlikely).You will find that you are governed by market forces far larger than any one government.The tactics used were in the end just “banging your heads against a wall”(somewhat literally).Personally I prefer “Do what thou wilt”…I think you need to get the general public on your side,and vandalising tactics are just pissing them off.People are not stupid,you need to change public opinion with reasoned debate and comedy.

  11. Pstborg9

    Subtlety is the key..Intelligent subtlety. Remember quantum mechanics,one small act in the right place at the right time can make a whole world of difference..ganging together in a mob is just drawing attention to yourself.My tactic in everyday conversations is to undermine public confidence in the government and encourage people to ask questions,and also to get them to feel like they have some power over their own lives.Dig out the land from under the bullies,and let them disappear into the hole.Sometimes,do nothing at all(give a man enough rope,etc)let them dig their own hole.Sometimes work to rule(that REALLY confuses them),after a day or two of constantly asking them what you should do next their heads are really hurting.In reality they are disjointed and every individual is looking for an easy life,they don’t communicate,most of their threats are propaganda,push the system and see what you can get away with.Take time to give it some thought,don’t give in to instant angry reaction.Use your own skill and judgement.Breathe.There are a million little ways to undermine and generally fuck them up.

  12. Pstborg9

    I like Chinese whispers and the power of rumour..

  13. Psyborg9

    Sabotage.Even the way you dress and look,when an establishment figure sees you in the street looking unconventional,it lowers their own belief in the system.

  14. Psyborg9

    Its psychological.Belief systems.Demons.Break down their fear of the “outside”.Love your enemy,it drives them mad!Any government knows that if they push the people too far they will revolt.There are MANY more of us than there are of them,and they know this.They will keep you comfortable but try to get you to do things by written threats,and name calling,but well,sticks and stones,eh?.In the end they are pretty powerless.Set up your lab at home,you can carry out your own experiments then.

  15. Psyborg9

    Take over the country by generally moving in as they disappear.Keep the pressure on but don’t fight force with force,or you will both end up on the ground.INTIMATED violence is the way.SUGGESTION.A wise man once said,”its a subtle combination of psychology and extreme violence.”Maybe Jihad,maybe Jihadn’t.

  16. Psyborg9

    REAL violence is a LAST RESORT.

  17. Troy

    In hindsight, it may have been a little foolish for UKuncut to organise a mass occupation on March 26th. Various anarchist groups and networks had been planning to disrupt the TUC event for months, this would have been public knowledge, especially amongst the UKuncut organisers.

    The problem with UKuncut is that their message does not go far enough for many activists. Many people do not simply want to see an end to tax loopholes for the super rich and the cuts rolled back. UKuncut does an excellent job at highlighting the injustices in our society, but it fails to mention the elephant in the room: capitalism.

    Many activists do not see the point in conducting a “propaganda war” through a media which will never allow their true message to be heard. For many people, this is not just about the cuts, but about re-invigorating the anti-globalisation movement.

    • Hi Troy,
      Thanks for your comment. I think you make some really interesting points.

      I think there needs to be a discussion about whether this movement is anti-cuts or anti-capitalism. Anti-cuts obviously has the broader appeal… My initial feeling on this is when people get involved in activism, on UKuncut actions or A to B marches, they start to be exposed to the broader questions about capitalism, have their consciousness raised, ask questions and get more interested in alternative politics. So for me the aim would be to get as many people involved as possible and when there’s more popular support, promoting the anti-capitalist agenda more. However, I can see why other people wouldn’t want to do that because it is a somewhat compromised position.

      In terms of UKuncut organising the occupation on the 26th, I see what you mean… But at the same time they didn’t know exactly what Black Bloc were planning. So this comes down to lack of coordination again. It’s my feeling that it might make more sense for groups to have actions on different days, to avoid there being simply one day of action every six months that everyone turns up for. It keeps the police guessing and also means there isn’t a mass police presence on any one particular day. It also means that different groups won’t piss each other off with their different ideas about what’s tactically legitimate. (I might develop these thoughts into an article…!)

    • Good points. Still, I don’t know what a loose network like UK Uncut can do to avoid the danger that actions may be hi-jacked by others with their own, tangential agendas and methods. Perhaps ‘hi-jack’ is the wrong word. I just hope that those who prefer a more ‘robust’ confrontation with capitalism decide to use some banner other than UK Uncut.

      You’re right to point to the elephant in the room, and many of us do see it, but UK Uncut is about building a very broad mass movement around certain ‘crowbar’ issues like tax avoidance and cuts (which are only indirectly related to each other), in order to lift the lid on capitalism’s dirty little secrets. The need for inclusiveness requires that we use only peaceful methods, but I don’t find this at all constraining, personally. It’s possible that UK Uncut will morph into something with a deeper political agenda in time, but now is not that time.

      As for the propaganda war, we have in fact been winning, though Saturday may have set us back slightly. Not everyone is convinced that we need to smash the State. The State is not a monolith, anyway. There are useful alliances to be made on the liberal Left (New Statesman, Guradian, etc.), but we can also now produce our own mass media. We need to convince, not coerce.

  18. Pingback: In defence of Black Bloc | openDemocracy

  19. Jamie_Griff

    I’ll echo the others who have commended your efforts to blog on this subject.
    Debate is needed.
    However, it doesn’t quite cut it to bemoan the lack of nuanced debate and then slip right into a tired left-right framed argument as if all of those people who are anti-cuts all share one set of aims and objectives and all those on the other side share another. It’s far too simplistic.
    The people engaging in activities described as Blackbloc on the 26th do not have the same aims as UKUncut, or the TUC or the Labour Party . It’s ridiculous to expect all these groups and numerous others to share a list of acceptable tactics – especially considering that some of them are non-heirarchical or have no structure whatever.

  20. Pingback: The Black Bloc: A Reading List | Search for the Master Copy

  21. Sophie

    I think this article starts off well but:

    1)”In other words, it only takes one person to destroy the movement.” – how exactly did the fire extinguisher incident “destroy” the student movement?

    2) ‎”There is an appetite for protest and direct action at the minute; it doesn’t need a vanguard to kick it off.” Black block is the opposite of vanguardist strategy. The exact opposite.

    3) “What we need now is a mass movement. And we need a mass movement that involves the centre left and the right.” – The right? The right are who we are fighting against! The right are implementing the cuts. We can NOT win this fight with the right. It will not even be a fight with the right, it will be a pointless exericise in reform and co-optation.

    4) First you point out the POLICE killed Ian Tomlinson and nearly killed Alfie Meadows and then you say “I don’t believe violence against people is justified in this struggle. ” ? This makes no sense to me. You are criticising the victims of violence for violence that they have not committed?

    5) “To condemn the violence of the oppressed is to legitimise the violence of the oppressor.” (my quote this time) The fact is that structural economic violence is being enacted upon the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. It is that violence that we need to resist.

  22. Pingback: Black bloc « Anti-National Translation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s