in Vive la résistance!

On Protests and Less-Legal Tactics: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I argued that less-legal tactics do not impact the efficacy of traditional means of peaceful legal protests because those traditional forms are already completely ineffective.  The obvious place to go from here, is to explore the counter-charge that traditional less-legal tactics are also completely ineffective (a point repeated by many — often by those who theoretically claim to support a “diversity of tactics” — including some who responded to my last post).  I will take that issue up in my next post.  In this post, I would like to pause and say a few explanatory words about “black blocs” and “anarchists.”
Beginning with black blocs, the first point to emphasize is that a black bloc is a tactic, and not a particular organization or group.  Thus, as with any other resistance tactic employed — marching, squatting, etc. — a bloc will attract people from a wide variety other groups, if those people feel that a bloc would be useful at a certain time and place.  In this way, the bloc is a particularly good example of the decentralized,  rhizomatic nature of the multitude in action — and the inability of police to respond well to blocs (as demonstrated in Toronto, when the bloc there was able to escape arrest) demonstrates how the centralized, molar structures of our society are not well equipped to deal with things of this nature.  There are no leaders in black blocs — they are simply collections of free individuals who choose to work together (a good example of both democracy and anarchism, depending on whose definitions you are using) — so there is no particular party that the police can target.  Bloc participants are like a swarm of bees that gather and disperse but have no queen or hive.  No wonder the Powers-that-be hate them so much — not only are they hard to catch and manage, they are also better at creating a truly free and democratic space.  That’s a real problem.
So, what exactly is the black bloc tactic?  Simple — the black bloc tactic is the tactic of anonymity.  Rather, than being identifiable as distinct individuals, bloc participants become identified as a mass.  This is accomplished by the participants agreeing to all dress in nondescript black clothing (devoid of logos or patches) and do other things to mask their identities, like wearing black hoods and masks.  Of course, given the way in which police surveillance has increased over the years, the people who choose to participate in this tactic must find ongoing creative ways to join and leave blocs (a point to which I will return), but anonymity is relatively easily accomplished.
Once accomplished, a surprising number of results occur.  First of all, a black bloc can inspire confidence in people who might otherwise have been intimidated by the (equally anonymous and masked) police presence.  In fact, the reverse can even occur and police have often been intimidated by black blocs.  This, then, has prevented police from harming, arresting, and beating other non-bloc protesters (as when the bloc was called upon, by the Native Elders, to hold the front line of the protest that occurred during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics).  Similarly, bloc members have been able to “unarrest” many protesters (bloc members or otherwise) who were in the process of being arrested (officers will generally abandon those they are arresting when swarmed by bloc members).  It also opens public spaces that would otherwise have remained closed (as at the G8/G20 Summits in Toronto).  Finally, this reverse-intimidation can cause the police to over-invest at locations challenged by black blocs, thereby increasing the odds that protesters (usually peaceful ones) at other locations will achieve their objectives (at happened in Seattle in 1999).
Second, engaging in this form of protest is a genuine declaration of solidarity with one another.  Here individual identities are dropped and the goals of the protest and the larger cause become what are important.  What distinguishes us from one another is left behind and we become united.
Third, this solidarity is more than symbolic because it grants a safe, anonymous space to those who are targeted by police: known organizers, people who have been arrested in other protests, and those who engage in less-legal forms of resistance.  Of the first two parties, this is an important option, given their commitment to the goals of liberation and life and given that they tend to pay a higher price for their commitment than others.  Of the final party — those who engage in less-legal forms of resistance — it should first be stated that not all members of black blocs engage in those activities.  However, some people participate in blocs because their respect for the diversity of the protest movement, and the diversity of tactics, is more than rhetorical.  Thus, while not all members of the bloc in Vancouver would have made the personal decision to smash the window at the Hudson’s Bay Company, solidarity with those who chose to engage in that action meant that those who preferred other actions still chose to wear black.  More important than arguing with each other, or policing each other, the commitment to a common vision and goal is what drives this form of solidarity.
Fourth, the police response to black blocs is useful in revealing both that the Powers-that-be wish to wield hegemonic control over the public and that this hegemony is still contested.  As has been noted by several others: when domination is total, the exercise of brute force is unnecessary because each individual member of the public will have internalized everything necessary in order to control him- or herself.  Thus, blocs assist in unmasking this domination and also reveal subjectivities which are not yet totally dominated (and  which must, therefore, be controlled by brute force).  Blocs, then, at the very least, have the potential to be a biopolitical response to the exercise of biopower.  I’ll pick up on this point again in my next post.
So those are some of the benefits of employing a black bloc tactic.  I should make a final remark about the people who tend to participate in blocs.  I’ll not say a lot, given that the whole purpose of a bloc is anonymity, but there is something that should be stated regarding the way in which the police (and then the mainstream media) present bloc participants.  According to the dominant narrative, bloc participants are all “anarchists,” “juvenile delinquents,” and “people known to the police.”  Essentially, one is left with the impression that blocs are just a bunch of angry delinquent teens running around wanting to smash shit up because they were touched by their dads or something like that.  Further, we all probably knew some punk rock dude in high-school who had an anarchy symbol on his jacket and this description seems to match our memory of that guy.
Now, here’s the thing, this description comes nowhere close to describing the people who join blocs.  I can’t speak for all blocs everywhere, but my own experiences, suggest that those who join blocs are generally people who have been very invested in trying to make society a better place both professionally and in their own time.  These tend to be thoughtful people who have tried a number of other avenues to create positive change but have found those avenues to be dead ends.  In fact, bloc participants are often a lot like this guy — he’s not an at all out of place.  Of course, these people are usually “known to the police” only because they police took pictures of them at some other rally somewhere.  Not exactly criminals.  More like social workers and school teachers.
Finally, this leads me to some brief closing remarks about anarchy.  Anarchy is not, as most imagine, the embrace of chaos and violence and the total collapse of society into some sort of rampant individualism.  Rather, anarchy is the belief that people, themselves, should have the authority and ability to choose how they want to structure their life together (hence, Proudhon’s famous aphorism that anarchy is order [which, by the way, is where the most famous anarchist symbol comes from — the ‘A’ in the ‘O’ with the ‘A’ representing anarchy and the ‘O’ representing order]).  Further, anarchists believe that we should try to structure our life together in a way that is life-giving for all and not just for some.  Hence, these two things combined tend to lead anarchists to place little value in the rule of Law — especially since that rule is currently death-dealing to many and a way of protecting the expropriation of the Commons into private hands.  It is this kind of property that is theft, to quote Proudhon once again.  Not surprisingly, then, most of the anarchists I know are sensitive, thoughtful, and loving.  Yes, there is often anger present but this is an appropriate anger to possess.  It is the anger that arises from heartbreak.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying this but, in a word, the anarchists I know are “Christlike.”

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  1. Thanks Dan. Extremely illuminating. Having read and reflected on anarchy I certainly forgot the popular conception . . . until I started talking to people about the protests.

  2. Sorry, I hate to keep being the contrarian, but I do have to comment on the ‘black blocs have no leader idea’. Talking with one of the anarchists on Saturday, he commented that “Anarchists don’t have leaders, we have mentors.” When I asked what he meant, I was unable to distinguish his definition of a mentor from that of a leader (one who rules, guides or inspires –
    In terms of the bloc on the Saturday, they regularly paused and ‘representatives’ from different cells/collectives would huddle together to strategize their next move. These ‘representatives’ looked a lot like leaders. Perhaps this is just an example of the difference between the ideal and the reality?

  3. I would really appreciate a critical assessment (I don’t think I have located one yet) from the intentional community/Jesus way type of anarchists regarding when the black bloc tactic results in destruction or violence. I read your essay and kept on coming across phrases such as “choose to work together”, “identified as a mass”, “declaration of solidarity”, and “become united”, and then I came to the part where some chose to smash the Hudson’s Bay Company window and others did not. I don’t know much about the Hudson’s Bay Company, so I can’t come up with a subjective means of evaluating whether the smashing was good/warranted/productive towards achieving a “common vision and goal”. One question that comes up is, that if out of a group of many there are a few that are willing to engage in acts of violence or destruction, is not the whole group at least intellectually responsible for that action if it is all about the unity? Where does the unity no longer converge and how is that point layed out, or are we all on board for condoning all acts that come out of the black bloc?

  4. JP in TC: Surely, black blocs could be criticized for sometimes using direct violence at individuals (often in self defence thou, against their opponent, the police). However, the real problem is not the limited violence/destruction coming from demonstrations, but instead the organized violence of state and capital. Our greedy economy is destroying the planet and the police/military are using brutal violence every day on a huge number of individuals unable to defend themselves.
    So, before dealing with black bloc violence, we should deal with the legalized violence carried out by police and military. But, of course, violence is always wrong for followers of Jesus, and those claiming themselves to follow Him should condemn violence in all its forms. I believe it is important, however, to focus that critique on the most violent groups; in this case to police.


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