It’s exhilarating to have power. Exhilarating, really. It makes sense, then, why women and men sign up to do repressive jobs, like policing—with a badge comes power, a tacit “okay” from the state and fawning public for any acts of violence you may commit. The police aren’t all bad: Many a burglary victim, for example, will be eternally grateful for police help. At the same time, however, for every heroic deed this power begets, there is a rape, a murder, and a coerced confession.
Power, or the perception thereof, is not limited to the badge. Participating in a “black bloc” likewise grants a sense of invincibility. The uniform is different—more black than blue—but some elements of the same code are present. Leave no one behind. Protect your people. Have no fear. Take no shit.
The 10 days I spent with #noNATO protesters in Chicago, more often than not as a participant, caused me to consider the nature of the interactions in the streets, and the thinking (or lack thereof) behind police and black bloc actions. This is my assessment.
An analogy that I like for the relationship is that of a playground fight. Let’s say that there’s a child on a playground (5′ 8”, 160 pounds). And that child decides to charge someone who outclasses them by 6 inches, 80 pounds, and several friends. Let’s say more that the larger child is carrying a stick, and that their dad is the principal of the school. Is the initial charge violent, or foolish? Certainly. Does that mean that we forgive or even praise the bigger child if he proceeds to beat the shit out of his smaller counterpart? Certainly not.
One thing that is absent from the breathless idol worship of the Chicago Police Department in the wake of the NATO summit is context. Frequently, the clashes between police and Occupy are presented as if they were equals: “police face down protesters”; “CPD, black bloc clash in Loop.” These depictions unfortunately leave out one fundamental fact: The police hold (almost) all the cards in the deck. Protesters have camera phones, hoodies, and sometimes the occasional balsa-wood pole or trashcan lid; the police enjoy millions of dollars worth of riot gear, guns, helicopters, clubs, and the certainty of pre-emptive forgiveness for their actions by the state. It is the furthest thing from a fair fight.
I won’t spend much time with thoughtless critiques of black bloc, like Chris Hedges’ inexplicably misinformed “diagnosis” of a few months back. I will, however, say that some of what blocs do, or what they are blamed for, is described most accurately as “stupid as fuck.” How does smashing a window help anyone but the participant?
I tell this to friends both conservative and radical. “Don’t you see?” I beg, desperate to occupy the position of Reasonable Participant. “When someone breaks a window, as much as I totally get it and don’t really personally mind, it justifies the bullshit narrative we hear daily! It gives a reason for repression! Why would we do that? It doesn’t make sense.”
This critique—of the “smashies,” as Lisa Fithian has termed them—is, I think, a self-evident one. 500 of 15,000 people in a city of 8 million and a country of 315 do not themselves a revolution make, as much as they might wish to strike back at the violence of the state by destroying its property. It’s arrogant and obnoxious, and virtually indefensible. Putting a rock through someone’s window is a masturbatory act of self-gratification, and more often than not is (predictably) the act of a teen or 20-something boy drunk on power and deprived of foresight.
To be fair, I saw very, very little of this during NATO: On Sunday night, during a five-mile march from the loop to jail solidarity, one person who began pulling furniture from outside a small restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue was quickly confronted by two marchers. “The small shops aren’t the enemy, man.” While a bank is the enemy in a way the cafés are not, smashing is still stupid. Sorry bros.
What Else Blocs Do
What isn’t stupid, and is much more interesting, is all the other functions a black bloc may perform, and the almost complete lack of attention paid to them in all but the most sympathetic of sources. As I see it, the essence of a bloc is solidarity. You have solidarity because your neighbor does. You put your ass on the line because no one will leave you behind, because they will grab you if you are taken by police and you will do the same. You are protected in your anonymity, invincible in your mind, and dangerous (to Power) in your daring. There is no fear, no weakness, and no division, and in that is strength.
To modify a truism, “with great power, comes great jubilation.” More often than not, I found the most energetic and enjoyable sections of the marches to be blocs. I experienced few moments more memorable than a mass of people in black spontaneously chanting “Dance for that Anarchy, dance for that Anarchy. Dance for that Anarchy, d-dance for that Anarchy!” We danced! Even my workers’-state-loving self danced. That glee, while devoid of concrete reminders of NATO’s astronomical costs in both dollars and lives ruined, was an essential part of my first summit. I would not and could not imagine it any other way.
At one point on an heavily blocced-up anti-capitalist march, I was asked by a slightly shell-shocked mainstream media reporter: “Do you know where we’re going?” “No,” I responded. “That’s the beauty of it.”
What I wish I’d added: “They’ve slowly taken our liberties away. This, though, they can’t stop.” I wish I’d added it because it’s true, and because it’s maybe the best argument for black blocs. When a march is led by the leaderless, it is unstoppable. Movements without leaders cannot be beheaded; a march with a black bloc is not stopped by one arrest, or ten, and not by the horses charging up the other side of Michigan Ave., either, because there’s probably a group of anarchists holding them off.
Why is it so lively? Is it the simple satisfaction of knowing that your very existence threatens the state? The joy of group cohesion? The exhilarating mixture of danger and unpredictability? Any is a good answer, I think, but the point is: It’s not boring. And while all should feel free to rally and publish until the cows come home, the revolution won’t come with a permit or a printing press—it will come with defiant people who excite until there is no choice but to join. Look at the manifencours in Montreal—when they were told 50 people comprised a riot, they responded, “here’s 500 thousand.”
It can be said, and accurately, that blocs are devoid of politics. This is true, though, only at the most superficial and reactionary level. The signs read red and black instead of “Reinstate Glass Steagall,” yes, but the critique of the broken capitalist system is there, whether or not it is explicitly stated. And why must it be?
It is also not mentioned often enough that blocs are not devoid of compassion. I have read countless lamentations about the violence associated with black blocs, but precious few about the care. Many of those so called “troublemakers,” are the same people protecting marchers or spooning food to released arrestees at 6am. Despite their name, the story is never black and white.
If It’s Leaderless, It Still Bleeds
A major Occupy Chicago hope for NATO was that 10 days of action highlighting the myriad ways financially and morally that interventionist war hurts people would translate into discussion of these issues in the mainstream media. As it inevitably does, however, summit coverage skewed substanceless, preferring handjobs of Supt. Garry McCarthy and scripted videos of delegates hugging rather than drones, violated nations and the fact that NATO is an unaccountable misery machine whose stated purpose died twenty years ago with the Soviet Union. Expected, but depressing.
Black blocs, however, reminded the people of Chicago and the huge contingent who follow independent Occupy media that dissent is not dead. With every “march for marching’s sake,” as they were sometimes dismissively described, came for those involved a steeling realization that police power is not absolute, and for those witnessing it a spectacle that (hopefully) forced them to challenge their preconceptions about what is possible. “We are unstoppable” carries considerable weight when it is shouted after facing down police lines, bikes, batons, and bullshit.
By the end, though, conflict was a given. Sunday afternoon, after much ballyhooed kvetching about the bloc’s placement in the permitted march, the dreaded “clash between protesters and police” took place. At Cermak and Michigan, hundreds drew close to the tension, clad in many different colors, in blocs and not. Was the eventual charge East advisable? Was it led by agent provocateurs? I can’t and I won’t say. What I will say, though, is that watching CNN anchors ask on air about the beatings, “does anyone deserve that?”, I was reminded who my enemy is. The NATO cowards protected by Rahm’s Army, the ones shelling and murdering from afar—they are the problem, not 150 kids who are fed up with being fed shit and decide to defy authority to show it. No way in hell.
I know a kid that got the shit beat out of him just for calling police “Nazi stormtroopers.” I watched from five feet away as a CPD van purposefully ran down Jack Amico, then had its tires slashed. And I have seen my friends, my brothers and sisters, shell-shocked by the week, traumatized and shaken by the violence that should never have come to them.
We are a country founded on dissent, but many people on the left seem to forget that Thomas Paine did not have a monopoly on direct action. Far from it, in fact—I’m sure the Brits would have been just fine with proto-Americans reading Common Sense endlessly, so long as those people didn’t physically defy the colonial authority. The same goes for the current oppressors and The Socialist Worker.
I hate black blocs because they lack foresight, and that because of this they end up being used to discredit the movement I bleed for. I love them because they refuse to be repressed, they refuse to accept the status quo, and because they care deeply about their comrades, in the bloc or not. My relationship with the black bloc is one of highs and lows, fun and frustration. I believe we would be foolish to write it off. Dance for that Anarchy.