A series of corporate media articles on the black bloc during the Toronto G20 summit, June 2010.
The violent protesters who never were
Jesse McLean , Andrew Chung, Toronto Star, Sun Jun 27 2010
On a summer morning in 1981, hundreds of police raided a large squat and dozens of houses in West Germany, resulting in six people being charged for founding and belonging to a criminal organization: Schwarzer Block.
The Black Bloc.
But the case fell apart and police acknowledged that this militant group — who dressed in black and had violent confrontations with police — didn’t really exist.
Black Bloc is not an organization. It has no leaders. Like a spectre, it simply appears out of nowhere, wreaks havoc, then vanishes.
It’s a realization many Torontonians are trying to grasp after dozens of protesters formed a Black Bloc mob Saturday and stormed through city streets, damaging banks and corporate storefronts, as well as setting fire to several police cruisers.
Some, including Mayor David Miller, have implied the mob was made up of out-of-town hoodlums. Protesters, meanwhile, say police tried to quash any Black Bloc by arresting a handful of perceived leaders in a series of early-morning raids.
But for 90 minutes, a mass of black-clad protesters still took over the streets.
“Nobody speaks for anybody in this milieu. They’re totally organic structures of people that come together in a certain time and place, and then they dissolve,” said Sina Rahmani, a graduate student with the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written on the history and meaning of Black Bloc tactic.
On the streets, Bloc members appeared organized: They used code words to pass along directions and, as their rampage came to an end, they formed a tight huddle, changed into street clothes and carefully dispersed into the crowd.
As many as 1,000 Quebec protesters made the trip to Toronto, at least 75 of whom have been arrested, some for allegedly being involved in Bloc vandalism.
The strength and tenacity of the Quebec element in the G20 protests is not surprising. The province is an incubator of ideas relating to anti-capitalism, anarchy and the like. In Montreal, relatively small Black Blocs regularly make their presence felt during an annual march against police brutality.
“Nostalgic for the Summit of the Americas? You want to relive the experience?” enquired an article in a local alternative newspaper in Quebec City, site of that 2001 summit, before giving information on organized bus transport to Toronto to protest the G20.
Police appeared to have tracked their convoy Friday and when they arrived, dropping off some activists at Ryerson University, about 50 officers confronted them, demanding identification and rifling through bags.
“It was annoying they arrived so quickly, but their tactics weren’t surprising,” said Mathieu Francoeur, a spokesman for Anti-Capitalist Convergence, a group formed in January in part to rage against the summit. “They were trying to intimidate people. It’s illegal.”
Five courts were open Sunday to accommodate the crush of those arrested, including one devoted to processing French-speaking protesters.
According to Rahmani, the Bloc isn’t a unified organization and its actions are reactive to the police presence as well as the tenseness of the situation.
It comprises any number of smaller, autonomous protest groups who “share nothing but certain motifs of militancy — attire, chants and above all, a desire to remain anonymous,” Rahmani wrote.
Others disagree, arguing that the protesters form a de facto organization while roaming the streets. On Saturday, clusters of street medics stayed close to the pack, bandaging and treating their injured peers. Others drifted ahead of the march to act as lookouts as damage was inflicted.
“A natural organization does sort of emerge. It’s human nature and even the anarchists can’t deny that,” said John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto think tank that focuses on issues related to political instability and organized violence.
Bloc participants also take pains to weed out police infiltrators, using their established networks to ensure someone among their trusted brethren knows any new arrival, said Francis Dupuis-Déri, professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, who teaches anarchist theory and practice, and has written a book called Les Black Blocs.
The Black Bloc tactic — both in name and form — is rooted in the violent battles anti-nuclear activists had with police in West Germany during the 1970s. During the clashes, the so-called Autonomen dressed in black, wore helmets and obscured their faces.
Unlike the Dutch anarchists, who focused on combating the police, the target of contemporary Black Blocs are symbolic properties: banks, Starbucks, police cruisers and equipment.
“The express purpose of this march was to embarrass the security apparatus,” said one man minutes after the Bloc had disbanded.
Others said it was about confronting — and damaging — corporations responsible for violence across the world.
Because the participants are so diverse, it’s not uncommon for there to be disagreements within a roving Bloc, Rahmani said.
Since the late 1990s, Black Bloc has become an increasingly more common sight at large-scale protests, something Thompson credits to two factors.
A proliferation of social networking tools has enabled protesters to communicate quickly and easily. Meanwhile, the international summits provide a “cluster of targets,” Thompson said.
He describes the black-clad protests as theatre, adding that the destructive protesters create a situation “where force and authority will have to be on display and you can confront it.”
When the two sides skirmish, it “provides evidence that, somehow or another, the system is violent,” he said.
One protester, who planned on participating in the Black Bloc but opted out after police began pre-emptively arresting her friends, defended the approach, saying it puts pressure on corporations that are exploiting workers and resources.
“No one has the right to tell me how to defend myself when we’re under threat,” she said. “Maybe it’s not 100 per cent right, but I don’t see any other options.”
With files from Jayme Poisson
Police burned by protesters
After bringing in thousands of reinforcements, police still managed to be outwitted and outrun by a determined group of anarchists bent on destruction
Thousands of cops were brought in from around the country, a new law was secretly enacted to give police more power, millions spent for security and even Mother Nature cooperated by raining on the parade, but still a committed group of protesters managed to make Toronto burn.
So what happened?
Toronto police Chief Bill Blair asked Saturday night for the public’s “patience and support.”
“It is very regrettable that such vandalism and violence could not be prevented,” Blair told reporters at a news conference. “But I want to assure you that the persons responsible will be held accountable.”
Mayor David Miller warned people to stay out of the downtown core until it is deemed safe.
He wouldn’t say whether he thought police lost control of the protesters, saying it was unfair to “second guess what they’re doing in the heat of the moment.”
The heat began just before 4 p.m. Saturday when an abandoned police cruiser was set on fire at King and Bay Sts., in the heart of Toronto’s financial district.
As the cruiser burned and sent sparks and huge black clouds into the air, further west, near Queen St. and Spadina Ave., police abandoned two more police cars as protesters enveloped them.
North on College St. near University Ave. police closed in on demonstraters, forcing many to flee. Those who refused, and sat on the grassy median, were pepper sprayed and struck with batons.
“Why are you doing this?” shouted a weeping Alison Blais. The journalism student said she was trying to leave when the cops came at her. “They just attacked. They came on like crazy,” the bleary-eyed 24-year-old said.
It was this picture of chaos, fire and the lines of beefy riot cops beamed around the world and had fingers pointing at police to explain what happened to Toronto the Good – especially after taxpayers had forfeited millions for security.
But Michele Paradis of the Integrated Security Unit responsible for G20 Summit safety cautioned that the violence had to be put into perspective.
“Yes there are broken windows, yes there is graffiti and yes there are burned cars,” she said Saturday.
She said police showed a remarkable amount of restraint and professionalism.
“Our officers did not engage. There were times when they were hit and they stood their ground. We have always said we will take a balanced and measured approach and I think you saw that today.”
For much of the day that seemed true. Police effectively moved protesters from one street to another as the group of thousands marched south from Queen’s Park. The first line of police defence was often the bicycle cops or uniformed officers standing shoulder to shoulder. Behind them one street south was an impenetrable line of riot cops and others on horseback.
If an intersection got rowdy, busloads of riot cops were brought to the site and marched two-by-two behind the lines as they banged their batons against shields. Tucked away in back alleys were Toronto’s elite Emergency Task Force.
Police did manage to keep protesters well north of the security zone known as “the cage” where international leaders met.
And this was the main goal, Chief Blair told reporters at the news conference. Perhaps it was one that police had learned from past protests.
During the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, the security fence became the flashpoint for protesters and led to violent clashes with police. Tear gas was also fired far into the crowds, reaching not just the groups bent on anarchy but igniting panic as peaceful protesters were left gasping.
Although tear gas was used Saturday it was done sparingly during “muzzle blasts” rather than the overpowering canisters of tear gas, Toronto police spokesperson Const. Wendy Drummond said.
Chief Blair disputed claims that rubber bullets had been used and said somewhat testily that he was aware that had been “twittered” by a number of people.
“That, like much of the information put out by these anarchists, was misinformation in order to mislead the public and the media.”
However, Const. Tim Garland confirmed early Sunday that plastic bullets, pepper spray guns and ARWEN launchers, which shoot a special kind of bean bag or plastic projectiles, have been deployed against protesters.
In many ways Saturday was a battle of strategy between the violent protesters and police. Some felt police tactics were too harsh, and questioned how police appeared to lose control. Others believe after a week of expecting the worst, the violence was not as bad as expected.
As clashes continued Saturday night, the second battle for public opinion will continue Sunday between those who are asking police what went wrong, and those pointing out what went right.
With files from Fabiola Carletti, Jennifer Yang, Jim Rankin, Robyn Doolittle, Raveena Aulakh and David Rider
Behind the Black Bloc mob
Jesse McLean Staff Reporter, Toronto Star, Sat Jun 26 2010
As suddenly as they burst onto the streets, they vanished into the crowd.
The men and women, clad in black clothes, their faces obscured with bandanas, ski goggles and gas masks, had spent the last hour storming through city streets, hurling rocks and debris through the windows of banks and big-chain stores.
They embraced the Black Bloc tactic, a popular sight at almost every international protest since the late 1990s: The crowd, dressed in their black uniforms, moves as a blob, its members indistinguishable from one another. One will run from the pack and lob a rock through a window, before disappearing back into the mob.
On Saturday, as the riot police shuffled closer to the intersection at College and University Aves.— shields up, gas masks on, guns raised — they disappeared again.
Dozens huddled on a patch of grass outside Queen’s Park. Protected by their peers, the ones in the middle changed into their street clothes. Within minutes, all that was left was a pile of black garments.
“Don’t take a f–king picture of me,” said one man, now wearing a brown T-shirt, as he walked away.
As they dispersed through the crowd, onlookers were left wondering: Who are these aggressive protesters?
Many in the black uniforms are self-proclaimed anarchists; some who are members of the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance, a group the police say they have been watching for a year.
While Saturday marked their first rampage, many members of the Black Bloc have been attending the more peaceful protests throughout the week, unmasked and limiting their tactics to non-violent actions. Some performed anti-G20 raps; others held banners.
They bided their time and plotted their strategy.
Car loads of protesters arrived from Quebec for the weekend to join the Bloc, members said.
Expressed through an assortment of chants, the group’s causes are many: They’re anti-capitalist, anti-police, anti-colonial. While the labour members marched to have their voices heard, the anarchists are resolute that world leaders aren’t listening and don’t care.
Any change has to come at their own hands.
For the most part, their targets are specific and symbolic: As the crowd tore across Queen St., they hammered police cruisers, attacked banks and other corporate companies. Yet they left a record store, a local tavern and an independent hardware shop untouched.
“This isn’t violence. This is vandalism against violent corporations. We did not hurt anybody. They (the corporations) are the ones hurting people,” one man said.
Others pelted the Zanzibar strip bar with manikin limbs they had snatched from a nearby clothing store.
“This is all part of the sexist, male-dominated war machine we live in,” explained one member.
Factions within that group, however, appeared to just relish the mayhem. As the protest marched up Yonge St., they became more indiscriminate in what they damaged.
Two young activists sprinted onto Yonge-Dundas Square and battered the tourist information booth, sparking jeers from some crowd members.
On College St, a pack of masked protesters began to vandalize an empty BMW 4X4. A civilian car, albeit it an expensive civilian car.
“Stop it. They’re not our enemies,” one protester shouted.
The other retorted: “Yuppies are our enemy.”
While the end result seems chaotic, the Bloc is intricately organized. It’s made up of smaller groups of 10 or so activists, keeping head counts and decision-making quick and easy. Directions are passed through the mob with codes — on Saturday, “umbrella” was a call to move to the frontline.
And they seize opportunities quickly. After two failed attempts to breach the walls of riot police, the black-clad protesters congregated in the Queen St. and Spadina Ave. intersection. A Communist group set off a flare, distracting the crowd and police alike — and the mob took off across Queen.
One anarchist who identified himself as Roy defended the Black Bloc, saying the tactic makes a division among protesters in the eyes of the police, inherently protecting the “good protesters.”
“Because they’re there, others are safe. Right from the front (of the march) they were pointing guns at us just walking down the street,” he said.
But their presence was criticized by other protesters, who said the destruction was simply justifying the millions of dollars spent on summit security.
“Violence just brings more violence,” a woman said into a megaphone as an anarchist set fire to a police cruiser. “What you guys are doing, it’s breaking my heart.”
With files from Jayme Poisson and Jennifer Yang