Every time windows are smashed and clashes erupt with police at Occupy protests in Oakland and San Francisco, one group is in the thick of it: masked, black-clad anarchists known as the Black Bloc.
Police say they are pure trouble and point to conflicts at last week’s May Day rallies as the most recent example. Most pacifist protesters wish they would go away. Hard-core Occupiers say they like having them around to diversify their movement’s tactics.
Exactly who makes up the Black Bloc is, by design, a bit of a mystery. Adherents rarely reveal their identity and say they aren’t really a group at all, but come-and-go adopters of a tactic.
Some protesters say Black Bloc violence and vandalism undercuts the core Occupy message of advocating for more economic equality. Supporters, however, say the Black Bloc has a different definition of violence, particularly in dealing with police – and that Black Bloc anarchists are a force for protection of other demonstrators and assertive expression.
One young Black Bloc demonstrator at a “F- the Police” march held by Occupy Oakland in March said he felt he was part of “a revolution for the people that is not going away.”
Occupy Oakland, aka the Oakland Commune, regularly held Fuck the Police marches.
“I don’t know anything about violence,” he said. “Everything we do – it’s about freedom of f- speech, freedom of gathering. We’re in a revolution here. It’s not business as usual.”
Emotions run hot on both sides.
“The argument that they aren’t doing violence is complete bull-,” said Buck Bagot, an organizer with Occupy Bernal in San Francisco. “They say the real violence is from the system, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that what they do is right.
“You can get your point across without breaking things.”
Bagot said Black Bloc techniques are not tolerated at his group’s protests. At one Occupy Bernal demonstration in February at the home of John Stumpf, chief executive officer of Wells Fargo, several local union members operated as monitors to keep in line Black Bloc-ers or others open to destruction.
“How much more aggressive can you be than visiting the CEO’s home?” Bagot said. “That’s enough by itself. The Black Bloc is a tiny minority of the movement.”
But Lauren Smith, an organizer with Occupy Oakland, said the notion that the Black Bloc causes trouble is misguided.
These ‘upright citizen protesters’ are cleaning paint bombs from corporate property thrown by Black Bloc during Oakland’s general strike on Nov.3, 2011.
“The fact that police can single out the Black Bloc as troublemakers just shows that the police are trying to pit us against one another,” Smith said. “They are saying the people who use tactics that directly confront police or damage property are bad, and the people who take no action are good.
“The reality is that this (Occupy) is a fluid group, but we’re really just the same group of people with different tactics on different days.”
The Black Bloc is not a secretive cabal, activists say. The technique has been used for at least 20 years in the United States, and the purpose of wearing black clothes and bandanna masks is simply to achieve anonymity – especially for those whose actions might draw police attention. They usually number in the dozens or low hundreds at Bay Area protests.
Shields used by Occupy Oakland and Black Bloc, 2011.
In Oakland, Black Bloc-ers have been prominent at many Occupy demonstrations, at times toting homemade shields with “A” painted on the front, for “anarchy.” In the May Day protests, one activist dressed in black shoved a pole at a police officer and others pushed at police lines with their shields.
In San Francisco, a crowd of more than 100 Black Bloc activists stormed through the Mission District after a peaceful Occupy rally Monday night, vandalizing more than 30 businesses, a police station and several cars with hammers, crowbars, paint and eggs.
Police say the actions were extreme examples of the aggression they often see from the Black Bloc.
“They engage in violent destruction of property and behave in a violent manner,” said San Francisco police Sgt. Daryl Fong. “They have used pipes, crowbars, pellet guns, incendiary devices that are like Molotov cocktails, lit flares, and thrown them and bricks in an assaultive manner at officers.
“As for what they are trying to say – I don’t know,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t dialogue with them.”
Oakland police Capt. Jeff Israel said he believes the Black Bloc is not as loosely formed as some activists say it is.
“I don’t know who they are,” he said. “I just know that when it comes to criminal misconduct, they act together.”
A militant spray paints anarchist symbol, San Francisco, April 30, 2012.
‘Strategy to protect people’
Black Bloc supporters say the police have it backward. The protesters are using assertive tactics only to counteract police repression, they say, and any vandalism to businesses or cars is just an expression of rage in reaction to oppression.
At the root of the debate is the Black Bloc definition of violence and civil disobedience. Some believe that most vandalism and clashes with police don’t constitute violence because they amount to self-defense in the service of a cause. And they note that some Black Bloc-ers serve as protest medics.
Besides, they argue, police are the aggressors, though police say it is the other way around.
“Property destruction by itself is not violence,” said Chance Martin, an organizer with Occupy San Francisco. Rather, he said, damaging appropriate targets – such as a bank window – is a legitimate form of protest.
Smith said that when Oakland’s Black Bloc protesters shove against police with shields, “it’s just a strategy to protect people, to get between them and the police and their projectiles.”
“Of course it’s perceived as confrontational by police,” Smith said. “But they (Black Bloc-ers) really are just protecting the crowd by drawing more fire to themselves so others can organize themselves, put on their gas masks or get away.”
Occupy denies link
At times, when trying to explain seemingly pointless vandalism – such as Monday night’s trashing of small businesses in the Mission – Occupy activists deny any link to the perpetrators.
“Anyone who just wants to break things up, I don’t regard as typical of the Black Bloc,” Martin said. As for the Mission vandals, he said, “it was everybody’s feeling that we didn’t know who these guys were.”
Longtime anarchists aren’t always sure how the Black Bloc fits into their ideology.
Black bloc militant smashes window during Oakland general strike, Nov. 2, 2011.
Anarchists come in many forms, from homeless rail hoppers to those pushing hard against authority to those advocating for leaderless communities aimed at pure self-governance.
“Occupy, because it is leaderless, is basically an anarchist movement,” said Bill, who helps run AK Press in Oakland, one of the biggest anarchist book publishers in the nation. In anarchistic fashion, he declined to give his last name.
“But the Black Bloc? I think they’re counterproductive,” Bill said. “In fact, in most cases, Black Bloc tactics don’t make sense.”
Smith and other Occupy activists say the people behind the masks are from a rainbow of ethnicities, gender and ages, but some observers say they often tend to be white and young.