In the age of Trump, nationalist and neo-Nazi sentiment is finding its voice again in rallies across America. But they’re not alone. An increasing army of counter-protesters are tracking their movements and meeting them face-to-face at rallies across the country. Specifically those clad in black, who have an unequivocal answer for whether it’s OK to punch a Nazi: Yes.
But who are the black bloc, where did they come from and why are their tactics so hotly contested?
What Is a Black Bloc?
The black bloc is neither an organization nor an ideology. There are no real leaders, or spokespeople, or even an agreed upon creed. Rather, it is a tactic with German roots in the '60s that crystallized in West Berlin during the early '80s. Now it’s used by a resurgent movement of far-left activists in a range of efforts, from countering far-right nationalists to completely upending the socio-political system. Or, as some say, to fuck shit up.
While generally consisting of anarchists, anti-fascists (antifa) and autonomists, black blocs also draw a number of less radical left-wing activists as well as a few whose motives lean mostly to the visceral. While getting its name from the black-clad West Berlin autonomist movement in the early '80s, whom the media dubbed as “Schwarze Blocks” (black blocs), their tactics have been used and adapted for a number of causes worldwide.
Their militant approach to confrontations with police, as well as their penchant for arson, window-smashing and “proletarian shopping” (the Marxist term for looting), makes their cause unpalatable to the general public. But for those who see no hope in fixing the system, black blocs are just one of the variety of tactics of laying the groundwork for the current system's complete destruction. Autonomists, or the “Autonomen” from which the tactic sprang, didn’t want to seize power, they wanted to decentralize and diffuse it.
Black bloc tactics have their origin in the global social revolutions of 1968 that brought millions of people to the streets in protest of wars, nuclearization, civil rights, capitalism and imperialist policies. After the initial revolts began to die down, underground far-left organizations in Germany like the Red Army Faction (RAF), the Spontis and the Rote Zora picked up the fight. With a lack of affordable housing, informal squatting communities popped up throughout Western Europe and became a fertile breeding ground for revolutionary ideas and a source of recruits.
Beginning in 1973, squatting communities in Frankfurt and Hamburg began to face escalating tensions as local governments and police began to crack down on unauthorized squats, forcing squatters to organize defense groups.
As a result of their squatting experiences, the Frankfurt scene in particular had to develop a capacity to defend itself from the police, and had even built up a fighting squad, the Putz Group, whose job it was to take on the cops at demos. In regular training sessions, the Putz members practiced stone-throwing, one-on-one combat, unarresting comrades, and, according to some accounts, the use of Molotov cocktails.
As one former member recalled, "We had the complete gear that the cops had, except for guns.'”
While temporarily successful at holding off police, the Putz Group and similar militant squatters soon faced a series of setbacks in cities across Germany. Not only did they lose their squats, they were also crippled by internal ideological struggles over the use of violence as a means of protest, sparked by the devastating events of the German Autumn of 1977. It began with the RAF’s kidnapping of the “boss of bosses” Hanns Schleyer, a leading German industrialist, followed by a series of hijackings, kidnaps, murders and assassinations perpetrated by the far-left guerillas. In response, an illegal temporary crisis government was formed that turned Germany into a semi-police state for 45 days, and put an end to the crisis after the suspicious “suicides” of the leading members of the RAF while in prison.
After the traumatic events of the German Autumn and a period of far-left soul-searching, anti-nuclear protests against the proposed Brokdorf reactor rekindled the movement. When mass confrontations with the police turned violent, protesters employed tactics that would lead to the birth of black blocs and the formation of the German Autonomous Movement.
“Autonomy was a notion that overnight gave our revolt a name," said AutonomousResistance's Can't Stop Kaos in 2010. "Previously we understood ourselves as anarchists, Spontis [advocates of spontaneity], communists or had diffuse, individual concepts of living freely. Then we were all Autonomen.”
Birth of the Black Bloc
West Berlin in 1980, with a large militarily exempt student population and a vibrant counterculture, reached a tipping point. Youth unemployment was on the rise, and hundreds of apartment blocks stood empty as many slept in the street. An inevitable surge in squatting stoked the fires of growing anti-capitalist resentment and informal squatters councils formed to resist police evictions, replaying the drama of a decade before.
After huge clashes with the police and the largest mass arrests since the time of the Nazis, protests broke out across the country, leading West Berlin’s ruling party to attempt negotiations with the squatters in an attempt to legalize them. In 1981, a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig led to 50,000 protesters clashing with police and massive property damage. A few days into the protests, a police bus ran over and killed a squatter while trying to escape. The next day riots threatened to shut down the country, and the government agreed to address the squatting issue in the Bundestag (Parliament).
It was during this time in 1980 and '81 that the current form of “black blocs” emerged, coopting the black clothing popularized by the rise of punk and the methods of militant resistance used by the autonomous movement and militant guerilla groups. Black blocs quickly spread to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Western Europe and eventually to the United States (during the Gulf War, and more noticeably during Seattle’s 1999 WTO conference, dubbed the “Battle of Seattle”), Canada and Egypt during the Arab Spring.
A Question of Tactics
AutonomousResistance: “The tactic of the black bloc cannot be separated from the social movement from which it arises, since tactics are themselves an expression of the organization and methods of the fighting force that develops them…. In this case it is the Autonomist movement of W. Europe.”
The distinguishing feature of a black bloc is their all-black clothing and sunglasses that protect their identities and faces from tear gas and pepper spray. Black blocs themselves are groups of three to 15 protesters linked by close personal associations that allow them to work closely and quickly together. These groups then form up with other “affinity groups” in the street to form “blocs” that can easily outmaneuver police. Beyond that, groups use a variety of methods in clashes with police, from projectiles to arson.
The recent G20 conference in Hamburg was the largest gathering of black bloc participants in years with estimates in the thousands. Porsches, BMWs and an IKEA were set ablaze and left to smolder as a questionable statement against capitalism (capitalism thrives on planned or unplanned obsolescence), and an unquestionable distraction for local police as black blocs caused mayhem elsewhere.
The mobility of the black blocs, as well as their home field advantage in Hamburg, allowed them to use safe houses, info points, affinity groups and side streets as means of evading the police, occasionally forming together to stand en masse to block travel routes of visiting dignitaries. The German police responded with water cannons and pepper spray while facing a barrage of bricks and glass bottles.
Windows, especially those of corporate behemoths like McDonald’s, Starbucks, banks and retail outlets, are a favorite target of black blocs. But, smaller stores are inevitably caught in the crossfire. Along with the looting, black blocs don’t always earn the love of the locals who hate seeing their neighborhoods destroyed.
“The folks that argue that these types of tactics were or are necessary are usually thinking of them in tactical terms,” says Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver who co-authored a study on how violent protests negatively affect movements. “They look to the immediate tactical impacts, like did they shut down a talk.” Like the Milo Yiannopoulos talk at Berkeley, but, she argues, “they often cost movements a great deal of sympathy and support.”
This can do more harm than good because, after violence erupts on the streets, there tends to be more support for leaders who vow to restore law and order, Chenoweth found. In other words, leaders like Trump, Putin and Duterte.
Why Black Blocs?
According to those who employ black blocs, there is a reason for their willingness to resort to violence. For one, it challenges the monopoly the state has on the use of violence in conflict. By attacking police, they argue, it can poke holes in the idea of the all-powerful state. Though leveling the playing field is impossible, enough people who resist repression can lead to larger movements with a growing confidence in their own power.
Others argue property destruction isn’t even an act of violence. “We contend that property destruction is not a violent activity unless it destroys lives or causes pain in the process,” read a black bloc communique from the Seattle protests in 1999. “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights.”
Still, many anarchists and anti-fascist’s emphasize they’re not always out breaking windows.
“A large part of what we do is not put on black clothes and fight the police,” said James Anderson, an editor of It’s Going Down, an anarchist website. “Most of what we do is actual community organizing,” like raising awareness of racial, environmental and housing issues.
“I go through the Bay Area and there are people sleeping in the doorways of million-dollar condos that are empty,” said a Bay Area black bloc militant. “Is that not violent? That is the most cruel and violent thing I think I have ever seen.”
The issue of homelessness has long been a founding reason for the black bloc tactic itself, which grew out of a necessity to defend their squats from police. As black blocs began to spread to other causes, their defensive tactics began to adapt to the situation at hand.
Leading to one of their most important functions, argue anarchists, which is their strategic positioning around peaceful protesters, and their willingness to go head to head with anyone who confronts them—whether it's the police or neo-Nazis. Antifa, in particular, spend a large part of their time tracking neo-Nazi activity and countering their efforts to spread racist ideology by shutting down rallies, replacing racist propaganda and counter-protesting demonstrations.
In Charlottesville, the largest neo-Nazi gathering in years brought counter-protesters who, in one case, made a human wall in front of a group of inter-faith clergy that were being charged by neo-Nazis. Later that day, a Dodge Challenger driven by a white supremacist rammed into a crowd of activists, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer.
“I knew Sister Heather, she was with us,” said Dr. Cornel West on CNN. “If it weren’t for her and the anarchists, the neo-fascists would have crushed us like cockroaches on Saturday. This is life and death, man. This ain’t no game we playing.”
While the debate continues over their tactics and effectiveness, those who use black blocs don’t intend on stopping now.
“As the visibility of fascism has grown,” said Craig Toennies, a member of an anarchist collective in Los Angeles, “so too has the visibility of the resistance. People need to know, and I hope that they do know, that there are people like them who are willing to fight back—by any means necessary.