Blocs apart: how violence undermines protest goals
on December 16, 2014
Dressed in all black, handkerchief over his face, one man broke from the group of protestors and began charging toward a gas station at 1 a.m. Monday morning.
The past two hours had been a melee of destruction through Berkeley’s downtown—storefronts smashed in, intermittent looting (mostly booze, snacks, and electronics) and the occasional small fire. So it stood to reason that this guy, or teenager, was ready to heave the first brick here.
Instead, he plucked one of those window squeegees from its bin and tossed it onto the ground in front of him. The timid rioter rejoined the 300-ish walking and riding, smoking and drinking through the moonlit streets. The late-night crowd is a mixture of angst, uproar and genuine fun; a brazen few bent on destruction and disturbance followed by many hesitant to contribute but happy to observe.
Two weeks of protests have swept through the country in the wake of the non-indictments of two white cops who killed unarmed black men. And the Bay Area, tapping into its history of activism and social righteousness, has been a nexus of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” anthems, Oakland and Berkeley in particular.
Thousands of miles between here and the incendiary events in Ferguson and Staten Island haven’t tempered the sting of police brutality. Thousands came out for Saturday’s “Millions March” in Oakland, a generally peaceful day with spotty moments of property damage and arrests. Previous weeks have been less kind to the streets.
Like many movements motivated by egregious injustices, these demonstrations, usually nonviolent in the early hours, have projected a split identity, as seen in our conflicted, squeegee-dropping troublemaker. The peaceful protestors are at odds with those thirsty for mayhem, postmodern anarchists known as “black bloc” protestors. The tactic refers to the all black, identity concealing clothes they wear.
So goes the dichotomy of the largest civil rights movement in a generation, cleaved in half by a fundamental question of the protest’s purpose: Justice by way of abject chaos or through volume, in numbers and in voice? Violence or civil disobedience?
Fistfights between proponents of the two ideologies aren’t uncommon, as the peaceful guys try to prevent destruction, only to get pasted pretty good themselves. Several journalists have also been targeted. Though they’re outnumbered about 10-to-one, the black bloc scares away most direct confrontation from everyone else in the protest.
Peaceful demonstrators do this: They chant, march, and smoke weed. They scream at police, wave banners, and occasionally sit in inconvenient places like intersections and railways and freeways.. Sometimes they play banjos and tambourines.
And then there is the black bloc, men and boys, tall and small, with some women mixed in as well. Faces covered but for a set of dodging eyes, they’ll put their hands up when the anthem rings. But otherwise they remain quiet in the early hours, passively interested in highway occupations and police skirmish lines, which have been geothermal vents of frustration and release for many others.
The phalanxes of cops, two or three deep in full riot gear, some with beanbag shotguns and tear gas grenade launchers, stand like the Terracotta Army, deaf to the crowd’s verbal volleys. Their eyes transfix on a street light in the distance, maybe thinking about their overtime pay. They’ve also kept a curious distance when looting and rioting breaks out, often arriving several minutes after the last snack or bottle-grabbing person runs out of the shattered glass doors.
Caravans of police hang back at an almost invisible distance like wary stalkers, while the black bloc pillages with immunity. After making off with some merchandise, or even money from the registers, the rioters quickly rejoin the masses or pile on top of cars to dance, laugh and sing until the next spot, typically big name retailers like Safeway or Wholefoods.
They’re the people who do really well in those post-apocalyptic movie scenarios. But here, they seem to only bruise the character and cause of the night. Once things heat up, most other protestors will start gradually leaving.
The California Highway Patrol has planted some undercover cops among the black bloc. Wednesday night, one such officer pulled a gun on the surging crowd while he and another undercover detained a violent protestor who had attacked one of them.
Like the protests at large and the police forces containing them, it’s just about impossible to paint the character of the black bloc with a single stroke. Though it’s an international tactic, the local groups are ad hoc and without international goals or principles.
Some truly believe in “No justice, no peace,” that every wall tagged, every dumpster lit ablaze, and every window shattered is an unheard testimony in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner murder cases. Many others subscribe to the “Let’s fuck shit up” mantra. Oakland reverend Dan McBride told me these are the people that “lean on a culture of defiance.”
Defiant or just irate, activist or antagonist, the black bloc has become the loudest voice—and the muscle—in this court of street law.
When one barefoot homeowner came rushing out in pajamas Sunday night, trying to prevent his garbage cans and mailbox from becoming part of a barricade fire, protestors pushed him to the ground.
“Fuck your trash,” one said. “People are dying.”
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