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Reflections on Black Blocs and Warrior Societies

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Reflections on Black Blocs and Warrior Societies

The comparison has been made at least once between Indigenous warrior societies and the black bloc. It is a fascinating one, which I'd like to expand a little bit. (Anyone who is interested in the topic should watch Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, surely one of the finest documentaries made about Canada's sordid history. It is particularly timely; this weekend, the community of Kanehsatake will be marching to mark the 20th anniversary of the Oka standoff.)

The similarities. Both conceal their identities with masks, both do battle with the police and defend their own against same, and neither are shy about damaging property. (This, it should be said, applies to some warrior societies; many warriors do not mask up, display arms, or battle the po-po physically.)

The differences. Warrior societies are community-based. This means that they are constituted primarily of members of the community they are defending. People from outside the community often participate, but in the end, both community members and outsiders are accountable to the community. This, either because they are members of the community and will have to live with their families and neighbours for years after an event, or because there is a political body that decides on the overall strategy for the confrontation in question. Just as significantly, their actions emerge from a set of traditions, stories, texts, and discussions that they share with their community.

It is not necessarily one group telling another what to do, but the fact that whoever takes action has to account for any actions they have taken to their friends, family and neighbours.

The black bloc tactic, in contrast, is not inherently required to answer to anyone but the immediate members of affinity groups, thanks to its inherent anonymity. A great many commenters have affirmed in various ways that the principle of autonomy and diversity of tactics means that they can do what they consider to be resistance, and folks who don't agree should at least "get out of the way".

Does this mean that the black bloc is not accountable to anyone? Not so fast.

In his article about the anti-Olympics actions in Vancouver, Alex Hundert writes:

A strong example of that solidarity was on display during the Feb. 12th "Take Back Our City" march. That event saw upwards of 2,000 people march on BC Place during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, and was led by indigenous women. When the march reached the police line outside of BC Place that night, the cops started pushing and shoving the front line. Indigenous women called for the Black Bloc to move to the front to hold the line. When the elders amongst that leadership group decided that the crush from the police was too much, the Black Bloc made space for them to move to the back of the crowd.

In this case, Indigenous women made a request, and the practitioners of the black bloc tactic complied.

This interesting precedent introduces questions and complexities into the bloc's modus operandi of autonomous action and mutual protection from police assault. What if Indigenous elders, or organizers, or some other non-anonymous political body, called on a black bloc to use their tactic in a particular way? What if they asked them not to carry out certain acts?

The totalist interpretation of autonomous action says they don't have to do what anyone says. What if the practitioners of the black bloc tactic chose, collectively, to cooperate with and complement the actions of others?

That would be interesting for a few different reasons.

It would mean that the black bloc isn't, or doesn't have to be, as Hundert wrote in the same article, "a wrecking ball tactic that makes space for more mainstream or creative tactics."

It would mean that there would be less room for police or any other kind of agitators to set the agenda by undertaking actions that are attributed to the bloc as a whole. Even a partial strategic prescription would shine a light on tactical choices that do not contribute to it.  (As Oshipeya acknowledges, "any particular black bloc may be infiltrated by police for any number of police purposes, open activist groups are susceptible to long-term infiltration, in which police can attain positions of authority within the organization..."). That would also mean less room for tiresome attacks that brand the bloc as consisting of agents provocateurs, an attack which is nonetheless rooted in the anonymity inherent the tactic.

It would open the possibility for a deeper relationship between militants and the movements which support them to varying extents.

It would mean the particular practitioners of the black bloc becoming a little more like a warrior society.

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 good article.   certain

 good article.


certain black bloc's have been present in order to defend non-black bloc activists from police repression including taking the front line, holding the police at bay, keeping the group tight, protecting individuals susceptible to snatch squads, and performing or instigating unarrests of other individuals. i personally believe this should happen MORE often -across political lines- and that there should be more communication and openness on both sides in order to facilitate this even more. 


i would also like to point out that there have been many circumstances where militants/black bloc were asked to not act in a confrontational manner and they did not. 


in a related note, the black bloc - to a certain extent - is also capable of dealing with folks who are acting inappropriately for a given situation. 


Thanks for commenting.

I'm interested in which mobilizations or situations you're referring to?

I agree that it would be interesting to integrate the broader movement and the bloc-type tactics more... to facilitate the direct participation of thousands of people in militant actions, so they're not just spectator-supporters of the bloc. I've noted elsewhere that the blockades in Germany during the g8 seemed like an interesting example of this, or at least the potential.

It would be interesting if at least some of the time, the bloc tactic was used to fight back against police repression or intervention in a larger, coordinated action and not just to facilitate your basic property destruction. It could be that that's already happening and that those examples just aren't well documented... which is why I'm asking.

for those who read french

An excellent book titled Les Black Blocs, by Francis Dupuis-Déri, that covers in depth the history of the black bloc tactic.  includes genereal analysys of many different manifestaions of a black bloc, from europe to north america, cronologically.  Also, interviews with many different participants, as well as internal anarchist critiques of certain manifestations, based on outcomes and communiques.  Also the history of the state media, politician and police assertions on the motivations of the bloc, generally this is said top be a bunch of apolitical haters, though it's well contrasted in the book (and published communiques) by the expresly political nature of the motivations of interviewees. 

It seems to me that there were nearly as many examples of black blocs marching in peacefull procession, or in defensive support roles, as with property damage or overt attacks on the police apparatus.  Maybe not this year, but based on the history presented I don't think we could say that the trend is toward property damage, but that the different functions of a bloc are quite diverse chronologically.

Francis Dupuis-Déri is a political scientist at the University of Quebec of Montreal.




Here's a few quick

Here's a few quick examples:

 IMF/WB DC 2000 (?) - militant folks intervening in inappropriate activities of other militants - some agro folks tried to roll a dumpster down a hill which would have resulted in severe injuries of people who were locked down in the street. was stopped by other militants. 


Toronto O16 2001 - some folks dressed in black protecting someone dressed plainly who engaged in petty vandalism from snatch squads and offering them concealment/disguise. 


Quebec City FTAA - black bloc assisting plainly dressed demonstrators during episodes of police violence


the best and most recent example of 'non engagement' would likely be vancouver 2010 during the larger rally. also excellent example of protection/distraction. 




As the witch hunt is on...

It's difficult to integrate the bloc into the "mainstream", when you have the likes of Judy Rebick, Derrick O'Keefe, and David Eby calling for their arrest and colloborating with the police. Perhaps if the mainstream were to suggest vocally that Derrick O'Keefe, Eby, et all, don't represent their views, the bloc would feel less threatened by their own supposed "allies". 

Difficult, of course

Your point is well taken.

Fighting capitalism is difficult. Giving birth is difficult. Being in jail is difficult. Hanging out in a tree for months at a time while risking your life is difficult. I agree that comments from those you mention make things difficult. But when did we think that this wouldn't be difficult?

Is difficulty the measure of necessity? In other words, do you think that one should not try this or that because people are being liberal idiots? There are thousands of people who believe in diversity of tactics.

One of the things that is troubling about the comments posted in support of the bloc is that they tend overwhelmingly to react to criticisms or stupid acts instead of assessing the overall strategic and tactical situation. I believe that it is important to react to criticisms, but it is equally important to keep the overall goals in mind and not be distracted by things that detract from those goals.


So basically you want people

So basically you want people who participate in the bloc to be the muscle to back up activist agendas and confront cops for those who arent willing to take that duty upon themselves?


Yes, maybe.

I think that when people who are willing to use the black bloc tactic and people who are willing to support it can act in concerted, unified and innovative ways, that we'll be more successful in showing more people why they should use or support a diversity of tactics while getting a larger number of people more involved. 

I don't really understand the distinction between black bloc and other people? Are not people who use the bb tactic part of the same movements? Or do they only hang out in an exclusive black bloc club? I know this not to be the case, so that was a rhetorical question.

Is the black bloc agenda not an "activist agenda"? What makes it different?

Let me ask you this: are you saying that the black bloc should always set its own agenda without any coordination or communication with people who use less intense or risky tactics?

Privileged much?

Uh, not everyone can fight the cops the way black bloc militants do. Your implication that people don't participate in the black bloc because they're shirking their responsibility is pretty insulting. There are entire demographics of radical people (for example undocumented immigrants) who are less able to participate in a black bloc, but nevertheless could benefit from its presence on the streets if it acted in a supporting role.


Another important difference. An Indian will always be an Indian, but an 18 year old black bloc Katzenjammer Kid will be comfortably adjusted to bourgeois society when he is 28 or so.

Bourgeois Society

You are right, I bypassed many of the very important sociological and moral differences in order to focus on the tactical differences and similarities. It was not my intention to minimize those differences. The comparison had been drawn before, and I simply wanted to take it a little further.

I believe that if we are serious, that one of the goals of organizing should be that people who are organizing now, continue to have enough space outside of capitalism to keep organizing and resisting, well beyond when they are 28.

Not trying to demoralize with difficulty

My point wasn't to shirk the task at hand or demoralize with difficulty. Only to point out that I could understand why those who do bloc up may be hesistant to coordinate when the many grass roots groups often invite David Eby, Derrick O'Kefe and other known collaborators to their events. It is unsettling when people organize with collaborators who'd like to see you locked up because "you are ruining the movement". Why would one risk their freedom in this scenario. I'm not saying there is no solidarity to be had, just that it would go a long way to building bridges, and make room for tactical coordination, if other activists refuse to organize with KNOWN collobrators on events they wish to have the presence of a bloc at.

I understand your frustration

I can understand the frustration with these kinds of people being invited to meetings.

The only solution that I can see is a long-term strategy for educating and discussing with people to build the culture of total resistance and non-collaboration. The question is, what happens in the mean time? Do you attempt to ostracize everyone who agrees with diversity of tactics and likes having Judy Rebick around in certain contexts?

I believe that the actual answer lies in a strategic and tactical assessment of how the goals of deepening a culture of resistance can be accomplished. Moments where liberals call out the black bloc are teachable moments, but for the teaching to work, it has to be done thoughtfully and strategically. The emotional and hostile reactions of the mostly-anonymous are understandable, but that doesn't make them more effective.

Just as an example: has there been a callout, even signed by anonymous folks, explaining why it's a bad idea to invite those people to events, and asking them not to? 

How do we build a culture of resistance that will grow and spread rapidly? I don't have the answer, but I have the question. I think that the answer has to do with patient, careful and principled communication.

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