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Jan 28, 17

#DisruptJ20 and the Black Bloc: An Opportunity Lost?

Submitted to It’s Going Down

Let us preface this piece by unequivocally stating that we have nothing but love for those fierce freedom fighters who rock the black hoodie and engage in militant resistance at great risk to themselves. This essay comes from a shared sense of major missed opportunities during the Disrupt J20 protests in DC through blocs decision to isolate itself several blocks away from the main crowds and then doing the predictable smashy smashy approach on their own without the support of the larger crowd. Our intentions are to open up a discussion on effective disruptive street strategy in the context of the current terrain of widespread militant resistance with the aim of making our resistance stronger.

Back then

Once upon a time it could be argued that anarchists were more or less the only game in town when it game to militant street tactics. In 1999 in Seattle the black bloc “broke the spell” of social peace with the widespread destruction of property amongst a sea of less militant (but still direct action oriented) people blocking delegates and traffic around the WTO meetings. Since that spell was broken the black bloc has acted, in a sense, as a vanguard of the protest movement, always looking to push the limits of protest and ensure a militant resistance is felt in the streets amongst an ocean of NVDA trainings and permitted ANSWER rallies. The initiation of these conflicts often times had mixed results over which we could probably debate forever, but one thing is certain, if you wanted to see militant resistance at a protest throughout most of the 2000’s it was likely only going to happen via a crowd dressed in black, with little help from other parts of the crowd.

Right Now

Ferguson changed all that. Since Ferguson there have been essentially 3 years of constant militant conflict across the US with very few lulls in the action between major flare ups. Not only has the resistance been nonstop, it has been widespread and across multiple movements. From Baltimore to Baton Rouge to Minnesota their have been anti-police riots and freeway shutdowns. From Colombia, SC to Sacramento there have been militant protests against neo Nazis and the Klan. All over the damn country major disruptions, fistfights, and scuffles broke out at Trump rallies. And most recently the nation has been captivated by what has essentially been a 3 month long riot in the prairies of so called North Dakota. The Standing Rock uprising has seen unrelenting militancy in the face of a hyper militarized police force and deadly weather conditions. What started as a small encampment utilizing Earth First! style lockdowns has escalated into a mass movement battling the police with rocks, coordinated shield charges, warriors on horses, sabotage, disarming of private security guards, and large scale arson of construction equipment in broad daylight.

While anarchists have been present at many of these conflicts, we have rarely been the ones kicking shit off. In other words, we aren’t the only game in town anymore and it is time we start interacting with protest situations with this understanding: Militant resistance is more widespread and more popular than at any point in most of our lifetimes. A wide variety of people are ready to throw down. We need to figure out how to integrate our militancy into this widespread current and not continue to isolate ourselves with outdated models from the anti-globalization movement.

Disrupt J20, an opportunity lost?

On the morning of the inauguration, thousands of protesters fanned out amongst the dozen or so checkpoints for the inauguration and set up blockades on approximately half of them. These were by and large effective, and resulted in such long lines at the open checkpoints that thousands of Trump supporters were unable to get in. The energy amongst the blockaders was bold and defiant. Scuffles constantly broke out, with some of them turning into full on fistfights as irate Republicans tried to break through our lines. The police were in de-escalation mode and did not attempt to arrest blockaders, but instead repeatedly tried to punch holes in the blockades to allow Trump supporters through.

These were not the stale, Ghandian nonviolence blockades taught to us in non-profit crafted NVDA trainings. The mood was distinctly militant, and folks did not shy away from defending themselves when necessary. Basically, there were thousands of people engaged in an effective direct action to shutdown the inauguration. These blockades involved young and old, from black clad anarchists to goofy aging liberals to folks you would have sworn were undercovers but were suddenly throwing down with you.

While the blockades were still going strong the Anti-capitalist, Anti-fascist bloc met up around 10am at Logan circle about 10 blocks away from the nearest blockades where most other protesters were at. Rolling about 500 people strong (not bad!) the bloc then went on to do what most would predict the bloc would do, smash up banks, Starbucks, and corporate stores, on their own and totally isolated from a large, feisty, and potentially supportive crowd.

Unsurprisingly a large portion of the bloc was mass arrested, in part we would argue, due to its decision to fly solo.

Don’t get us wrong. We have no moral qualms whatsoever with the property destruction that occurred on the 20th. But it feels like the black bloc is still operating under old assumptions, that we are the vanguard of militant resistance and that property destruction is the most powerful form of resistance.

We will just come out and say it; in the age of interstate shutdowns, rail blockades, and mass occupations, a narrow focus on busting windows of corporate stores is predictable and boring, and furthermore a grouping of 500 militants that are down for anything, in a crowd of thousands that is down for something, would have the potential to create something far more interesting than a few blocks of destruction.

It seems the black bloc is stuck in the ruts of a stale and predictable ritual. For the past 15+ years the bloc has repeatedly followed the same format over and over again and it’s getting old. And what is the format? The bloc sets off to march, gets in about 15-30 minutes of fucking shit up, then the cops muster up enough force to either break the bloc up, or engage in mass arrest. Black blocs have rarely had the power and coordination to prevent the cops from achieving this it must be sadly admitted. Unfortunately this ritual was once again repeated on J20.

What might have been

While J20 is certainly a day to remember, we believe that the bloc could have turned it into something unprecedented if it had focused on being a part of the disruption going on at the checkpoints. What this could have looked like is anybody’s guess. It is possible that the checkpoints could have been completely shut down, instead of partially. It is possible that a concerted effort could have been made to break through the checkpoints and storm the inauguration en masse. It is possible that in the afternoon, the bloc could have led thousands of folks out into DC and paralyzed the city (and still smashed shit).

We caught a small, brief glimpse of what might have been in the afternoon. As folks left the blockades and headed back into the city, something (we are unclear what) managed to coalesce enough people into the streets and conflict with the police ensued. We arrived onto the scene as police were setting off concussion grenades and pepper spray and protesters were pelting them with a rather impressive barrage of rocks and bottles. This conflict reignited several time through the afternoon/early evening and saw the now iconic burning limo as well as several other bonfires, large and small, lit in the streets. What differentiated this moment from the morning black bloc? A whole lot more people not wearing black got involved, and largely supported it. While we suspect our friends in black were the instigators in this afternoon rabble rousing, the vast majority of folks participating were not bloc’d up. Yes there were occasional shouts of “stop throwing shit” but there were far more “hell yeah’s” and “nice throw’s.”

As day turned to night, we looked around the large bonfire raging in the middle of an intersection and saw in the crowd milling about it: a couple gray haired women using their neck warmers as facemasks, white hipsters cracking open beers, young Latina women, soccer moms, a local youth bike crew (mostly masked up) popping wheelies and spraypainting. Everybody was enjoying this bonfire. In the middle of the street. In downtown DC. On the day of Trumps inauguration. Not a single person was heard complaining about this. None! Could this scene have played out not in one, but 15 intersections across DC, if a coordinated group of militants had taken a different approach in the morning?

A couple observations and proposals on moving forward

Don’t isolate ourselves.

One of the central points of insurrectionary anarchism, is to engage in militant resistance that is easily replicable and has the ability to generalize among a wider part of the population. In the past, the ability to generalize militant resistance among the populace has largely been limited by “the people” being either disinterested or hostile to riot type situations. What the past few years has shown is that this limiting factor is rapidly dissolving.

In a situation like J20 where there where there were thousands of potentially supportive protestors, the bloc missed a major opportunity to generalize and spread militancy among a larger crowd that was likely up for it, by going on a rampage (a beautiful one, don’t get us wrong) several blocks away from the rest of the people. Remember, we aren’t the only game in town anymore. The black bloc should find ways to aid, abet, and escalate these protests in a positive direction. We feel that not integrating into the larger protest was a major failure.

We are going to take this a step further and make a controversial observation. The form of the black bloc itself is likely an impediment to generalizing militancy. Lets face it, a large group dressed in black, wearing ski masks and brandishing sticks is viewed by outsiders, at best, as a specialized vanguard that is difficult for others to gain access too, and at worst an extremely frightening mob that one should get the fuck away from as fast as possible (more than once the bloc has been mistaken for the KKK/neo-nazis by black residents during anti-fascist actions). If folks feel that we are a specialized crew of shock troops they are likely to feel less empowered to join in on the fun. And if they are scared of us, they definitely aren’t joining in. In short, bloc’ing up makes us into an “other” within the larger crowd, and creates the image that “those are the people that do militancy, not us.” We think a report back from some folks in Chicago on their J20 action begins to touch on this:

Still, the dispersed nature of the bloc succeeded in creating an inviting atmosphere, with dancing and a general combative revelry. Flares and paint were freely given to those who seemed keen on participating – the gifts were greeted with mutual smiles and a new sense of initiative. We see this as a positive practice to break down the barriers between antagonists in the bloc and the rest of the folks in the crowd, and was reflected in the crowd’s spontaneous willingness later on to protect the sound system… One big takeaway for us, is peeps need to try and do better at ensuring each other’s’ safety, but without closing in on ourselves and sacrificing the welcoming atmosphere.

To sum up the point, what we gain in anonymity by wearing all black, we likely loose in accessibility to outsiders, and thus the ability to generalize resistance. This is a tough call to make, as the need for anonymity is greater than ever with the ever increasing surveillance state, but we think the trade-offs may very well be worth it. There have been times when anarchists informally decided to not roll in black and still got some shit done. At the Miami FTAA protests for example, the majority of folks assaulting the fence and then later battling with cops were dressed in all colors including quite a few rocking Hawaiian shirts. At the anti-Klan action in Columbia, SC in 2015 there was a sort of unspoken agreement amongst many anarchists this wasn’t the moment to bloc up. Anarchists still participated and helped to escalate things, but definitely weren’t the only ones doing so. The result? The Klan was forced to cut their rally short and literally run out of town, by a wide range of very pissed off people.

Our task is to figure out how to safely instigate militant resistance at protests while opening up space for strangers to join in.

Block the flows of infrastructure and capital

The state is far more fearful of losing control of territory and its infrastructure, even temporarily, then a few damaged city blocks. Paralyzing cities, shutting down highways, and occupying railways are far more dangerous to the state and capitalism then broken windows. Property damage has its place, but its threat is relatively small as long as it is limited to a set group of people. In many instances, it would appear that it is a cost the state is readily willing absorb as long as it is relatively contained.

Anarchists need to set their sights a little higher than the closest Starbucks, and focus on shutting shit down. The blocking of highways, occupation of intersections, camping on train tracks, shutting down of ports, are in essence, the creation of autonomous zones (temporary or otherwise). These autonomous zones open up the space for the uninitiated to find each other, and dip their toes (or dive head first) into the pool of collective empowerment found in resistance. People are ready to fight, and it is within our ability to open up the space for them to do so while effectively shutting down the flows of capital and impeding the functions of the state.

This is an invitation to explore new possibilities when we come together and exercise our collective power. We hope this sparks some long needed debate on tactics within the movement.  We invite others to join in the conversation.


– Southern Autonomous Action

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