Black Bloc vs. Liberal Shlock
“I have yet to be convinced that these actions got us closer to where we want to be. Anonymous communiqués that build up the romance of arriving, attacking the cops and then taking off are all we have to understand the intent of this group” –David Eby.
The following is a response to ‘Safe Assembly’ where David Eby, head of the BC Civil Liberties Association, Chris Shaw, author of Five Ring Circus, and Derrick O’Keefe, chairman of Stopwar.ca spoke against the use of the Black Bloc at the Heart Attack Demo as part of the No 2010 Olympics Convergence in Vancouver.
Which can be seen here
Counter to Eby, Shaw and O’Keefe’s statements, the Heart Attack Demo, and the Black Bloc Action received enormous support from a much broader range of activist society Vancouver has seen is the past 10 years. This is due, to the monumental efforts of the No 2010 Convergence organizers to create a space and an atmosphere where people who are in support of direct action –whether they engage in it or not- to come together in a more integrated culture of resistance.
This article is based on news reports, personal interviews and observation. My intention with this article is to dispel myths perpetuated during this panel and add to already existing responses without too much overlap. It is also a general response to all denouncers of the Black Bloc and direct action.
The Black Bloc is not a group.
The Black Bloc Tactic exists within a historical and current social context.
Anarchists movements are real and legitimate.
Catering to regressive thought only creates a feast of ignorance.
Newspaper boxes are not guns.
Solidarity is a two way street.
You don’t need to blow out someone else’s candle to make your own shine brighter.
Giant puppet fail: turning the critical gaze around.
The Black Bloc is not a group:
On an organizational level, it is important to recognize that the Black Bloc is not a group because it is actually a collection of groups and individuals who have come together in an act of solidarity to achieve a common goal. These groups and individuals are diverse, divergent and even at times oppositional to each other. While it is reasonable to criticize certain aspects of a particular manifestation of the Black Bloc, denouncing the tactic as a whole belies a basic misunderstanding of the nature of anarchist resistance and its place in wider liberation movements.
On an practical level, it is important to recognize that the Black Bloc is not a group because it is actually a tool or strategy that groups and individuals use. It is similar to the Army’s use of camouflage. Camouflage isn’t a group. The Army is the group, it uses camouflage as a tool. It is a response to specific conditions in order to achieve certain goals. Black Bloc has been developed within anarchist movements as a response to repression of their struggles for liberation from exploitation and oppression. While the Black Bloc is most popularly used by anarchists and anti-authoritarians, its use is not exclusive. Also, many, many people in resistance movements around the world engage in similar property destruction type actions with out using the Black Bloc tactic.
The Black Bloc Tactic exists within a historical and current social context:
Since the invention of cameras and mass communication technology, people engaged in resistance have had to contend with being identified by the people they are resisting –i.e. the government and its police forces. As policing of dissent has become more sophisticated, the people engaged in dissent have had to develop more sophisticated ways of evading repression.
Black Bloc, as a tactic, is designed to confound police surveillance by making it more difficult for individual police and also surveillance cameras and computer identification technology to pick out any one individual. Wearing all black, while coincidentally overlapping with current anarchist fashion trends, has more practical applications. The colour black is much more consistent than that of other colours, for example, if a call was made for everyone to wear blue, there are a million shades of blue people could wear and be easily identified from. Also, because of the nature of light and shadow, the colour black makes it more difficult to pick out nuances of movement, depth and spatialization. Thus, wearing all black as a group is a form of urban camouflage.
The Black Block exists both as a tactical defense and as a direct manifestation of anarchist principles. Black Bloc becomes a political statement in its goal of evading state repression. In this manner, the Black Bloc ‘owns’ its confrontational intent by overtly responding to the State’s criminalization of dissent. Inherent in the Black Bloc tactic is the idea that the state is not your friend and never will be. The Black Bloc openly declares that the State is inherently exploitative and its sole and only purpose is to maintain itself as an institution of exploitation –and any dissent will be co-opted or crushed.
This is in contrast to democratic protesters who believe that the State is benevolent, but misguided. By presenting a well formed argument, and voicing their opinion in a convincing manner, they can appeal to the compassionate nature of the state and thus create change in a system they believe can ultimately achieve this moral and principled higher ground. At times, democratic protesters will use civil disobedience, which is designed to be confrontational and disruptive, yet ultimately upholds the rule of law and the State.
“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” Martin Luther King Jr.
The debate around the Black Bloc in Vancouver these past few weeks is a debate that has been raging for the past 300 years: the possibility of a civil society vs. the innate exploitative nature of State systems in any form. Proponents of civil society believe in ‘Democracy,’ and opponents of the State are Anarchists. Historically, Anarchism and Democracy could be seen as arising out of the same historical context: the fall of the feudal states of Europe and the rise of capitalism in the 1700’s –popularly known as the French Revolution, but spread throughout Europe.
Anarchists movements are real and legitimate:
Back then, anti-Statists and Democrats were not able to fully overthrow the institutions of exploitation and oppression they both fought. This same struggle continues today. Only nowadays, the Democrats are saying, “I believe in civil society, therefore you are not only entirely wrong, but you don’t even exist.”
Always, arguments against the Black Bloc are based on the idea that it ‘alienates moderates’ or ‘scares ordinary people away from resistance,’ or ‘delegitimizes real people’s movements.’ As if anarchist and anti-authoritarian movements simply don’t matter, as if we’re not ‘real’ people ourselves. Our values, our history, our work is rendered meaningless.
Current day anarchism in North America may be marginal, atomized and underdeveloped, but it is not insignificant. Anarchist movements have waxed and waned in places all over the world. Just because anarchists have been heavily persecuted and brutally repressed doesn’t make them any less ‘real’ than Communist or Democratic movements. Anarchists and anti-authoritarians have our own movements, with our own communities to be accountable to. While solidarity is a critically important consideration, it is not the sole priority or objective of organizing. The Heart Attack Demo, was a huge success for North American anarchists and anti-authoritarians. It was the result of not just five years of anti-Olympics organizing, but is a progression of decades of anarchist organizing on the West Coast. And showed a shift towards anti-authoritarianism and direct action in broader movements. (That may signal a more evolved return of the anti-capitalist resistance that seemed stopped in its track by 9-11.)
It is important to recognize that while anarchism is a real movement, with historical and current day relevancy, it is not a monolithic group. Thinking of anarchism as a group is like calling democracy a group and expecting this group of democratists to think the same and do the same things. In reality, democratists have some very conflicting ideas on what democracy looks like –the kind of conflict some people are willing to go to war over. Democracy is George Bush and Margaret Thatcher at the very same time that it is Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Similarly, Anarchism has many commonalities, at the same time, many divergences that are hotly, and at times, violently debated. Anarchism is both Chilean cells bombing banks and police stations and the kindergarten teacher trying to reorient her students out of gender binaries. Some anarchists movements have been 1000’s of people strong with massive infrastructure and organization, others have been a few rag tag teens organizing punk shows in their basement.
The only things all Anarchists have in common is: being against exploitation in all its forms; and being against the State –whether that be democratic, capitalist, corporate, feudal, fascist, communist, etc. That being said, any individual anarchist exists on a continuum of how much they are going to relate to, accept, or acquiesce to the State given the conditions of their lives.
Any gathering of anarchists is going to consist of people with a very broad range of ideas and behaviours. While any one person or group, may behave in a manner of their own individual design, that person is part of that gathering but they are not a representative of it.
Catering to regressive though only creates a feast of ignorance:
These denunciations are fore mostly coming from academics and activists who otherwise base their lives on critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge and education. Yet when it comes to anarchism, allow themselves to believe whatever the corporate media tells them to believe and further, expect everyone to be held accountable within the distorted framework set up by the police and corporate media –who are blatant adversaries to anti-capitalist movements.
Eby et al. lack an understanding of the organic networks anarchists use to communicate and coordinate their efforts, at the same time as misrepresenting individual behaviour as collective agreements.
What disappoints me about these denunciations is not the criticism. It’s that otherwise seemingly intelligent people, can without batting an eye, allow themselves to fall prey to distorted, prejudiced and ignorant portrayals of anarchists, and then promote that misinformation onwards themselves in their personal lives and in the public sphere.
In his speech at ‘Safe Assembly’ David Eby spent 20 minutes telling lies about the Black Block, anarchists, anti-authoritarians and the organizers of the Heart Attack Demo. Based on his sorely ill-informed supposition, he made this statement:
“[It’s] a mistake for people who care about social change to fail to dissociate from some of the things that happened on Saturday”
Regardless of his personal stance on direct action and property destruction, it is hugely disappointing, and frightening, that someone like David Eby –a lawyer for the BC Civil Liberties Association no less, would allow the concept of guilt by association to go unchallenged, and to go the next step and actually promote its validity.
Guilt by association is a regressive social construct. It is a common anarchist principle, and is established in any circle of progressive thought, and even under Canadian law: people should be considered on their own merits and actions –not by those around them. It is a failing of liberals and moderates to allow these kindergarten politics to go unchallenged in their personal lives and in the public sphere –not an innate illegitimacy of the Black Bloc, anarchism, or of direct action in general. The concept of guilt by association is just one aspect of this refusal of Eby et al. to challenge their own people on things they themselves know are wrong. These public denunciations shrink public debate and do nothing to further the evolution of human social consciousnesses.
Derrick O’Keefe justifies catering to ignorance, saying:
“[speaking about negative responses to the Heart Attack Demo by ‘ordinary people’] …We have to deal with that reality, or how the public saw this, of how the constituencies we’re trying to reach and what impact it had. And when we’re thinking about doing actions, whatever tactic we’re thinking, we have to know the mainstream media is gonna be the one mediating it. Who else is going to mediate it to the whole public? Until we build an alternative to the corporate media that is that powerful and has a real reach and breadth [is heckled: What about real relationships?] … it’s almost redundant right, it’s the media, and if the bad guys own it they are going to, it’s going to be interpreted through their lens…”
He goes on to talk about how the monopoly corporate media has on mass communication must be fought by building up alternative media, but his overall sentiment is that in the meantime, we have to cater our movements to suit these ‘bad guys’ and how they are going to misrepresent us. He also demonstrates a critical misunderstanding: anarchists are not trying to ‘reach a constituency’ but are themselves acting on their own behalf as ordinary people taking action.
He goes on to seemingly support the validity ‘diversity of tactics’ while simultaneously condemning it when speaking in support of armed resistance:
“of course there are times when people pick up arms to fight their oppression the Metis people, the Afgan people, the Iraqi people, the Palestinian people, but let’s be serious, you’re in Vancouver in 2010 at the Olympics”
And then says:
“But let’s be serious and judge your tactics by their results and assess them that way.”
O’Keefe challenges people to use alternative media and gathering places to be ‘ruthless’ in evaluating the success of their actions. It’s pretty difficult to make accurate critical assessments when people like Eby, O’Keefe, and Chris Shaw are using alternative media to themselves forward the same ignorance and devolved thought as the corporate media.
The denouncements Eby et al. have been making hinge on two different basis: that property destruction is inherently and morally wrong, or that property destruction is of value, but was ill timed. Even in agreeing with the tactic on principle, their reason for this assessment is based on insane conjecture and totally inaccurate interpretations. They are asking for self assessment of tactics and strategy, yet they speak from a place of almost total ignorance of the subject they are addressing and the real people involved.
This can be seen in O’Keefe’s equating armed and militant national liberation struggles with the Black Bloc. Anarchist movements, have at times, historically engaged in armed resistance. For example, Emile Henry who bombed a bourgeois café in Paris in 1894, or the CNT and FAI during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. In Europe and the Americas, militant actions from all sectors have waned since the 1970’s. Since then, anarchists, in general -though not universally, have adapted the strategy of direct action as opposed to open warfare or armed militias.
Anarchist and anti-authoritarian resistance movements today typically target property, not humans and in fact generally adhere to the principle of deliberately avoiding harming humans, animals or the environment –unless it is in self defense. While humans have been hurt and killed in anarchist direct actions in recent history, it is accidental that this occurred, as opposed to a solider or guerrilla targeting an enemy and shooting them with a gun.
The purpose of direct action over open warfare is that the components for direct action are readily available to individuals and communities who wish to engage in fighting for their own liberation. While Eby et al. write off direct action as innately alienating to ‘regular folks’ direct action was designed by ‘regular folks’ actively engaged in our own liberation, as opposed to waiting for activist groups to take action for their constituents, or electing representatives to make changes for them. Direct action is also a deliberate and conscious option for people who see the necessity to actively fight off their oppressor without taking up arms themselves, or forming armies to fight for them.
When critics denounce direct action and property destruction simply as a violent mindless act taken up by thugs, they lack an understanding that direct action is a result of a century of dialogue around violence, pacifism, anti-authoritarianism, the use of force, and how to respond when our oppressor refuses to listen to reason.
“30 people can destroy public trust and confidence in a movement” –David Eby
Moderates erroneously assume that anarchists are a monolithic group, while ironically diminishing anarchists’ ability to critique and develop their own methods and strategies. Anarchists are capable of developing and regulating the use of their tactics. This regulation occurs on an internal basis, where interpersonal relationships within anarchist networks over lap and respond to each other. The anarchist movement as a whole does respond to changing times and local conditions. The participants in the Black Bloc during the Heart Attack Demo where actually very aware of their locality and timeliness.
The concept of ‘diversity of tactics’ is a development of the process of anarchists and anti-authoritarians engaging in internal discussion and seeking out and listening to external feedback on tactics, momentum and goals of a more generalized resistance movement. Diversity of Tactics is not a ‘sloppy term’ that just gets thrown around. It is a direct response to the feed back from people who do not want to engage in direct action or confrontational or illegal activity and do not want to get caught up in the fray of those that do. But with the understanding that for many people, direct action is a natural and effective extension of their efforts to organize, defend and liberate their communities.
The point of solidarity is for two or more streams of people to come together to achieve a common goal or against a common adversary. Solidarity doesn’t mean an amalgamation of all parties into one big group where everyone agrees with each other. Solidarity means distinctions remain through cooperative efforts.
While dialogue and debate is important to this process, those conversations are useless when they are spearheaded by people who knowingly spread disinformation and refuse to challenge their own people to move beyond the stunted arguments and prejudiced assertions of the corporate media.
Both David Eby and Chris Shaw claim to have not known what was going to happen during the Heart Attack Demo as part of their defense of their public denouncements. I challenge that this claim is disingenuous. Given the presence of the Black Bloc in popular culture, and that there have been Black Bloc elements, to one degree or another, in most major demonstrations in Vancouver over the past ten years, it is highly implausible that well educated activists who have been working closely with a broad base of Vancouver activist groups for years could possibly not have any clue as to what was going to happen.
Eby gives a great deal of attention maligning the characters of the people he imagines were in the Black Bloc, basically calling them lazy, isolated and uninvolved. And chastises them for not doing what he deems the legitimate work of ‘real’ community organizers.
All three of them base their arguments on faulty information from mainstream media seemingly with out ever bothering to try to get accurate information from people involved in organizing the action or from anyone with a more complex understanding of direct action or anarchist/anti-authoritarian organizing.
The reality is:
Anarchists, anti-authoritarians and Indigenous people had been organizing a direct action based campaign against the Olympics nationally and internationally for the past five years –since the bid. The people involved in this and supporting the action, likely have their own set of standards for evaluating the success of the action –given that it is exactly what they had worked towards for half a decade.
There were 100 people in the Black Block, and 200 hundred more supporting it or engaging in their own activity along side it. The march consisted of a diverse range of people –especially for Vancouver, and involved community organizers and also ‘ordinary’ people who care about social change in their personal lives.
The Convergence organizers took great care to create an environment that was accessible and relevant to all parties involved. The main actions for the Convergence were divided into two sectors: the family friendly march on the first day, and the direct action march the day after –that overtly included diversity of tactics. There were also two legal rallies that took place after the main march: anti Tar Sands rally in front of RBC; rally against the Sochi 2014 Olympics on Circassian Land at Russia’s Sochi House. There was also an entirely independent action blocking the Golden Ears Bridge in Pitt Meadows in solidarity with the main march. These external actions were not impeded by the Black Bloc or by the direct action tone of the Heart Attack Demo. And in fact were able to carry out their actions in a much more supported and successful manner because of the resources provided by the Heart Attack organizers.
The events that occurred outside of the main organizing of Heart Attack, and even independently from the Olympics Resistance Network, demonstrate that it was possible for a diversity of groups to organize their own events, in their own style and intensity in coordination with the main demonstration –this is a success of the diversity of tactics model.
Time and again moderates accuse those who utilize direction action of ruining it all for them. It’s as though the entire capacity for liberals and moderates to get together any resistance at all hinges on what we do and how the corporate media portrays us. The onus is entirely laid on ‘us’ to organize them, motivate them, and appease them. They seem to expect us to abandon our own direction entirely to rescue them when they receive flack from their more conservative associates. Yet they themselves are willing to betray us at the most critical and vulnerable times.
The Black Bloc at the Heart Attack Demo, was an appropriate, well timed and coordinated effort and a success for anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian organizing.
Giant Puppet Fail: turning the critical gaze around.
What prevented the likes of David Eby, Chris Shaw and Derrick O’Keefe from organizing vigils, rallies or other legal and non-confrontational protests that their constituents would be comfortable with? Why did these guys, with their big organizations and strong and heartfelt connections to liberal and middle class communities, fail to educate and motivate those people into action of their own accord. While they were so busy criticizing the success of others (the Heart Attack Demo), they failed to mobilize their own people.
If the movement Eby, Shaw and O’Keefe speak for is so weak and skittish, that they will be repelled from any action what so ever because of a few broken windows, then that’s their own personal failure as organizers. If their people fail to comprehend that a global resistance movement against capitalism is going to have a multitude of styles, tactics and strategies that’s their failure as educators.
A personal note form me: “Instead of crying about how the Black Bloc ruined your party, why not take a good look at yourself and how you can motivate and mobilize your ‘constituents’ instead of blaming other people for the success of their hard work. If your people couldn’t get together so much as a candle light vigil, or a giant puppet, that again is your failure. Your long weeks were well wasted.’
Black Blocs, ‘Violence’ and the Possibilities of Action, by adam, Feb. 21 2010
A Response to Judy Rebick, by alex hundert, Feb. 27, 2010
Resistance writers say anarchist protest successful, Darcy Wintonyk, ctvbc.ca, Feb. 15, 2010
&, In defense of the black bloc: A communique from Olympic resisters, anon, Feb. 14, 2010
Anti-Olympics protest tactics scrutinized, Carlito Pablo, Georgia Straight, Feb. 18, 2010,
Black bloc solidarity from No2010 Victoria, Feb. 18, 2010
Notes on the Upcoming G20 Summit (and Countersummit) in Toronto
VMC’s Dawn Paley discusses Media and the Anti-Olympic Movement, Feb. 18, 2010
Harsha Wallia and Derrick O’Keefe Debate Diversity of Tactics at Heart Attack Demo, Feb. 20 2010
part 1 – intro – http://vimeo.com/9700525
part 2 – o’keefe – http://vimeo.com/9700767
part 3 – wallia – http://vimeo.com/9705341
part 4 – rebuttal – http://vimeo.com/9704242
part 5 – audience comments – http://vimeo.com/9719426
Comments on Derrick O’Keefe’s article ‘Activists Debate Vancouver Olympic Protests‘