When thousands of demonstrators shut down the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle almost 15 years ago, a small group of black-clad, masked window smashers captured significant media attention and kickstarted a heated debate in North American activist circles about the phenomenon known as the Black Bloc. Characterized by confrontational tactics – from trashing corporate property to pitched battles with riot police – this group engaged in a highly charged means of social warfare and was famously described by author Chris Hedges as a “cancer.”
Two new books from Between the Lines analyze the history and nature of the Black Bloc in an effort to get beyond the rhetoric and vociferous finger pointing that usually erupts when the topic arises. Both are welcome volumes, offering much needed reflective analysis to a discussion that’s often distorted by the immediate passions provoked by street action.
In Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs?, Francis Dupuis-Déri, an activist and professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, finds that the Black Bloc has evolved over the past decade in concert with other developments in the anti-globalization movement. A first-hand observer who has spent a good deal of time among the men (and some women) in black, he situates his discussion within the history of anarchist street protests, analysis of the desirability and effectiveness of political violence, and the manner in which confrontational groups tend to invite police profiling and repression.
The book provides a good overview of the various methods that fall under the Black Bloc umbrella, from the use of protective formations intended to shield the vulnerable from police violence to the trademark “propaganda of the deed” assaults on corporate property. While clearly partisan toward the arguments of street fighters, the author does, to his credit, examine critiques proffered by various progressive voices uncomfortable with such a hard-core approach.
While Dupuis-Déri refuses to romanticize the Bloc, his tone is nonetheless defensive at times. He makes absolutist comments, but cherry-picks quotations that support his views and result in circular arguments. It is perhaps the nature of the beast that he cannot drill deeper into the Black Bloc’s philosophical underpinnings, given that so many direct participants hide behind the veil of anonymity. Thus, curious readers may be left wondering what rationale exists (beyond an understandable anger at global inequality) to justify smashing shop windows and burning police cars.
Dupuis-Déri can be quite dismissive of such challenges and fails to introduce or speak to the wide body of scholarship that questions political violence, but he nonetheless raises some important analogies that illustrate the issue’s nuances.
Unfortunately, he does not address the ultimate conundrum of the Black Bloc. Is trashing property and throwing bricks at police a political act merely because the perpetrators say it is? It is a question that Huron University College philosophy professor and activist Stephen D’Arcy expertly addresses in Languages of the Unheard. D’Arcy dissects the foundations of militant protest in a systematic, logical manner that produces a set of ethical benchmarks against which a variety of political protests can be measured.
Inspired by Martin Luther King’s assertion that riots are the “language of the unheard,” D’Arcy asks tough but fair questions in an examination of everything from nonviolent civil disobedience and sabotage to full-scale rioting and armed resistance. D’Arcy’s approach is helpful, given that violent tactics can be used equally by the left and right, each with their own justifications. The author proves unafraid to challenge pacifists and armed rebels alike. The key to judging their actions, he points out, is whether they withstand the scrutiny of a model that takes into consideration accountability, democratic standards, and social progress.
D’Arcy examines hypothetical situations alongside a mix of historical and contemporary examples, placing each under the microscope of his rigorous, honest questioning. He produces insightful answers that assess the strategic value of political actions and whether they dovetail with a “democratic standard of sound militancy.”
The text is infused with academic language; while this might otherwise be problematic, it is fitting that a subject so often dealt with at a surface level receives such detailed treatment. At a time when grassroots debates can still devolve into scenes reminiscent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it is refreshing to encounter a book that helps us comprehend the street-level events that have been sweeping the globe over the past decade.