We need to talk about how we talk about the black bloc

Ever since I checked social media after medicking the Inauguration Day protests in DC, I’ve been seeing bad, frustrating takes on the black bloc. For the uninitiated, a black bloc is a group of protesters who wear all black, including bandannas or other masks, to anonymize themselves, and usually move as a group or set of groups. The stereotype is that they are anarchists, but they don’t have to be, they can be socialists, social democrats, whatever, it’s not like anyone’s checking your papers at the entrance. And oh, did people – including some liberal journalists – have a lot to say about the black bloc, and black blocs in general. Starbucks and bank windows smashed on the anticap/antifa black bloc march! Objects thrown at police! A trash can and a limo set on fire! The Internet was full of people decrying the black bloc for this (I’m not sure if a black bloc actually did all of these things, especially given how much of it had been mass-arrested by the time of the trash can and limo, but it is unfortunately common for people to attribute anything they don’t like that happened at a protest to the black bloc, which I have seen people do even when there is video evidence that it was someone else).

Now, in almost five and a half years as a street medic, going to dozens if not hundreds of actions, some of which had black blocs of varying sizes and levels of organization, or a few individuals in black bloc gear trying to be a bloc, I have certainly met black blockers that I wanted to drop-kick over the nearest fence, for endangering others, disrespecting locals or local context, or just being aggro assholes. But.

The discourse about the black bloc is dangerous, hurtful, and bad. A writer for ThinkProgress (!) tweeting that he feels sorry for the poor cops who have to deal with black bloc anarchist assholes is bad. Progressives tweeting, as the Women’s March started, that they were going to come down themselves to kick the black bloc’s ass if it got their family/friends at the Women’s March tear gassed, is bad. And it’s bullshit for multiple reasons, including the fact that much of the non-arrested part of the black bloc in DC was spending the day at jail support bringing food, water, and moral support, for released arrestees, so this amounts to kicking people while they’re down. Being at jail support with them to medic for released arrestees, melancholily watching happy Women’s Marchers go by (nice job Women’s March, y’all did an awesome action!), after having spent the previous day doing things like splinting a white-faced black blocker’s elbow as she tried to stay stoic and her friends, some of whom were also wounded, tried to be comforting, I was upset by this.

I’m going to assume, for the purpose of this post, that my reader is someone who doesn’t like smashy tactics (I don’t either, actually). Readers who think smashing a bank window or setting a limo on fire is awesome are probably not the ones talking shit about the black bloc. I’m not going to try to make a case for those tactics, which I just said I don’t even like. Lord knows you can find endless pro and con arguments online. I’m also not going to go too deeply into police behavior at the Inauguration protest, which should probably be its own post. I’m going to talk about the purposes and behavior of black blocs, and the Inauguration Day black bloc, beyond smashy tactics, and what can happen to them as a result.

The night before the Inauguration, there was an antifa protest of the Deploraball, the alt-right/white nationalist Inauguration party. A lot of people got pepper-sprayed, in several rounds over the course of the evening, so there was plenty for us medics to do. At one point, a pair of medics was treating someone on the ground. A bunch of people were trying to push their way into the scene, including photographers and a couple of presumed alt-righters trying to start something, and other medics (including me) and black blockers were trying to make sure that the medics had space to work. The guys trying to start something started kicking at the medics who were on the ground.

The black blockers protected the medics on the ground and got the guys kicking at them away from them. They also defended another medic coming in, who was threatened with violence by a large male reporter when she tried to get past him (he was afraid she would spill water on his camera), getting between her and him.

At one point during the action, a guy got hit directly in the face with what I can only describe as a pressurized hose of pepper spray at close range, and dropped to the ground so abruptly, close enough to the police line that anyone who went after him was in danger of the same, so incapacitated, that a few people initially thought he’d been shot. He couldn’t even crawl. I pulled up my goggles and went in to get him, with my medic buddy behind me. Who else came in to help him? Four or five black blockers, who helped me carry him to a safer space far more efficiently than I could have done on my own. Two of them took the highest-risk area at the end of him closest to the police line, hunched over with their backs turned, shielding him and partially shielding the rest of us, at risk to themselves. The rest of us had more ability to see the police line and watched their backs for any attack as we carried the victim to a safe place for treatment.

On Inauguration Day itself, there were a bunch of peaceful blockades of security checkpoints. black blockers (of all genders – women and nonbinary people bloc too, and plenty of them were there for this) joined in at the outside line of the feminist checkpoint blockade – the part most vulnerable to violence from Trump supporters or from cops trying to yank it apart to pull the Trump supporters through – and reinforced it. This is shown in the photo below.

Black blockers stand in an arm-linked line with other protesters in the outer blockade line at the Inauguration Day feminist checkpoint blockade. Police and the checkpoint tent are faintly visible in the background.

In this video of an elderly woman and a disabled man, among others, being pepper-sprayed, you can see that at least one of the people who runs to their aid is a black blocker. You can also see, right around 1:10, with context in the 10 seconds or so before that, black blockers picking up a crying child and carrying the child to safety. According to Crimethinc (whatever you think of Crimethinc, they’re good for “What were those people thinking?”), a black blocker deflected a concussion grenade thrown by police at a woman and a baby, and the fires and barricading were started to prevent the police advancing on a permitted, intended-to-be-low-risk rally happening a short distance away. You might think that wasn’t a good way to protect the other rally! But it’s certainly worth noting! As the other behaviors mentioned in this paragraph, that didn’t involve setting fires, are worth noting.

Here’s the thing: This protective function of a black bloc is not at all unique to the Inauguration protests. One reason that medics often get along well with blockers is that they’re two groups who often run into danger to help a downed protester. The black bloc at the NATO Summit protests in 2012 was explicitly intended to protect other protesters, and was publicly advertised as such (and didn’t smash anything). They also rescued an innocent photographer who was about to be arrested for taking photos. I would say that protection is a major purpose of black blocs. Street medics often have a certain amount of camaraderie with many black blockers for exactly this reason – mutual interest in protecting the bodies of protesters, and mutual willingness to be first responders in situations of danger – and it’s not rare for street medics to come from the bloc, to have been frequent black blockers before they became street medics.

But what about the anticap/antifa black bloc march that smashed windows, how does that square with protection? Well, what about it? It started at a different time than anything else. It was in a different location than anything else. It was publicly advertised as a black bloc anticap/antifa march, nobody went to it thinking it might be a nice low-key march to take their children to. It wasn’t there to endanger large low-risk actions (Twitter commentary about how the speaker will kick the black bloc’s ass if they get the speaker’s family members tear gassed to the contrary).

Meanwhile, the march itself got surrounded and mass arrested – everyone who wasn’t able to leave in time, including protesters, a bunch of medics, at least one legal observer, reporters. Juveniles. Now charged with felony rioting, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison. A medic was shot in the back with a less-lethal. People were tear-gassed while unable to escape because they were surrounded in a mass arrest situation. People had shrapnel injuries from grenades, and were near-incapacitated from pepper spray. People spent the night in jail unable to wash the pepper spray off their bodies and out of their hair. Do you really want the focus of what you are saying about this to be a few broken windows and talking about how much you dislike the people on that march? Again, it’s okay if you oppose breaking windows – I am talking about priorities here. Do you understand what a betrayal it feels like to me when you jump on the chance to demonize battered and now-facing-outrageous-charges people who I talked to, treated, helped when they were released from jail? When you talk about how you are part of “the Resistance” and this is practically the first thing you do in the Trump era? There’s room for complex critique and discussion (paired with acknowledgment everything else in this paragraph), but I’m not seeing much of it, compared to “Black bloc bad. Scary anarchists.” You have to at least acknowledge that the group who did things you don’t like and the group who protected other protesters were the same group.

Here are some other reasons, besides breaking things or protecting other people at protests, that people black bloc, based on comments they’ve made to me over the years:

– They are women and/or trans and/or visibly queer and are trying to conceal this through black bloc garb so that the police or counterprotesters don’t target them for sexual violence.

– They want to protect themselves from identification and violent retaliation by neo-Nazis/white nationalists that they’re protesting (see also, the blocker who punched Richard Spencer, and on that note, if you are hating on the bloc but enjoying the video of Spencer being punched, you are being a huge hypocrite, because that would not have happened without the bloc).

– They enjoy the solidarity of being in an easily demarcated group.

– They are organizers at something where police have been stalking and harassing organizers in between actions and thus want to keep their identities as secure as they can for as long as they can.

Finally, I want to address the “white male left from outside DC” commentary that I’ve been seeing around (that black blocs are white male leftist outsiders endangering everyone else). Anecdotally, white men are overrepresented in black blocs (it’s a risky activity, after all, and risky activities are more accessible to people with certain kinds of privilege). However, if you think women, nonbinary people, and people of color, don’t bloc, you are kidding yourself (though it’s true that all the ones I’ve wanted to drop-kick over the nearest fence were white guys). I’ve even medicked a march, a few years back, with an all-woman black bloc! I did jail support for the Inauguration Day arrestees, I saw a lot of blockers unmasked, I saw the ones at the jail support rally up closer than you would see them in a video, some of them were unmasked part of the time during jail support, I can assure you that there were plenty of people in the black bloc in DC who weren’t white men. I can definitely assure you that there were people in the black bloc, and every other action there, from DC. If you go around stating that the people who smashed the windows on the anticap/antifa march were white male outsiders, and you don’t know specifically who they were (their looks, not necessarily their names), you are not stating a fact, you are pushing propaganda that’s meant to discredit protesters.

In conclusion, please think before you say something quick, superficial, and demonizing, about the black bloc.

End note to journalists expressing concern that smashy tactics will play into Trump’s hands: Your profession literally controls whether the focus of stories about the protests is, for example, “Protesters smash bank windows and burn trash can” or “Police surround entire march of anti-Trump protesters to arrest it, shoot marchers with projectile weapons, throw concussion grenades into crowds of unarmed civilians including children.” Many of you have high follower counts on Twitter, that include lots of other journalists and pundits, so your personal tweets also count for more than most people’s in shaping public opinion. If you’re worried about playing into Trump’s hands, well, don’t facilitate it.

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