LA’s Black Bloc kept May Day march moving
The occupy movement’s recent May Day demonstrations have been somewhat overshadowed by media reports from Seattle and San Francisco where protesters, dressed in black, vandalized banks, retail outlets and cars.
Called “Black Bloc,” these protesters wear masks, carry shields and do not shy away from confrontations with police. Because of their battle-ready uniform, they are often mistaken for a group or gang, but Black Bloc is a set of tactics that involve mostly defensive actions.
Black Bloc’s origins go back to the 1980s in Germany. Most recently they have received criticism by some for tarnishing the occupy movement, arguing their tactics alienate many possible supporters.
In Los Angeles, however, the scene on May Day was much different.
Black Bloc protesters were seen keeping the march route adaptive and fluid through downtown. They played a cat-and-mouse game with police, ensuring the route was never obstructed or, even worse, trapped.
“We’ll keep Bank of America’s private army following us around,” shouted a Black Bloc protester after leaving the Bank of America Center, which was heavily defended by police.
However, “B of A’s private army,” also known as the LAPD, were waiting for demonstrators and blocking access to Hill Street south of Fourth Street. It was here particularly that Black Bloc tactics were employed.
Seeing that police failed to adequately block the sidewalks, Black Bloc protesters exploited this weakness, pushed through the line and encircled the police allowing other demonstrators to pass through unmolested.
At one point, for reasons that are not clear, police shoved protesters on the north side. Seeing this, Black Bloc protesters, as well as others, from the south shoved back. Police returned with swinging batons, but the line of protesters pulled back and no one was injured thanks to the make-shift shields many were holding. Eventually the crowd dispersed and the march continued.
The LAPD made 13 arrests on May Day. None occurred during the downtown march and rally. For the most part, the march was peaceful, and despite the traffic congestion due to the march, some motorists were heard honking their car horns to express support for the demonstrators.
“O” was one of the protesters that surrounded the police at Fourth and Hill. (Black Bloc protesters interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by their first initial.) What happened at the intersection is indicative of Black Bloc techniques, he said, which ensured the protesters’ First Amendment rights, as well as served to protect other demonstrators who may otherwise prefer to avoid confrontation.
“We are there to provide that buffer for them,” he said. “We have chosen to be on the front line and, if necessary, confront police oppression.”
It is part of the reason why the Black Bloc wears black, explained “O,” which is to signal other demonstrators that if a situation gets heavy, and they are not interested in the action, to stay away from them.
They also protect those who may be under attack, explained “O.” The Black Bloc considers itself the assigned security force, or the “people’s militia,” of demonstrations or mass movements. They also educate themselves on first-aid to assist demonstrators wounded by police attacks.
“The thing that I personally thought was most dastardly, was that I saw police with batons going after people who did not have shields,” he said about the confrontation at Fourth and Hill. “I made an attempt in one of those situations to run over there with my shield, because, the point is, [the police] are obviously trying to harm and intimidate people, than actually try and confront somebody that is trying to confront them.”
Even though they may use aggressive tactics, they maintain they do not do anything that isn’t uninvited. Another Black Bloc protester, “R,” said the Black Bloc does not impose its beliefs on others, understanding that social movements are best if kept communal.
“We did not do anything that was not requested of us,” he said. “There are a lot of people that make it seem as though we show up uninvited and do these things that are not welcomed by the community, which is not true.”
They viewed the police blockade at Fourth and Hill as an illegitimate act by the state and their responsibility to resist it. “M,” a Black Bloc protester, said the Bloc is about giving the movement an “ethic of self-defense,” which employs such items as face masks, shields and gloves.
“It is important to recognize that the working class, women, queer folks and people of color are victims, but it is also important how all these communities can defend themselves and the Black Bloc is propaganda of the deed in showing how that can be done,” he said.
In February, author and Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, called the Black Bloc the “cancer of the occupy movement.” In his column, he described them as obstructionists who counter efforts to organize and engage in criminal behavior by looting and vandalizing.
“M” said Hedges misunderstood Black Bloc, thinking it was a movement or a group as opposed to what it really is, which is a set of tactics. He has no problem with Hedges criticizing the actions of Black Bloc protesters, but called Hedges’ portrait of them as a group that has no respect for the movement “just plain wrong.”
Hedges also missed the point about the self-defensive nature of Black Bloc, said “M.”
“When you get into smashing windows, that is a different matter,” he said. “But when you have shields, gloves and masks, that is self-defense, and there is nothing wrong with self-defense.”
The actions of some on May Day was just the kind of thing Hedges was concerned about. According to the Los Angeles Times, Seattle’s downtown shopping district was vandalized by “black-clad” demonstrators. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and branches of Wells Fargo, Bank of America, HSBC and Homestreet banks were vandalized. Homemade incendiary devices, along with bags of feces, were confiscated by police.
In San Francisco, over 100 masked protesters, dressed in black and gray, vandalized restaurants and retail stores in the city’s Mission district, according to the Times. Even the neighborhood police station was not spared, while demonstrators broke windows and defaced cars.
The Black Bloc protesters interviewed did not endorse violence, but did take issue with how violence is portrayed when acts of vandalism do occur during demonstrations. When it comes to the state’s monopoly on violence, they said, there is no comparison.
“What is rarely acknowledged in the mainstream discussion, and even among the left, is the disproportionate nature of violence of the state in acts all around the world,” said “O.” “We are engaged in three wars — Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia — we have covert wars in Iran, we have structural violence here at home through poverty, budget cuts, police brutality, and when one person throws a rock through a window it is treated as an out-of-context violent act.”
Not all Black Bloc protesters are anarchists. However, Black Bloc tactics are easily embraced by those who prefer to resist the state and foster collective action.
For protester Rick Young, the Black Bloc protesters, who he affectionately called “the anarchy guys,” were the heroes on May Day. He joined the protesters as they surrounded the police on Hill Street. Young’s experience on the “front lines” caused him to see the Black Bloc as soldiers in a battle for social and economic change.
“The anarchy guys were the only guys that showed real solidarity today,” he said while resting in Pershing Square, the final destination of the march. “They were really together. They were the ones that allowed the marchers to come down Hill Street.”
Young speaks of his face-off with police as a “band-of-brothers” moment, where differences quickly dissolve in a group action borne out of the necessity of self-preservation.
“I don’t even know their names … but let it be known that the anarchists today broke the police line at Fourth Street and allowed the marchers to come down here,” he said.