LA’s Black Bloc kept May Day march moving

May 4, 2012

A Black Bloc protester stands with shield ready at Fourth and Hill streets in downtown during the occupy movement’s May Day march. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

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.

A Black Bloc protester (far left) directs marchers after a brief stop at the Bank of America Center where demonstrators chanted, “Bank of America, bad for America.” (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

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.

After exploiting a weakness in the police line, protesters encircle police who are attempting to block off Hill Street. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

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.”

After police shoved protesters, and protesters shoved back from behind, police turned around. Moments later they would begin swinging their batons at the protesters in an attempt to break up the crowd. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

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.

A masked protesters bangs on a drum while facing off with police. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

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.

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14 Responses to LA’s Black Bloc kept May Day march moving

  1. nick on May 4, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    I was there…. the cops were asking for it.

  2. Paul on May 4, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Great article Dan. Thank you for actually talking to people on the street, unlike the LA times.

  3. Mike Peake on May 4, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Are we incrementally moving away from a declaration of non-violence into becoming welcomers of violence? I joined a publicly-declared non-violent movement.

    “Hang together and stick it out till the gates of Hell freeze over; if you don’t, you’re no damn good. Remember, by God, you didn’t win the war for a select class of a few financiers and high binders. Don’t break any laws and allow people to say bad things about you. If you slip over into lawlessness of any kind you will lose the sympathy of 120 million people in this nation.” -Ret. General Smedley Butler to the Bonus Army then occupying Washington D.C., 1932

  4. Mike Peake on May 4, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    I do agree with nick above…the cops were out in amazing numbers, blocking the hell out of every intersection for miles around, including sheriffs in riot gear, sporting a ridiculous armored vehicle. LAPD limit their crime response when they’re on alert; how many people who needed help failed to receive it because Villainraigosa was worried about a few tents? How much did it cost the community in cash terms?

  5. aron pieman kay on May 4, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    i dont like violence however i have a bone to pick w/the lapd going back 41 years to a mass bust of 345 at an easter love-in at elysian park…i was one of the focalizers..therefore i consider myself to a friend of the black bloc!!! i have had it w/cops roughing up our comrades as we exercise our free speech!!! i have had it w/real estate maggots driving the poor into the street…therefore lets come together and make a point that we the people must beat back the attack of the corporatists and bring peace and justice to all

  6. A on May 5, 2012 at 12:43 am

    I understand the tatic but at the same time for the movement to grow as in the spirit of the civil rights movement the oppression of the state/police is often seen justified by ANY sort of violent action taken by people. It just reinforces the idea and reasoning to have police there to under the guise of “Saftey”. For whom BofA or peoples liberty? Well that’s obvious to me and you but to uncertain spectators be it on tv or on the street mashing property (especially small business) at this time may be questionable. I agree with hedges that this will become a fringe movement unless we capture the hearts and minds of those who have yet to lift the veil on their oppression. Remain non -violent.

  7. TD on May 5, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Excellent article. In LA there has not been a single broken window yet again and again we have been faced with violent oppression by LAPD. I myself have been assaulted more than once. Once, barely missed being hit in the face by a cop swinging his baton wildly and with total abandon. I’m getting fucking sick of it! We carry signs and chant slogans. The police carry guns, batons, tear gas and bean bag rifles. A JFK quote keeps coming to mind… “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible… make violent revolution inevitable.” I was proud of and glad to have our Black Bloc brothers & sisters there on May Day they handled themselves much better than the LAPD.

  8. james on May 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I was there on 4th and Hill when we broke through on the sidewalk. Like Nick said they were asking for it. I’ve never seen that many police in dtla at once. Black Bloc is here to protect and serve…unlike LAPD

  9. chris on May 5, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I can vouch for this report…everything agrees with what I saw during the march. Those participating in the black bloc foiled at every turn the LAPD’s efforts to keep our march far away from the financial district and their corporate masters. Brave souls they are.

  10. Judith Tiedemann on May 5, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    I looked forward for weeks, to be at the M1GS, and at the last minute I psyched myself out of going because I was afraid. Afraid of being tear gassed, beaten with a night stick, or worse that all of that, being thrown in jail. Who would take care of my pets? How could I regain my already faltering Credit? I AM the 99% and I let them win without even putting up a fight. I didn’t know about the Black Bloc. Had I known, would it have made a difference to my decision? I will never know. I do know, however, that if the opportunity presents itself again, I make this promise to myself and the rest of the 99% : If the Black Bloc is brave enough and Patriotic enough to be there to have my back, the least I can do is show up. I thank the Black Bloc and all of those who put their safety and their very lives on the line to stand up to the 1% who have been sneaking behind our backs for years, to gain the power to control every aspect of our System. I’ve shot my mouth off for years about them and when the time came for me to stand up to them, I chickened out, I’m so sorry and I’m so ashamed. I won’t forget this. I WILL take a stand…To Mike Peake and Aron Pieman Kay. You put into writing what I would say if I could. Thank you

  11. A on May 7, 2012 at 9:33 pm
  12. OccNoVi on May 12, 2012 at 7:15 am

    This is quite amazing. Legitimate Occupiers by the dozen appear to have adopted a right winger costume, the phony “Black Bloc” halloween gear.

    There was a Black Bloc. But that goes back to the Baader-Meinhopf Gang (aka Red Army Faction) who murdered 34 people during one of their sprees in 1977. The BBs were fans of these madmen, complete with costumes, speed, and rock bands.

    Right wing paramilitary organizations have copied the BBs ever since. Rome and Oakland in 2011 were the locations for masses of BB-costumed provos — complete with nunchukas for vandalism and incendiaries for arson.

    Black masks and shields ???? You’re idiots. Dumber than Secret Service dweebs paying for pros in Colombia.

    Read up on Gene Sharp’s ideas. The man collected 198 good tactical ideas for running street demonstrations. Read up on his pointers to Gandhi and Dr. King. Those are the shoulders to stand on, assuming you want to succeed. (You don’t have to succeed. That is optional.)

    SCLC Atlanta & Memphis, SNCC Legacy, the Facebook page for Occupy Nonviolence — all provide first-rate resources for doing effective, time-tested nonviolent direct/community/public action.

    The Gandhi-King “Nine Principles” makes the strongest case for NDA as an expression of self-discipline. Gandhi in 1921 expressed this, even in the face of death.

    We are the 99% and we must go in peace.

    The bad guys in these street events are the uniformed men who hate women and are being deployed to inflict a wave of sexual assault and torture on female protestors. David Graeber has an article at that serves as a useful introduction to this misuse of police management tools. FBI has done nothing — they have primary jurisdiction over all such local police corruption.

  13. Zig Zag on May 17, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    OccNoVi: wow, what an amazing twist of historical facts in order to advance your pacifist ideology. Black blocs had nothing to do with the ‘Baader-Meinhoff”, which was the Red Army Fraction urban guerrilla group, even if some participants in early W. German black blocs supported the guerrilla. The Gandhi-King myth is just that: a myth. Any successes these movements had was due to a diversity of tactics including radicals and militants attacking property, police, and military forces. Read “How Nonviolence Protects the State” by Peter Gelderloos and educate yourself. In such a diverse society we need a wide diversity of tactics, not just those of pacifist ideologues.

  14. sarahd on June 1, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I don’t understand why marchers say they just chant and hold signs when video shows this: on April 30th in S.F. looks like preview of coming attractions for L.A. They were smashing cars indiscriminately and especially if it was a BMW. What if some poor college kid saved his whole life for that car. Why do occupiers judge all by the acts of some. Don’t they hate when that happens to them?

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