Analyzing the politics of the Black Bloc

The events at the G20 demonstration on Saturday have provoked a series of responses already. This article is not meant to review the events of the day itself but to look at the questions raised by the demonstrations.

Suffice to say the reaction of the police in arresting, detaining, and brutalizing nearly 1,000 people in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history exposes the serious attacks on civil liberties we face.

On Friday, before the demonstration, I was having a beer with a comrade in Halifax and of course discussion turned to the G20, we both agreed that this would be the perfect demonstration to go off without any property damage. If at the end of the day tens of thousands marched, thousands did sit-ins by the fence but the tactic of smashing windows was not employed then the summit would be a defeat for Harper.

We drew this analysis based on the fact that every where you went there was anger at the billion dollar price tag for security. At a time when thousands are struggling to make ends meet and see the cost of the Summits as exorbitant. Many, consciously or not, recognize that this money is being spent to the architects of the crisis; protecting those who gave billions to the bank while leaving workers and the poor to pay for it. Furthermore, in the lead-up, there was a growing polarization with many being angry or frustrated with Harper’s attacks on civil liberties, on womens’ rights, on the climate, on the economy, and more.

To have had a day of mass demonstrations and militant but non-violent action would have left Harper with egg on his face and given more confidence to those want to find ways to challenge Harper and the market.

Instead, the day went just like clock work–much like other summits. There’s a mass demonstration. A layer of people do a split from that march and then some engage in expressing their rage against the system by smashing windows and other acts. Given the world we live in, it is surprising that more of this doesn’t happen more often.

In response, the police hold back until the main march disperses. They wait for some damage to be done, and then they go on the offensive. They round-up and brutalize everyone left on the streets, including passers-by, peaceful protesters and those engaged in property damage. In Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, etc. this script has played out over and over again. The police wait until the mass organisations leave, then go after the rest. This strategy suggests that the police and the state are keenly aware of who they want–and don’t want–to provoke.

Within this, the “black bloc” and their supporters utilize the larger rally and split marches to launch attacks on property and the police. Usually the police wait long enough for damage to be created before they respond. In these situations it is one of the few times the police wait to crack down.

Then, when the cops attack, the “bloc” usually retreats and tries to merge with others. In Genoa, the black bloc ran through a group of nuns engaged in a sit-in which resulted in the police attacking the nuns. In New York City, at a demonstration against WEF, the black bloc ended up running from the police and trampling down women Steelworkers from Toronto, who were then attacked by the police as the black bloc hid behind the Steelworkers.

Then the media and police trot out the usual line, “We are OK with protests, but a small minority of criminals can’t be tolerated.” Those innocents that were arrested were an unfortunate by-product of protecting the city and its inhabitants. The police and politicians then justify the violence against protesters as necessary to stop any further violence.

In the process, hundreds get arrested while the media spends the next several days reducing the estimated numbers of demonstrators, erasing on-site reports of police brutality, critiquing the police as being too passive. Then the police say they weren’t able to protect property at the start because they were committed to facilitating the peaceful protest. Afterward they “did everything possible to restore order.” Throughout all this, stories begin to emerge about undercover officers mingling with crowd, engaging in and trying to stir up “action.” Eventually a handful get charged with some serious offenses and the majority arrested get released with few or no charges.

Despite the media hype there was nothing new about the events in Toronto. The question for militants is: what are the lessons? How do we interpret events and what do they mean for the left?

To answer, we need to look at what the mobilizations can achieve and why they are important. This is the critical starting point. Since the rise of the anti-globalization movement, this has been a point of debate.

The mobilizations around summits are important because they provide an opportunity to mobilize people beyond the ranks of those already active. It is more possible because the media builds the events far beyond the reach of the left. The fact that the summits raise a broad set of issues means that they unite in opposition broad sets of movements. The demonstrations that result can often be greater than the sum of the parts of movements. They unite various movements–labour and environment for example. They provide an opportunity to bring wider layers into the movement.

Some have argued that these demonstrations are pointless one-off events and that those who go to them are “summit-hoppers.” Strangely, these critiques are often raised by people who themselves go to the events.

But this misses the point that while the mobilizations are one-offs, they are important in the sense that they pull struggles together and allow those not plugged into activism to find a space to join the movement. Secondly the protests show to millions of others that there is mass opposition to the system.

Of course the idea that the protests themselves will change the agenda of the rulers is mistaken and naive. But the more important point of the protests is to galvanize and mobilize opposition to the system. For the left, the demonstrations offer a crucial opportunity to grow and sink deeper roots in new areas. These mobilizations also help maintain momentum and break down barriers between struggles that often go on in their own silos. In short, these protests forge new bonds of solidarity.

So it is important to mobilize against these summits, not because we can change the agenda or that capitalism will grind to a halt if the summit is shut down. Some thought because of the collapse of the Doha round or the inability to get a deal at the FTAA Québec City round, that capitalism would be forced into a retreat. But the reality is that these summits are attempts to overcome divisions between various ruling classes in various nation states. What they can’t get through global agreements, they will try through regional agreements. What isn’t accomplished regionally is taken up bi-laterally. Basically, summits are where the world’s largest economies jockey with each other for a better deal for their own ruling classes.

This doesn’t mean we can’t wrestle reforms from these leaders, and without the demonstrations it would be even harder to win reforms or prevent even more damaging policies from being implemented. Even NGOs who aren’t committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism understand that mobilizing is vital to back their call for reforms.

In this context, the objective of mobilizing for the summits should be to try and take advantage of the moment presented to broaden and deepen the left and build the movements.

This is the objective from which our tactics flow. It is not the summit itself that matters but the ability to draw larger numbers onto the streets and into action. It offers the potential to increase peoples’ confidence and consciousness.

To establish tactics before determining the larger strategic objectives, raises tactics to a point of principle and robs the working class of the tactical flexibility that will maximize success. It is juvenile and creates the quixotic adventures we saw on June 26.

So what about “diversity of tactics” and the black bloc?

It should be clear that the actions of the black bloc reflect their politics. The actions in Toronto mirror those tactics used elsewhere. The tactics and politics regardless of their intent are inherently elitist and counter-productive. In fact they mirror the critique of reformism many on the left have. The NDP says vote for us and we’ll do it for you, the black bloc says in essence the same thing–we will make the revolution for you.

At best the tactics of the black bloc are based on a mistaken idea that the attacks on property and the police will create a spark to encourage others to resist capitalism, at worst they are based on a rampant individualistic sense of rage and entitlement to express that rage regardless of the consequences to others. The anti-authoritarian politic they follow is imposed on others. Very rarely will you see a black bloc call its own rally, instead the tactic is to play hide and seek with the police under the cover of larger mobilizations.

Further, as has been noted in many cases, the tactics and politics of the black bloc and some anarchists and some others on the left, leave them prone to being manipulated by the state. In almost every summit protest, police and others (in Genoa it was also fascists), infiltrate or form their own blocs to engage in provocations. The politics of secrecy and unannounced plans and a quasi-military (amateur at best) approach to demonstrations leave the door open to this.

The tactics also open the door for the justification of further police repression. This has been debated before, with some arguing that the state doesn’t need justification for repression. The idea that the state doesn’t need justification for further repression exposes the total lack of understanding of both the state and the consciousness of ordinary people.

If the state didn’t need justification for repression, then we would all be in jail. Capitalism isn’t a democratic system, but needs the facade of political rights to maintain some buy-in about how free we all are. If the state didn’t need justification for repression, then we accept that people are just automatons who do what they are told.

But the reality is that most people oppose police brutality and most people believe we are living in a democracy. Therefore, when the police go on a rampage, they have to have an excuse. It is highly naive to think that the police and the state won’t and don’t need a justification to repress people. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have a war on drugs; it would have just been a war on the poor.

Some argue that we have to support some of these tactics because they are “radical”. But what is indeed “radical”? Let us put aside the notion of “economic disruption” caused by a few burning cop cars and broken windows, as some use this to justify so called militant actions. The reality is the Tamil community created much more economic disruption with their non-violent occupation of the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Further the workers in Sudbury valiantly fighting Vale Inco are doing much more to disrupt the economy than a thousand black bloc actions ever could.

The tactics of the black bloc make it clear that for them, it is more important to smash windows than to try and march with thousands of workers and engage them in arguments about how to move struggles forward or that the problem is capitalism.

So how radical is it to trash a few windows? It depends on what one means by radical. Radical is about workers gaining confidence and consciousness to fight back, not just at work, but in solidarity with others. Radical is about developing a sense of mass power, organizing based on moving others into struggle, winning others to challenge the power in their workplace or community collectively, beyond the individualization of our society. Radical is about going to the roots of the system–not trashing its symbols.

So, it is much more radical organizing a Starbucks, or winning co-workers to fight homophobia, or defending womens’ rights than it is smashing a window.

When the black bloc does its thing, does it move struggles forward or backward? Does it in the eyes of those questioning the system, or moving into struggle, or thinking that something is wrong, radicalize them and give them confidence?

The answer is that outside of a small minority, these actions at best can inspire passive support from those who do not like police. But the majority have no confidence to engage in these actions themselves or agree with them. Instead of giving confidence, the tactics generally produce confusion and play into the hands of the state that would prefer it if no one ever protested. They allow the state to justify its repression and expenditures. In essence, outside of an already radicalized minority they don’t leave anyone with a deeper sense of confidence about the ability to fight capitalism. Instead, at best they leave the impression that the fight against capitalism can only be carried out by a heroic minority; at worst they leave people worrying about going to demonstrations. The tactic is far from radical because it does nothing to challenge capitalism in any way; it does nothing to instill confidence in others to resist.

The debate shouldn’t be about violence, per se, but about tactics and strategy. Of course we defend the right of workers and oppressed communities to self-defence. The response from the left to the riots in Toronto after Rodney King is a good example: many defended the justified outrage at both the racism of the justice system and the beating of Rodney King. It was a justifiable rage against a system of racism, but it also wasn’t a strategy to defeat racism.

The black bloc, however, isn’t an oppressed community resisting oppression and defending itself.

Those on the left who see the problems with the black bloc and the cover given to them by those who elevate “diversity of tactics” to a principle need to organize coherent responses to this.

We need to join the battle for interpretation without getting distracted by blanket pronouncements of “pro” this or “anti” that. We need to focus on strategy and the tactics that flow from it. This will allow us to regroup those activists who see the centrality of the working class as the key to social change, who recognize that intended or not, “diversity of tactics” is not radical but a cover for self-aggrandizement by some sections who have no faith in the self-activity of the working class.

The need for a bigger stronger socialist movement in Toronto couldn’t be greater. But the role of socialists isn’t to gingerly tail those who support “diversity of tactics”, but to politically debate and expose the bankruptcy of those ideas for moving struggles forward. And it goes without saying that while we do that, we must also be defending those arrested, exposing the brutality of the police and patiently explaining to co-workers and neighbours what really happened and why people protested.

We need this clarity to avoid the sort of splits that occurred after Québec City and after 9/11. We need this clarity and upfront politics to win those pulled by the anger at the system and its barbarism to a more effective – if less sexy – strategy, based on building a mass struggle against capitalism that can pull the system up by its roots.