published by La Voz Bay; 2-18-14
Since the upsurge of popular mobilizations in Brazil last June, the presence and debates around Black Bloc tactics in Brazil have caught greater attention not only domestically, but also internationally. Some anarchist propagandists in North America (such as Frank Lopez) have focused on this phenomenon in order to portray the supposedly more radical tone that street politics has taken in Brazil during recent months. In the spirit of internationalist solidarity, we find it important to share experiences and reflections across borders – especially when there is significant reason for self-criticism among anarchists, socialists, and other leftist radicals. Based upon our experience in Oakland, California, during recent years and the peak of the Occupy movement, we recommend against Black Blocs and similar tactics because they have proved counterproductive for mass mobilization, the struggle against the police, and the advancement of anti-capitalist goals shared by most anarchists, socialists, and other leftist radicals.
Black Bloc tactics prevent the development of a mass movement
Oakland, California, arguably hosted the most radical mobilizations during the peak of the Occupy movement. Building upon generations of working class social movements – the Black Panther Party was founded here in 1966 – Oakland residents had been actively struggling against police brutality when Occupy Wall Street took off in New York City. During our occupation of the central square of Oakland, we renamed it after a young black man, Oscar Grant, assassinated by the police on January 1, 2009. Riots broke out during the week after his murder, then again in July 2010 when the police officer who shot Oscar Grant in the back was acquitted from murder charges.
On both occasions, Black Blocs rampaged through downtown Oakland, targeting not only banks and jewelry stores (symbols of capitalism), but also smashing windows and looting several small stores. Oscar Grant’s family and their allied community organizers had already turned out hundreds of people to protests and made national news about the judicial farce that released the police officer who murdered him. On both occasions, the actions of the Black Blocs were not necessary to bring the struggle against police brutality going on in Oakland to broader popular attention. Instead, the actions of the Black Blocs proved counterproductive: a widely sympathetic public was dissuaded from further participation in the mobilizations calling for “Justice for Oscar Grant”, since corporate media was able to conceal the brutality of the police in Oakland and the injustice of the judicial process in accusations about the “violence” of Black Blocs against property and the “injustice” suffered by small shop owners who were looted. Before the Black Bloc riots and looting, the most prominent voices that controlled the discourse around Oscar Grant’s murder were those of his family members and the community organizers who focused all attention on the unbridled violence of the police and the injustice of the judicial system.
After the Black Bloc riots and looting, the most prominent voice that controlled the discourse became that of the police chief: “the people behind all this are not Oakland residents protesting the verdict [that acquitted the officer who shot Oscar Grant], they are vandals engaged in opportunistic looting and destruction of our community.” Black Bloc tactics enabled the state and corporate media to successfully twist the role of the police from perpetrators of violence against the people to defenders of the community.
The struggle against police brutality, the memory of Oscar Grant, and the Black Bloc tactics only escalated during 2011 with the Occupy movement. We will focus on a series of events that capture both the peak of mass mobilization of the Occupy movement in the United States, and also the counterproductive impact of Black Bloc tactics. After the people’s occupation of Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland was raided by the police during the early morning of October 25, 2011, more than 2000 people converged downtown that evening to reoccupy the park. Police cordoned off several blocks around the park and engaged in several hours of street battles against the people of Oakland, using rubber bullets, volley after volley of tear gas canisters, and hundreds of concussion grenades. During the battle, the national media was galvanized by the fact that an unmasked peaceful protester and Iraq-war veteran (Scott Olsen) was shot on the head by the police, suffered a skull fracture, and fell into a coma. This time though, they could not cover police brutality behind “violence” against shops, as there were no coherent Black Bloc formations.
The next day, as condemnation of the disproportionate use of force by the police echoed in every national media outlet, the police retreated and thousands of unmasked and un-hooded people flooded downtown Oakland. More than 3,000 of us organized the largest generally assembly of the Occupy movement until that day, and called for a General Strike the following week on November 2nd. The goal was to simultaneously take the streets of Oakland back from the police and shut down capitalist production in the entire city at the same time. This was an extremely strategic moment for the occupy movement, as the people of Oakland were beginning to transform a series of generic protests and symbolic occupations of public squares into a coherent working-class movement with concrete strategies for pushing back the police state and inflicting massive economic damage on the capitalist class.
Mass movements and strikes are the best weapons we have
The General Strike of Oakland during November 2nd, 2011, was arguably the mass mobilization with the greatest potential for a revolutionary transformation of the Occupy movement – but Black Bloc tactics significantly undermined the spread of general strikes as the logical and necessary escalation of the Occupy movement throughout the United States. By the morning of November 2nd, all labor unions in Oakland, all working class organizations, almost the entire public education system, and thousands of individuals who hadn’t yet participated in any mobilization of the Occupy movement converged in downtown Oakland. The atmosphere was festive, in great contrast with recent days when street battles raged on between the police and the people. There were concerts on several makeshift stages downtown, there were speakers berating capitalism on multiple corners, the labor Unions were providing free food for the masses gathered downtown and an eclectic assortment of progressive individuals, churches, NGOs, and community organizations found themselves sharing the streets and the struggles that days before had been associated with a far smaller group of radicals and activists. It seemed like “everyone was there” except, of course, the police. When literally tens of thousands of people were taking the streets of downtown Oakland, the police were not strong enough to shut down the protest and beat back the radicals, so instead they retreated to the insides of some key corporate buildings and the entrances to the highways near downtown. This mass mobilization – for the first time in Oakland – allowed Black Blocs to operate during the day without an immediate crackdown by the police. Alongside a march with thousands of people, about one hundred individuals in a Black Bloc formation attacked the windows of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and a grocery store that threatened to fire its employees who participated in the strike.
Those individuals in the Black Bloc were filled with pride about themselves, but the greatest achievement of the people of Oakland that day went far above and beyond smashing a few windows or even shutting down the city – we decided to escalate our General Strike to shut down the entire Port of Oakland with a mass blockade. Oakland hosts the fifth busiest port in the United States, processing about $30 billion USD per year in exports and imports. Black Blocs consistently argue that destruction of property makes sense because causing economic damage is the only thing that will actually affect the considerations of the capitalist class and its state. By this logic, the mass mobilization that shut down the port was literally millions of times more effective than breaking bank windows by the Black Blocs. But, unlike the Black Blocs that broke windows during the day of the Oakland General Strike, the 60,000 people who shut down the port of Oakland were not wearing masks and destroying or looting things. There were smiling faces of all colors and ages, there were families with their children, and instead of increasing the tension with actions that separate “the radicals” from everyone else, the blockade of the port of Oakland brought together all kinds of progressive people to generate the most radical escalation of mass mobilization of the Occupy movement. We showed a new direction from symbolic protests and occupations of public squares to mass mobilizations for general strikes and shutting down capitalist production.
But unfortunately, later that same night, the Black Blocs decided to make a vanguardist move and occupied a vacant building near Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland, after the majority of the people had returned home for the night, and without making any effort to sustain a mass mobilization around the building occupation. After the tens of thousands of people had left the streets, and the Black Blocs gave the police a specific target and ample justification for a crack down, the police moved in full-force to expel the Black Blocs from the building. Makeshift barricades were quickly constructed, but their use was more aesthetic than tactical, as the police easily stormed the building and beat back the Black Bloc with waves of rubber bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades. Unlike the mass mobilization for the General Strike and shutting down the port, the occupation of the building by the Black Blocs did not result in any tactical victories or contribute to any strategic advancement of the movement. Instead, it backfired and undermined our ability to promote the success of the General Strike as the best direction forward for the Occupy movement.
The morning after the General Strike of Oakland, every single newspaper in the United States was going to carry a colorful daylight picture of smiling faces of children with anti-capitalist signs on their front cover and headlines that the “General Strike Shuts Down the Port of Oakland.” But because of Black Bloc tactics, every single media outlet in the United States focused instead on the Black Bloc barricades that night and headlines read the demobilizing and cliché “Protesters and Police Clash in Oakland.” We continued working for mass mobilization and even shut down all ports along the west coast of the United States on December 12, 2011, but despite our efforts, the success of our General Strike and the example Oakland set for the Occupy movement was lost in the cacophony that the Black Blocs and corporate media created around street battles with the police.
The best tactics are those that cultivate mass movements
We are not disputing that causing economic damage is a good tactic for anti-capitalist struggle, we are not arguing against the occupation of buildings by well-organized groups of people, and we are also not liberal defenders of non-violence. We are recognizing that the “radical” tactics of Black Blocs are vanguardist in a very counterproductive way that separates “the radicals” from the people, undermines the cultivation of mass movements through careless actions of a minority, and facilitates the work of the police and corporate media to delegitimize and criminalize anti-capitalist struggles.
Struggling is not a crime, it is a right. We stand against all police brutality and repression of social movements, including Black Blocs. We defend all activists attacked by the police and prosecuted by the state, including Black Blocs. We agree that we must defend ourselves in our struggles against capitalism and the state. But we believe that the best tactics for the defense of our class are those that cultivate mass movements, and not those that marginalize large segments of the people and paint as “radical” the small-minded actions of a vanguardist few. In our experience in Oakland, California, where Black Blocs have been very active and supposedly very successful in smashing many windows and picking many fights with the police, we strongly believe that our anti-capitalist movements would have been larger, stronger and more successful with less, and not more, Black Bloc tactics. We share these reflections with our comrades in Brazil across all segments of the left, anarchists, socialists, and other radicals, in the spirit of self-criticism and internationalist solidarity. Rather than Black Blocs, we call for mass movements.
All Power To The People!