The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state. The Occupy encampments in various cities were shut down precisely because they were nonviolent. They were shut down because the state realized the potential of their broad appeal even to those within the systems of power.
They were shut down because they articulated a truth about our economic and political system that cut across political and cultural lines. And they were shut down because they were places mothers and fathers with strollers felt safe.
Black Bloc adherents detest those of us on the organized left and seek, quite consciously, to take away our tools of empowerment. They confuse acts of petty vandalism and a repellent cynicism with revolution. The real enemies, they argue, are not the corporate capitalists, but their collaborators among the unions, workers’ movements, radical intellectuals, environmental activists and populist movements such as the Zapatistas. Any group that seeks to rebuild social structures, especially through nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, rather than physically destroy, becomes, in the eyes of Black Bloc anarchists, the enemy. Black Bloc anarchists spend most of their fury not on the architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or globalism, but on those, such as the Zapatistas, who respond to the problem. It is a grotesque inversion of value systems.
Because Black Bloc anarchists do not believe in organization, indeed oppose all organized movements, they ensure their own powerlessness. They can only be obstructionist. And they are primarily obstructionist to those who resist. John Zerzan, one of the principal ideologues of the Black Bloc movement in the United States, defended “Industrial Society and Its Future,” the rambling manifesto by Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, although he did not endorse Kaczynski’s bombings. Zerzan is a fierce critic of a long list of supposed sellouts starting with Noam Chomsky. Black Bloc anarchists are an example of what Theodore Roszak in “The Making of a Counter Culture” called the “progressive adolescentization” of the American left.
In Zerzan’s now defunct magazine Green Anarchy (which survives as a website) he published an article by someone named “Venomous Butterfly” that excoriated the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN). The essay declared that “not only are those [the Zapatistas’] aims not anarchist; they are not even revolutionary.” It also denounced the indigenous movement for “nationalist language,” for asserting the right of people to “alter or modify their form of government” and for having the goals of “work, land, housing, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.” The movement, the article stated, was not worthy of support because it called for “nothing concrete that could not be provided by capitalism.”
“Of course,” the article went on, “the social struggles of exploited and oppressed people cannot be expected to conform to some abstract anarchist ideal. These struggles arise in particular situations, sparked by specific events. The question of revolutionary solidarity in these struggles is, therefore, the question of how to intervene in a way that is fitting with one’s aims, in a way that moves one’s revolutionary anarchist project forward.”
Solidarity becomes the hijacking or destruction of competing movements, which is exactly what the Black Bloc contingents are attempting to do with the Occupy movement.
“The Black Bloc can say they are attacking cops, but what they are really doing is destroying the Occupy movement,” the writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen told me when I reached him by phone in California. “If their real target actually was the cops and not the Occupy movement, the Black Bloc would make their actions completely separate from Occupy, instead of effectively using these others as a human shield. Their attacks on cops are simply a means to an end, which is to destroy a movement that doesn’t fit their ideological standard.”
“I don’t have a problem with escalating tactics to some sort of militant resistance if it is appropriate morally, strategically and tactically,” Jensen continued. “This is true if one is going to pick up a sign, a rock or a gun. But you need to have thought it through. The Black Bloc spends more time attempting to destroy movements than they do attacking those in power. They hate the left more than they hate capitalists.”
“Their thinking is not only nonstrategic, but actively opposed to strategy,” said Jensen, author of several books, including “The Culture of Make Believe.” “They are unwilling to think critically about whether one is acting appropriately in the moment. I have no problem with someone violating boundaries [when] that violation is the smart, appropriate thing to do. I have a huge problem with people violating boundaries for the sake of violating boundaries. It is a lot easier to pick up a rock and throw it through the nearest window than it is to organize, or at least figure out which window you should throw a rock through if you are going to throw a rock. A lot of it is laziness.”
Groups of Black Bloc protesters, for example, smashed the windows of a locally owned coffee shop in November in Oakland and looted it. It was not, as Jensen points out, a strategic, moral or tactical act. It was done for its own sake. Random acts of violence, looting and vandalism are justified, in the jargon of the movement, as components of “feral” or “spontaneous insurrection.” These acts, the movement argues, can never be organized. Organization, in the thinking of the movement, implies hierarchy, which must always be opposed. There can be no restraints on “feral” or “spontaneous” acts of insurrection. Whoever gets hurt gets hurt. Whatever gets destroyed gets destroyed.
There is a word for this—“criminal.”
The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship. It permits an inchoate rage to be unleashed on any target. Pity, compassion and tenderness are banished for the intoxication of power. It is the same sickness that fuels the swarms of police who pepper-spray and beat peaceful demonstrators. It is the sickness of soldiers in war. It turns human beings into beasts.
“We run on,” Erich Maria Remarque wrote in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God only knows what devils: this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance.”
The corporate state understands and welcomes the language of force. It can use the Black Bloc’s confrontational tactics and destruction of property to justify draconian forms of control and frighten the wider population away from supporting the Occupy movement. Once the Occupy movement is painted as a flag-burning, rock-throwing, angry mob we are finished. If we become isolated we can be crushed. The arrests last weekend in Oakland of more than 400 protesters, some of whom had thrown rocks, carried homemade shields and rolled barricades, are an indication of the scale of escalating repression and a failure to remain a unified, nonviolent opposition. Police pumped tear gas, flash-bang grenades and “less lethal” rounds into the crowds. Once protesters were in jail they were denied crucial medications, kept in overcrowded cells and pushed around. A march in New York called in solidarity with the Oakland protesters saw a few demonstrators imitate the Black Bloc tactics in Oakland, including throwing bottles at police and dumping garbage on the street. They chanted “Fuck the police” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay / NYPD go away.”
This is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience. It is not a war. Nonviolent movements, on some level, embrace police brutality. The continuing attempt by the state to crush peaceful protesters who call for simple acts of justice delegitimizes the power elite. It prompts a passive population to respond. It brings some within the structures of power to our side and creates internal divisions that will lead to paralysis within the network of authority. Martin Luther King kept holding marches in Birmingham because he knew Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor was a thug who would overreact.
The Black Bloc’s thought-terminating cliché of “diversity of tactics” in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans. The state could not be happier. It is a safe bet that among Black Bloc groups in cities such as Oakland are agents provocateurs spurring them on to more mayhem. But with or without police infiltration the Black Bloc is serving the interests of the 1 percent. These anarchists represent no one but themselves. Those in Oakland, although most are white and many are not from the city, arrogantly dismiss Oakland’s African-American leaders, who, along with other local community organizers, should be determining the forms of resistance.
The explosive rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement came when a few women, trapped behind orange mesh netting, were pepper-sprayed by NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna. The violence and cruelty of the state were exposed. And the Occupy movement, through its steadfast refusal to respond to police provocation, resonated across the country. Losing this moral authority, this ability to show through nonviolent protest the corruption and decadence of the corporate state, would be crippling to the movement. It would reduce us to the moral degradation of our oppressors. And that is what our oppressors want.
The Black Bloc movement bears the rigidity and dogmatism of all absolutism sects. Its adherents alone possess the truth. They alone understand. They alone arrogate the right, because they are enlightened and we are not, to dismiss and ignore competing points of view as infantile and irrelevant. They hear only their own voices. They heed only their own thoughts. They believe only their own clichés. And this makes them not only deeply intolerant but stupid.
“Once you are hostile to organization and strategic thinking the only thing that remains is lifestyle purity,” Jensen said. “‘Lifestylism’ has supplanted organization in terms of a lot of mainstream environmental thinking. Instead of opposing the corporate state, [lifestylism maintains] we should use less toilet paper and should compost. This attitude is ineffective. Once you give up on organizing or are hostile to it, all you are left with is this hyperpurity that becomes rigid dogma. You attack people who, for example, use a telephone. This is true with vegans and questions of diet. It is true with anti-car activists toward those who drive cars. It is the same with the anarchists. When I called the police after I received death threats I became to Black Bloc anarchists ‘a pig lover.’ ”
“If you live on Ogoni land and you see that Ken Saro-Wiwa is murdered for acts of nonviolent resistance,” Jensen said, “if you see that the land is still being trashed, then you might think about escalating. I don’t have a problem with that. But we have to go through the process of trying to work with the system and getting screwed. It is only then that we get to move beyond it. We can’t short-circuit the process. There is a maturation process we have to go through, as individuals and as a movement. We can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw a flowerpot at a cop because it is fun.’”
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.