Diversity of Tactics and the Black Block Debate in the Occupy Movement

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Arun Gupta:

"This brings up the fourth case: the movement’s faction known as the black bloc. This debate has been going on since black-clad anarchists smashed the windows of chain stores in Seattle in November 1999. This was a sideshow to the huge protests that nonviolently shut down the World Trade Organization ministerial and launched the anti-globalization movement. Black bloc proponents argue that legal protest is so neutered of effectiveness that illegal actions like disruptive street confrontations and property destruction are necessary but still within the bounds of nonviolence as they will not hurt another living being. To no one’s surprise, the conflicting positions on the black bloc are more about one’s views about changing the system from within than specific tactics.

Enter Chris Hedges, who fanned the smoldering debate into a conflagration with his essay “The Cancer in Occupy.” He took the black bloc to task after a disastrous attempt to occupy an unused convention center in Oakland on Jan. 28 ended in petty vandalism inside City Hall and 400 arrests. Hedges depicts the black bloc as a disease that would consume the movement if left unchecked. Hence, it must be excised down to the last black-hoodie wearing, circle-A flag-waving masked cell.

As a prominent journalist, Hedges positions himself as the representative of the movement by decreeing who should be excluded. He illustrated how the media has been the best friend and worst enemy of Occupy. A movement can’t live on Facebook, Twitter and Google alone. It’s the despised corporate media that made OWS a star, and this attention comes with a price. While there is no reason for the Occupy movement to embrace messaging, polls, talking points, focus groups and the other marketing tools of the heavyweight but feeble liberal groups, all sectors need to be aware that those who act in its name have the power to damage it. An idea that sounds great in a General Assembly and looks justified from the vantage point of protesters may appear absurd, chaotic and violent when refracted through the camera eye. That’s precisely what happened in Oakland on that fateful day where representation and accountability were as much part of the street battle as tear-gas projectiles and plastic shields.

Hedges essay spawned hundreds of responses, with many skewering him for shoddy reporting. In a thoughtful response that spares no side criticism, Susie Cagle demolished Hedges, reporting that the sole black bloc action as part of Occupy Oakland was during the Nov. 2 general strike, not the Jan. 28 attempt to take over the empty building. Cagle also observed that the “peaceful but militant blockade of the Port of Oakland on December 12 … garnered Occupy Oakland more criticism than the black bloc actions on November 2.”

David Graeber justifiably dressed down Hedges for failing to explain that as the black bloc is a tactic, not an anarchist grouping, it crosses the left’s rambling spectrum. Moreover, Graeber corrected the former New York Times correspondent’s record by noting that far from being a destructive fringe, proponents of black bloc tactics have been elbow deep in organizing Occupy Wall Street from the beginning.

Nathan Schneider chides Hedges as well for being “indicative of what happens when someone who is not involved in the movement weighs in on internal questions.” As evidence for what a black bloc is capable of, Schneider recounts the role it played in an Occupy Oakland march on Nov. 19. During “an amazing action,” says Schneider, a “black bloc-like group led thousands of people through the streets of Oakland. They went to this park surrounded by a chain-link fence they were going to take for a new encampment. They went to the fence, opened it up, and led the march into a giant party inside. Within 10 minutes they took down the whole fence and neatly rolled it up. A black bloc can be problematic and authoritarian, but it also can be a disciplined force capable of tactical victories.”

The critiques boil down to a few points. One is that when black bloc actions are successful, such as the November park reoccupation, there is little debate about tactics. Two, nonviolent actions, such as the port blockade, often provoke far more criticism than a smashed window. And three, the black bloc is a legitimate part of the Occupy movement. The issue is not the tactics per se – Hedges wrote approvingly two years ago of rioting in Greece – it is whether the movement has space for proponents of “diversity of tactics.” (http://www.salon.com/2012/02/27/occupys_challenge_reinventing_democracy/)