Black Bloc is not an organization, but rather, a protest tactic employed by anti-capitalists and anarchists. Clad in black helmets, black ski masks, and black garments to conceal their faces and whatever distinctive clothing they may be wearing underneath their dark coverings, Black Bloc radicals make their presence felt by participating in all manner of left-wing demonstrations against free-market capitalism and Western culture; they generally are far outnumbered by fellow protesters who, while likeminded, are more traditionally attired. Because the Black Blockers hide their identities, they are often able to engage in criminal behavior—most notably property destruction—with impunity. In instances where they are pursued by police—whom they contemptuously regard as nothing more than “guard dogs for the rich”—fleeing Black Bloc protesters typically shed their dark coverings and blend quietly into the surrounding crowd. When they are not protesting, these activists organize and communicate with one another mainly through Internet chat groups and websites.
The animating core belief of Black Bloc, as explained in the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective’s Black Bloc Papers, is that “private property—and capitalism, by extension—is intrinsically violent and repressive and cannot be reformed or mitigated.” Lamenting “all the violence committed in the name of private property rights,” this document charges that “corporate private property” in particular “is itself infinitely more violent than any action taken against it.” By this logic, the destruction of a storefront window can be redefined and justified as the laudable creation of “a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet.”
The origins of Black Bloc can be traced back to about 1980 in West Germany, where black-masked countercultural radicals calling themselves “Autonomen” (Autonomists) demonstrated against such despised targets as Western popular culture, conservatism, patriarchy, traditional gender roles, nuclear energy, and capitalist “greed.” They channeled their efforts chiefly toward the destruction of property belonging to corporations and financial institutions, because of their significance as symbols of capitalism. As the 1980s progressed, similar Autonomen efforts to create “non-hierarchical” socialist societies also gained momentum in Italy, Denmark, Holland and elsewhere in Europe.
The 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine injected a heightened sense of militance and urgency into the German anti-nuclear movement. Anarchist Autonomen—armed with slingshots, Molotov cocktails, and flare guns—covered themselves in black and took to the streets, where they clashed frequently, and sometimes brutally, with police.
In June 1987 a contingent of some 3,000 Black Bloc demonstrators were among the 50,000+ marchers who swarmed the streets of Berlin to condemn the policies of the conservative, pro-capitalist U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, who was visiting the city at that time. Berlin was again the scene of Black Bloc tactics fifteen months later, when demonstrators protested against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings which were being held there.
The first organized Black Bloc initiative in North America took place on October 17, 1988, when a relatively small number of black-clad protesters were among the 1,000+ demonstrators who convened outside the Pentagon to demand an end to U.S. intervention in the El Salvadoran civil war; the rally was organized by the communist Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
On Earth Day in 1990, Black Bloc militants were part of a crowd of some 2,000 demonstrators who gathered on Wall Street in New York City to protest the allegedly anti-environmental practices of major American corporations. The protesters’ goal, as one Black Bloc supporter put it, was “to shut down business-as-usual in the heart of the capitalist beast.”
When the first Gulf War began in January 1991, several hundred Black Bloc demonstrators participated in a massive anti-war rally in Washington, DC. At a certain point, the Black Blockers broke away from the main hub of the protest and proceeded to smash windows at both the Treasury Department and the World Bank, to drive home the idea that “imperialist wars” are underwritten by “capitalist institutions.”
Embracing the premise that Western culture and its promoters have been irredeemably evil since time immemorial, Black Bloc demonstrators in October 1992 marked the 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World by denouncing, in numerous U.S. cities, the “five centuries of genocide” that Europeans and their descendants had inflicted upon the “First Nation people” of the Americas.
In 1999, some 800 to 1,200 Black Bloc activists took part in Millions 4 Mumia, a large Philadelphia rally in support of the leftist icon, convicted cop-killer, and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu Jamal.
At the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) riots in Seattle, a contingent of 100 to 300 Black Bloc anarchists trashed the storefronts of multinational corporations and helped force the WTO meetings to collapse. Four years later in Cancun, Mexico, Black Bloc demonstrators played a role in forcing yet another round of WTO talks to break down.
Black Bloc protesters were prominent in demonstrations during both the Republican and Democratic national conventions of 2000.
In 2010, a mob of Black Bloc activists descended upon an otherwise peaceful anti-G20 demonstration in Toronto and set police cars ablaze, used hammers to shatter the windows of local banks, and threw bottles at law-enforcement officers.
On May 1, 2012, Black Bloc militants staged a violent May Day rampage in Seattle. They smashed shop windows, vandalized banks, and even carried out a number of unprovoked assaults on innocent people who were sitting in their cars.
Further Reading: “Men in Black Behind Chaos” (The Guardian, 7-22-2001); The Black Bloc Papers (TheAnarchistLibrary.org); “Autonomia and the Origin of the Black Bloc” (Ainfos.ca, 6-1-2001); “Violent Black Bloc Tactics Hit Toronto During G20 Protest” (CP24.com, 6-26-2010); “May Day Protests Turn Violent in Downtown Seattle” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5-2-2012); “The Occupy Movement and the BVlack Bloc” (Resilience.org, 11-5-2011); “Black Bloc/Antifa” (GlobalSecurity.org).