Yesterday’s emergence of a “Black Bloc” in Egypt on the two-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution has sparked the interest–and criticism–of many.
Black Bloc’s militant tactics are almost always characterized as “senseless violence” or “violence for the sake of violence.” At best, Black Bloc participants are written off as “insurrectionary Anarchists,” at worst as “stupid kids.” But senseless violence is, in theory, inimical to what Black Bloc tactics stand for.
Black Bloc is not a group of people, but a tactic. In any protest or social movement where a large number of people are participating, nonviolence is usually the preferred mode of struggle. However, given that a social movement has no leaders and no laws on its own, it is up to every individual to decide whether they want to use nonviolent pacifist tactics, or militant (militant not necessarily meaning violent in this context) tactics. Thus, the term “diversity of tactics,” is not, as some liberals insist, code for “let’s use violence.” It is simply an acknowledgement of the reality that in social movements, no discipline can be enforced on any people. The only way to enforce a strictly non-militant nonviolent discipline on people involved in a movement would be through use of violence. This is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, yet it has occurred on many occasions. On one occasion in Oakland during the Occupy Oakland General Strike, many “nonviolent” participants used physical violence against people engaging in militant tactics, insisting that “the movement must remain nonviolent!”
In essence, no one can enforce strategic discipline in a mass movement. There will always be some prepared to use militant tactics. Black Bloc is simply a way to do this in an organized fashion. People dress in black to safeguard their anonymity, but also to show other participants in the movement that one is prepared to use militant tactics if necessary to protect protesters, and that if some are uncomfortable with these tactics, then they should make sure to keep a safe distance. These tactics should be strategic actions to protect a movement, and not “senseless violence” that attempt to “hijack a movement” and “elicit a harsh police response.” One example of a militant tactic frequently employed by Black Bloc groups is marching at the front of a march with shields to protect protesters from police batons. Black Bloc participants should also, ideally, have an intimate understanding of how the police work and what tactics they use, and therefore be the most most capable of keeping protestors safe. That isn’t to say that they should lead, but rather that they’re best equipped to deal with the threat of confrontation with security forces.
However, a fringe element of Black Bloc participants haven’t always adhered to this role historically. There have been instances where people allegedly participating in Black Bloc have engaged in counter-productive insurrectionist actions (within anarchist circles, these actions are not celebrated and are, in fact, often blamed on police infiltrators aiming to give Black Bloc a bad name). Black Bloc is a tactic, like any other, that if used correctly, can be beneficial, but if done in a chauvinistic manner with little concern for the safety of others, will elicit the contempt of fellow participants in the movement (which is what really counts, as the media will portray the Black Bloc negatively no matter what they are doing).
There is an underlying logic in Black Bloc tactics, which is to facilitate the necessary protection for protestors through the use of direct-action. And there is potential for this logic to be utilized in a way that is beneficial to people engaged in a movement, especially in a place like Egypt, where Ikhwanji’s and police forces alike have shown a willingness to inflict harm on protestors. Although people supposedly participating in Black Bloc can do stupid things, Black Bloc itself is not a stupid, senseless tactic, and should not be written off.