The “Black Bloc’s” Tactics are Hurting the Occupy Movement
by Sheila Musaji
When I heard about violence and vandalism during a recent Occupy Oakland demonstration, I was horrified. The Occupy Movement has so far been very much a non-violent movement across the country.
As I attempted to understand exactly what had happened and who was responsible, the term “black bloc” came up, and I admit that I knew little about these folks.
I asked Rashid Patch (who has been regularly attending Occupy Oakland and also writing articles about events there) what he knew about them. Here is the response that he sent to me
They are called the “black faction” because they dress entirely in black, usually wear bandanas or scarves to cover their face. I don’t know if they chose the name themselves, or if it’s a name others gave them. They are punk-anarchist, political enough to claim anarchism as justification for taking drugs, acting out, and generally giving people a hard time.
Mostly young, street-punks or wannabees; 50 years ago, they’d have been called alienated youth, or juvenile delinquents. Basically, these are kids who have been so trodden upon that they are desperate; so they become desparados. Angry, uncaring, sadly damaged, they are the people who were never socialized, perhaps barely housebroken. Often seriously abused as children, they are responding in kind to the world.
Not as organized as a gang, but if they were less nihilist, they’d probably form a gang. Very easily infiltrated and influenced by provocateurs, but they are prone to vandalism and violence entirely by themselves. They like breaking windows and burning cars, for it’s own sake, so doing it with political justification is really fun. These are the kind of people who turn into Charlie Mansons - or followers of the Charlie Mansons.
Some of them are astonishingly intelligent, brilliantly creative, and terribly, terribly bitter about every aspect of life. They are a symptom of society’s madness and violence. Some of them take on that role consciously, and argue with great fervor that their vandalism is a logical political response to the conditions of their life - that violence is the only rational response to a pathological society. They are the De Sade’s of the present revolution.
Some may mature into creative and productive people. Some will self-destruct. Some may have to be forcibly restrained - and make no mistake, restraining them at all will entail extreme force. A number of Occupy Oakland people were beaten up when they attempted to stop vandalism by “black faction” members. How the Occupy / 99% movement takes responsibility for the “black faction”, and how it controls them, will be a sign of it’ maturity.
I did a little more research and discovered that Occupy Oakland protestors had attempted to stop the black masked group from breaking windows and engaging in violent behavior at the Whole Foods Store in Oakland. You can see a video clearly showing this here.
Jeremy Bloom reported
... it was nearly entirely peaceful and respectful. But not completely. The radical 1 percent of the 99 percent, a group of self-styled “anarchists” referred to as Black Bloc (after their tactics), managed to stir up some trouble, and caused the day to go out with fire and arrests, rather than the peaceful conclusion we had all hoped for.
It’s a problem on both sides, everywhere. Ninety-nine police officers can be respectful and do their job without being abusive, but all it takes is one to pepper-spray peaceful protesters or lob a flash-bang grenade at people who are helping an injured man. Ninety-nine demonstrators can chant “We’re on your side” and “We are peaceful”, but if one idiot goes screaming “Fascist pigs” in the face of the police, or throwing bottles, then it screws everything up.
That’s why, when the black bloc radicals went to vandalize, OWSers tried to hold them back, and in at least one case fought with them. That’s why OWSers are out today, helping clean up.
As John Blackstone noted Those intent on violence may be on the fringes, but once the trouble begins, they often get the spotlight. In Oakland, city officials have warned that more violence could bring another order to close down the Occupy encampment.
And, this means that no matter how small this group, they have become a problem for the entire Occupy Movement. How the organizers and general assemblies at Occupy Oakland, or any other sites where such violent radicals turn up will handle this remains to be seen. Ignoring them is not an option, and neither is vigilantism. I also doubt that appealing to their sense of justice and decency would have much effect. This will require some creative thinking, and a lot of cooperative effort.
As a member of the American Muslim community, I can tell you that the hijacking of a movement (or of a religion) by a few criminals can do irreparable damage.
Since, like most cowards, they hide behind masks, publically identifying them and posting their photographs (without the masks) might be an effective response. In fact, I’m not the only one with this idea. I’m particularly impressed with Sara Robinson’s suggestions on this issue (possibly because I am also a self-identified “old hippie”). She writes
I wish I could say that the problems that the Occupy movement is having with infiltrators and agitators are new. But they’re not. In fact, they’re problems that the Old Hippies who survived the 60s and 70s remember acutely, and with considerable pain.
As a veteran of those days — with the scars to prove it — watching the OWS organizers struggle with drummers, druggies, sexual harassers, racists, and anarchists brings me back to a few lessons we had to learn the hard way back in the day, always after putting up with way too much over-the-top behavior from people we didn’t think we were allowed to say “no” to. It’s heartening to watch the Occupiers begin to work out solutions to what I can only indelicately call “the asshole problem.” In the hope of speeding that learning process along, here are a few glimmers from my own personal flashbacks — things that it’s high time somebody said right out loud.
1. Let’s be clear: It is absolutely OK to insist on behavior norms. #Occupy may be a DIY movement — but it also stands for very specific ideas and principles. Central among these is: We are here to reassert the common good. And we have a LOT of work to do. Being open and accepting does not mean that we’re obligated to accept behavior that damages our ability to achieve our goals. It also means that we have a perfect right to insist that people sharing our spaces either act in ways that further those goals, or go somewhere else until they’re able to meet that standard.
2. It is OK to draw boundaries between those who are clearly working toward our goals, and those who are clearly not. Or, as an earlier generation of change agents put it: “You’re either on the bus, or off the bus.” Are you here to change the way this country operates, and willing to sacrifice some of your almighty personal freedom to do that? Great. You’re with us, and you’re welcome here. Are you here on your own trip and expecting the rest of us to put up with you? In that case, you are emphatically NOT on our side, and you are not welcome in our space.
Anybody who feels the need to put their own personal crap ahead of the health and future of the movement is (at least for that moment) an asshole, and does not belong in Occupied space. Period. This can be a very hard idea for people in an inclusive movement to accept — we really want to have all voices heard. But the principles #Occupy stands for must always take precedence over any individual’s divine right to be an asshole, or the assholes will take over. Which brings me to….
3. The consensus model has a fatal flaw, which is this: It’s very easy for power to devolve to the people who are willing to throw the biggest tantrums. When some a drama king or queen starts holding the process hostage for their own reasons, congratulations! You’ve got a new asshole! (See #2.) You must guard against this constantly, or consensus government becomes completely impossible.
4. Once you’ve accepted the right of the group to set boundaries around people’s behavior, and exclude those who put their personal “rights” ahead of the group’s mission and goals, the next question becomes: How do we deal with chronic assholes?
This is the problem Occupy’s leaders are very visibly struggling with now. I’ve been a part of asshole-infested groups in the long-ago past that had very good luck with a whole-group restorative justice process. In this process, the full group (or some very large subset of it that’s been empowered to speak for the whole) confronts the troublemaker directly. The object is not to shame or blame. Instead, it’s like an intervention. You simply point out what you have seen and how it affects you. The person is given a clear choice: make some very specific changes in their behavior, or else leave.
This requires some pre-organization. You need three to five spokespeople to moderate the session (usually as a tag team) and do most of the talking. Everybody else simply stands in a circle around the offender, watching silently, looking strong and determined. The spokespeople make factual “we” statements that reflect the observations of the group. “We have seen you using drugs inside Occupied space. We are concerned that this hurts our movement. We are asking you to either stop, or leave.”
When the person tries to make excuses (and one of the most annoying attributes of chronic assholes is they’re usually skilled excuse-makers as well), then other members of the group can speak up — always with “I” messages. “I saw you smoking a joint with X and Y under tree Z this morning. We’re all worried about the cops here, and we think you’re putting our movement in danger. We are asking you to leave.” Every statement needs to end with that demand — “We are asking you to either stop, or else leave and not come back.” No matter what the troublemaker says, the response must always be brought back to this bottom line.
These interventions can go on for a LONG time. You have to be committed to stay in the process, possibly for a few hours until the offender needs a pee break or gets hungry. But eventually, if everybody stays put, the person will have no option but to accept that a very large group of people do not want him or her there. Even truly committed assholes will get the message that they’ve crossed the line into unacceptable behavior when they’re faced with several dozen determined people confronting them all at once.
Given the time this takes, it’s tempting to cut corners by confronting several people all at once. Don’t do it. Confronting more than two people at a time creates a diffusion-of-responsibility effect: the troublemakers tell themselves that they just got caught up in a dragnet; the problem is those other people, not me. The one who talks the most will get most of the heat; the others will tend to slip by (though the experience may cause them to reconsider their behavior or leave as well).
This process also leaves open the hope that the person will really, truly get that their behavior is Not OK, and agree to change it. When this happens, be sure to negotiate specific changes, boundaries, rules, and consequences (“if we see you using drugs here again, we will call the police. There will be no second warning”), and then reach a consensus agreement that allows them to stay. On the other hand: if the person turns violent and gets out of control, then the question is settled, and their choice is made. You now have a legitimate reason to call the cops to haul them away. And the cops will likely respect you more for maintaining law and order.
Clearing out a huge number of these folks can be a massive time suck, at least for the few days it will take to weed out the worst ones and get good at it. It might make sense to create a large committee whose job it is to gather information, build cases against offenders, and conduct these meetings.
5. It is not wrong for you to set boundaries this way. You will get shit for this. “But…but…it looks a whole lot like a Maoist purge unit!” No. There is nothing totalitarian about asking people who join your revolution to act in ways that support the goals of that revolution. And the Constitution guarantees your right of free association — which includes the right to exclude people who aren’t on the bus, and who are wasting the group’s limited time and energy rather than maximizing it. After all: you’re not sending these people to re-education camps, or doing anything else that damages them. You’re just getting them out of the park, and out of your hair. You’re eliminating distractions, which in turn effectively amplifies the voices and efforts of everyone else around you. And, in the process, you’re also modeling a new kind of justice that sanctions people’s behavior without sanctioning their being — while also carving out safe space in which the true potential of Occupy can flourish.
An Open Letter to the Black Bloc and Others Concerning Wednesday’s Tactics in Oakland http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2011/11/04/18697383.php
Bank window broken, Occupy Oakland apologizes http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2011/11/02/bank-window-broken-occupy-oakland-apologizes
Black bloc radicals tried to derail Occupy Oakland’s General Strike, Jeremy Bloom http://redgreenandblue.org/2011/11/03/black-bloc-radicals-tried-to-derail-occupy-oaklands-general-strike/
CBS Evening News – Black Bloc tactics clash with Occupy movement http://shocknews.co.uk/news/cbs-evening-news-black-bloc-tactics-clash-occupy-movement/
First hand account of Black Block fiasco, Kallisti Partridge http://oaklandlocal.com/posts/2011/11/my-first-hand-account-black-bloc-fiasco-during-occupy-oakland-strike-community-voices
Is “Black Bloc” hijacking Occupy Oakland?, John Blackstone http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57319036/is-black-bloc-hijacking-occupy-oakland/
#occupyoakland November 2 | Black Bloc anarchy is NOT part of the Occupy Movement http://motleynews.net/2011/11/04/occupyoakland-november-2-black-bloc-anarchy-is-not-part-of-the-occupy-movement/
Occupy’s Asshole Problem: Flashbacks from An Old Hippie, Sara Robinson http://www.spockosbrain.com/2011/11/04/occupys-asshole-problem-flashbacks-from-an-old-hippie/
Time to Identify the Occupy Vandals, http://my.firedoglake.com/spocko/2011/11/03/time-to-identify-the-occupy-vandals/
VIDEO: Black Bloc tactics clash with Occupy movement http://www.ncnewspress.com/popularvideo?ndn=y&vid=23544525&lid=us