In defence of ‘the’ Black Bloc

Originally written to a friend who was on the march on Saturday, and expressed solidarity to everyone except the black bloc

So, firstly, as you’ve probably already heard it’s a tactic, not a group. I know a lot of people who went black bloc yesterday to participate in the UK Uncut shutting down of corporate tax avoiders in the West End. Surely you don’t have a problem with that.

It’s a tactic to avoid individuals being identified, to allow groups who don’t know each other to team up. The point is to facilitate direct action and any protest considered non-acceptable by the authorities, and to be able to successfully challenge the police doctrine that they should be able to exercise complete control of the streets and crowds.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of individual actions, targets etc – appropriateness of tactics, cost/benefit failings and what have you. I guess it’s a fundamental drawback to the tactic that the everyone wearing black will be seen as responsible for the actions of every other individual wearing black. I was speaking last night to a friend who went BB and he was pretty down about people were smashing up the Ritz instead of targeting tax avoiders and the more meaningful targets identified by UK Uncut. Personally I think any action which scares ordinary people, doesn’t have a strong meaningful narrative or which can be easily pigeon-holed as ‘mindless violence’, is likely to be counter-productive. I want my actions to challenge people’s assumptions if possible, not confirm them.

However, I respect people’s right to take action as they see fit, and I completely reject the characterisation of damaging property as ‘violence’. If you don’t allow space for people to use black bloc tactics, you are essentially narrowing the room for political dissent into the small space that the authorities deem acceptable (kettling, if you will). You are in effect insisting that anyone taking action outside those limits be subject to surveillance, to violence at the hands of the police because they cannot muster sufficient numbers to protect themselves, and to being inevitably caught and subject to ‘deterrent’ punishments like those poor sods who were made an example of for the protests outside the Israeli Embassy during Cast Lead.

So, by all means state that you don’t personally agree with smashing up shops or throwing ammonia or whatever (it’s basically a staining agent/stink bomb, incidentally, but it sounds much worse to call it ammonia, doesn’t it?). But, please also bear in mind that the media and met press office are not geared towards informing you about what people were actually doing and why, quite the opposite. Some of what you read will be fabricated, other parts distorted, and the few people who were most interested in just fighting the cops or smashing shops which somehow totemically represent wealth or privilege will be brought to the fore, while action that was more deliberate, thought-through and targeted will be obscured.

I’m afraid you have to broadly take it on trust from those who do make a habit of deviating from the official route of marches that the vast majority of actual violence (ie hurting people rather than damaging objects) in these situations is initiated by the police, that the cops are ruthless at using their PR to advance their agenda, and the media just make up loads of crap and distort things to make them more sexy. UKUncut say that they have witnesses to a sky news employee offering cash to anyone who was willing to throw a brick for the camera. That is a pretty ugly set of claims I’ve just made, but experience bears them out.

By buying into their narrative of good protesters and bad protesters you are making yourself an ally of the Tory press, the cops whose idea of a good citizen is one who keeps his head down and does what the government tells him, and you are tying your own hands. I have a lot of respect for everyone who marched on Saturday, but I have no faith in the capacity of such an exercise to change what the government is doing. It’s main function was in allowing people to vaguely estimate how many people are sufficiently pissed off to get down to London on a Saturday. It’s quite heartening to know that the answer is between 200,000 and 500,000, because that is quite large, but we all know that the most it will achieve is a pat on the head, and possibly an acknowledgement of our concerns from the government before they get back to the important business of shafting us.

They will get on with things as before, because that’s what governments do. If we want to stop things, we need to actually intervene in them – intervene in business which wish to extract wealth from this country without contributing to the public purse, intervene in the workings of governments and political parties who serve the narrow interests of business at the expense of the rest of us. Iraq is the lesson here. A million people on the streets of London could have brought down the government and prevented that war if enough people had been up for it and sufficiently coordinated. Several hundred thousand people on the streets on Saturday could have seriously impeded the workings of government enough to make them blink and agree to some key demands (firing Lansley and leaving the NHS the fuck alone, as per their fucking manifesto ferchrissakes, springs to mind).

Walking en masse along a police-approved route to listen to Ed Milliband triangulate his way between feeling our pain and sticking to a programme of slightly ameliorated yet still ‘credible’ neoliberalism isn’t going to cut it. Doubtless you will argue that neither is a few people putting in windows on Oxford Street. I’m inclined to agree with you, but putting tactics such as masking up beyond use is doing to work of the Tories and their allies for them. Without the Millbank occupation top-up fees wouldn’t have been the issue they became. Granted, the policy went through, but that event made the political weather on that issue for months and hugely increased the damage to Clegg for his u-turn. It’s pretty sad to see the TUC doing the work of the very people who emasculated them in the 1980s by joining in with the good protesters/bad protesters dance, but that’s where we’re at.

So let’s please have a bit of solidarity here. There are more than a few dickheads out there, and some of them do like to dress up in black and cause a ruckuss for fun, but that doen’t mean everyone in a mask is to be condemned. Knee-jerk statements to that effect are straight out of the divide and conquer playbook. Everyone I know who was in black on Saturday would have been in solidarity with you striking last week, so you really ought to return the favour – out of courtesy, if nothing else. And as allies, they will stick with you a lot longer than anyone who is more concerned with damage to Oxford Street shop frontage than with the violence being done by the government to communities, services, jobs and lives.

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