Regardless of their affiliation, a black bloc activist’s purpose is the same; participate in acts of vandalism, build barricades, agitate other protestors to create in-fighting and create general disorientation. Typically aligned with the political ideology of anarchism, they can be an individual or part of a group.
This form of activism has increased in popularity in the last few years, particularly in Oakland, and is a detriment to large scale protest movements because it dilutes their messages. Similar to their actions at Occupy Oakland in 2011, they have now latched on to the Michael Brown protests that swept the Bay Area last week.
They’re easily identifiable, which is ironic considering their purpose is to be faceless. Black clothing, black gloves and something black to conceal their faces is the uniform of black bloc activists.
My first interaction with them was in 2011 at the height of the Occupy movement in Oakland. I drove up from San Jose that November to photograph the Port of Oakland shutdown, which ended up drawing the largest crowd of the Occupy Oakland protests.
The narrative is now all too familiar. Protests started out peaceful but at 10 p.m., like clockwork, masked faces joined in with the rest of the demonstrators. Once the protest made its way back downtown, masked activists started pulling dumpsters into the street. By 11 p.m. black bloc activists had taken over a vacant building, destroyed storefronts, lit a massive dumpster fire, graffitied buildings and barricaded the intersection of 16th Street and San Pablo Avenue.
Even as a naive 19 year old I could see that black bloc activists are opportunistic leeches that attach themselves to any major protest and use it as a cover to exercise their mayhem when peaceful protests start to thin. They are anonymous cowards and bullies that attack photojournalists and gang up on individuals that protest their actions.
This past week had a similar timeline, when demonstrators took to the streets to protest the non-indictment of Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson. Black bloc activists arrived later in the night to light off M80’s, break windows and intimidate bystanders.
Black bloc activists believe that power has been usurped from the people by corporations in an increasingly prevalent police state, which you can certainly make a case for. Where my ideologies quickly diverge is when they believe that by causing disruption to major corporations, they are returning power to the people. By their own admission, they do not gather to protest, but to cause as much material damage they can to render social change.
However, the facts are not on the side of black bloc. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan released “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare)” in 2011 where statistical and sociological research show that violent protests are not as successful as nonviolent. Between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance was nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as violent resistance.
In 2012, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan estimated the damage caused by Occupy to be $2 million, with an additional $4 million being lost from the port shutdown alone. While the targets of black bloc are typically major corporations and banks, the residual effects to smaller business are more harmful and can’t be ignored.
Damage estimates are still coming in from last week’s Ferguson protests, but local businesses estimate that they’ve had a 60 percent drop in sales despite targeting of multi-national corporations. Chef Simone of Desco, an Italian restaurant in downtown Oakland, estimates that he lost $3,000 from the first night of protests alone.
If peaceful demonstrators want to be taken seriously, they need to distance themselves from these groups and practice what they preach. Destruction and vandalism only further remove the public from a cause and create resentment among people that could otherwise be convinced to support you.
The problem Ferguson and Occupy protests have is that they are an open invitation. As a result, they are unorganized and offer the opportunity for different messages and ideologies to slip into the ranks. The organizers of these events need to better oversee who they let march — and denounce violent ideology.