Zibechi: the black bloc as tactic and excuse

Zapatista March in San Cristóbal.

Zapatista March in San Cristóbal.

By: Raúl Zibechi

In recent weeks we have attended a debate in the wake of black bloc activity in Brazil, which involved leaders of social movements and collectives of militants. The black bloc tactic (destruction of glass panes and windows of banks and private companies by masked youths during demonstrations) has been habitual in Chile and in Uruguay, among others, and was installed in Brazil in June 2013, reappearing with force in the demonstrations against the illegitimate government of Michel Temer.

Ever since the black bloc tactics appeared, a polemic was generated in social organizations about the pertinence of those actions. Some maintain that they are negative, because they give the police arguments for repressing and thus alienate and frighten real or potential demonstrators. Others emphasize that it’s about symbolic violence against big companies and other representations of the system, and that it has dissuasive effects on repression. The electoral parties usually condemn them adamantly.

In Brazil the polemic includes one of the more prominent referents of the most combative movements, like Guilherme Boulos, coordinator of the Homeless Workers Movement (Movimiento de Trabajadores Sin Techo, MTST). A day before the largest march against the government, Boulos asserted that: “there is no space for those practices in our demonstrations,” and said that they ought not participate in the mobilization on Sunday the 4th (goo.gl/GUDSMi). He was harshly criticized for defending the “criminalization” of those who employ the black bloc tactic.

A little later Boulos published a note on his blog, in which he explains: “I disagree with the tactic because it separates people from the mobilizations and they make isolated decisions, but decisions that affect us all.” He rejects the accusation of criminalizing the tactic and remembers that the MTST has been “severely criminalized for practicing direct action,” noting that the movement has members in prison and with on-going criminal proceedings (goo.gl/zxqzST).

Some 100,000 people participated in the demonstration on Sunday, September 4 in Sao Paulo. The organizers, the Fearless People Alliance, in which the MTST plays a preponderant role together with some 30 social movements and political organizations, and the Popular Brazil Front, dominated politically by the PT and the CUT union confederation, told the masked ones to show their faces or they would abandon the march. No incident occurred. Nevertheless, the military police attacked them when the demonstrators were dispersing and arrested 26 youths, because “they sought to practice violent acts.”

There was not the least black bloc “provocation” on this occasion, but the repression was equally relentless. The polemic continues its course with arguments that range from questioning the violence to the convenience of its use when families with children participate in the demonstrations, including the supposition that they always use infiltrators to provoke police repression. Some considerations seem necessary.

The first is that talking about a tactic isn’t good or bad in the abstract, but can rather be convenient, or not, according to the circumstances. We are not faced with a question of principles. It’s necessary to comprehend that not all of those who cover their face are adept at the black bloc tactic, that they don’t form an organization, nor are they necessarily anarchists, nor do they use the tactic always and everywhere. Those who use it today may not do it tomorrow, and vice versa.

The second is that those who employ the black bloc tactic are radical youths, anti-capitalists, who reject the economic system and police repression. Counter to existing prejudices, they do not belong to the comfortable middle classes; they live in the peripheries, and have studied and worked since they were very young. From what I am familiar with in Uruguay, because of the data that they contribute from Chile and from the research of the authors of Mascarados (Geração Editorial, 2014), we’re talking about individuals around 20 years old, many of them women, who suffer from police persecution in their barrios. Although they are few, they show “the profound crisis in which the Brazilian left is debated” (p. 19).

The third turns around the principal argument that is used against that tactic: it facilitates police repression and frightens a part of the demonstrators, either because the callers make it clear that the marches are peaceful or rather because the repression that follows the black bloc tactic affects individuals that don’t want to suffer police violence. It classifies them as “provocateurs.”

The argument is solid, especially when the masked ones act and withdraw before the police arrive and end up randomly repressing people. But the problem is not only in those who use that tactic, but also in the very same demonstrators, who aren’t used to being organized and attend individually. Does anyone imagine that a group of youths would use the block bloc tactic during a demonstration of the EZLN support bases in San Cristóbal de las Casas?

The fourth question is related to the use of similar tactics on the part of police or military infiltrators in demonstrations. As a youth from Sao Paulo pointed out in an excellent report for the Brazilian edition of El País, “I believe that one who breaks a newspaper stand or burns a bus, for example, either didn’t understand anything or is an infiltrator” (goo.gl/2G6lck). It’s possible to differentiate between black bloc actions and police provocations, because an interest in doing it always exists.

Lastly, the theme that the journalist Eliane Brum outlines: “While destruction of the demonstrators’ bodies by military police is naturalized, the destruction of material goods is criminalized” (goo.gl/mdRPKj). In her opinion, we’re dealing with a “heritage of slavery and genocide” that has still not been overcome. In other words, the black bloc tactic, agree with it or not, proposes a dilemma for us: do we accept, without further ado, the state’s monopoly of violence?


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Saturday, September 17, 2016


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee


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