On Riots and the Black Bloc

It has recently become unfashionable for the social democratic left to criticize rioting by marginalized groups. Even at their worst, social democrats point to the underlying causes of rioting instead of scolding rioters for property destruction. At their best, some commentators have even offered a positive defense of rioting. I have a great deal of respect for the people who have contributed to this shift in rhetoric. In the post-Ferguson era, the left has been able to present a united front on these issues by refusing to condemn what are, at base, relatively minor acts of violence compared to the structural violence directed at working class communities of color. Questions of social justice have not been overshadowed by petty quibbles about tactics.

What I don’t understand, then, is the sudden reemergence of socialist hand-wringing about the black bloc. The debate over black bloc tactics is identical, on both sides, to the formulaic arguments between defenders and critics of rioting in general. If property destruction is “adventurism” that threatens to drive moderates away from the movement, should this critique not also have applied to rioters in Ferguson? Even Pete Frase, an otherwise insightful thinker, commits this very error in a recent piece on antifascist actions. Replace any of the standard lines about the “black bloc” with “black rioters” and it is immediately apparent how the arguments lend themselves to an insipid, non-confrontational liberalism. Why do otherwise intelligent people not realize this when they start talking about anarchists?

I suspect that the problem here is not disagreement with property destruction or violence in general, but more pedestrian concerns about leadership and media attention. (For what it’s worth, I don’t detect this in Frase’s piece.) Black bloc tactics are spectacular and often become the main focus of media coverage at an event like Berkeley. This can step on the toes of other organizers, who are often looking for credit and media coverage of their role in organizing protests. To the extent that black bloc tactics draw attention away from these organizers, they also seem to threaten the ability of their organization to politically profit from a successful demo and build their brand. The ISO piece on Berkeley is practically dripping with jealous rage. One would think that these kinds of petty disputes about relative prominence in the movement could at least be temporarily shelved considering the dangers of the current moment.

In any case, the fate of a movement is not decided by protest tactics. This seems to be something that many organizers in the Western left have not learned after nine years of continuous agitation. It does not matter whether you smash windows or not if you have no coherent strategy for building a larger movement. Leave the debate over tactics back in Occupy where it belongs. Start thinking about what it will actually take to build the world you want to see.


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