Magazine article Newsweek

Inside the Black Bloc Protest Strategy That Shut Down Berkeley; the Tactic That Demonstrators Used against Milo Yiannopoulos Is One That's Existed for Decades in Countries Such as Germany

Magazine article Newsweek

Inside the Black Bloc Protest Strategy That Shut Down Berkeley; the Tactic That Demonstrators Used against Milo Yiannopoulos Is One That's Existed for Decades in Countries Such as Germany

Article excerpt

Byline: Max Kutner

It was the first black bloc for Neil Lawrence, a third-year undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. He had demonstrated with Black Lives Matter and seen people in bandannas show up at events and smash things. But after the Berkeley College Republicans announced controversial Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos would be speaking on campus, Lawrence decided it was time for a more aggressive form of protest. "It became clear to me and my close friends that the tone of living in America is changing, and in order to stop being scared, we started organizing," he says. "I, a transgender Jew, don't have a problem with violence against fascists."

Through a friend who was involved in the local Antifa (anti-fascist) group, Lawrence learned activists were planning a black bloc. As a 5-feet-2-inch person who has never been in a fight, he says he wanted the safety that comes from being part of an anonymous mob. On February 1, hours before Yiannopoulos was about to speak, Lawrence and around 150 others gathered off campus where Antifa told them to meet. They got their gear and outfits ready. He was dressed in all black and had a T-shirt wrapped around his face, leaving a slit for his eyes. A person with a megaphone told the group the route they'd be marching, and they set off toward campus. Along the way, they chanted, "No borders, no nations, fuck deportation." Lawrence didn't carry anything, but others had flags and projectiles.

Berkeley students had spent weeks planning a nonviolent protest. They gathered outside the venue where Yiannopoulos would be speaking, waving signs and calling for the event to be shut down. And then the black bloc showed up. They clashed with the police and Yiannopoulos supporters. They set fires, threw Molotov cocktails and smashed windows. One of them pepper-sprayed a woman as a reporter interviewed her. Off campus, they vandalized shops and halted traffic. At around 9 p.m., the university canceled the event, but the demonstrations continued for several hours, until those dressed in black slipped into the night. Campus police made just one arrest.

The demonstrators caused an estimated $100,000 in damage on campus, the university said, and an additional $400,000 to $500,000 elsewhere, according to Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner. The school has tried to distance student activists from these more aggressive ones, describing the latter in a statement as "agitators who invaded the campus and disrupted nearly 1,500 peaceful protesters." Others have said students were among the masked ones. President Donald Trump called the demonstrators "professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters" and implied that the university should lose federal funding.

What people on both sides of this argument need to understand is that black bloc isn't a group; it's just a tactic. Those who do it wear black, sometimes between layers of "civilian" clothes so they can slip in and out of their protester ensembles. They often carry gear that is defensive (masks to protect against tear gas), offensive (Molotov cocktails) or both (a placard that can double as a shield). They attack storefronts and clash with police in a "hit and run" style, University of San Francisco associate professor Jeffrey Paris has written. There is no formal network of people and no set principles, just a belief that demonstrating peacefully doesn't accomplish nearly as much as a flash of rage. A 2008 guide published online by CrimethInc., a network for anonymous collective action, says, "Don't get caught! Stay safe(r) and smash the state!" A black bloc "communique" from 1999 says, "A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet--. A building facade becomes a message board to record brainstorm ideas for a better world."

The German press coined the term black bloc in the 1980s, when activists in that country demonstrated for squatters' rights and other causes. …

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