"We have to prepare to continue the struggle," cried Richard Becker, a member of both the steering committee for International A.N.S.W.E.R. and the communist Workers' World Party. Although the A.N.S.W.E.R.-organized crowd at the March 15th rally in San Francisco was smaller than in previous demonstrations, the cries from the podium were much sharper. Becker called for direct action, civil disobedience all over the city, should the United States begin a war with Iraq. But the anti-war demonstrators hadn't waited for Becker. Plans for direct action on the day of the war have been in place for weeks.
According to websites used for radical organizing, large-scale attempts to disrupt everyday life are planned in at least four cities. In New York, demonstrators plan to "inaugurate a campaign of civil resistance." In Washington, D.C., there will be "direct action oriented, unpermitted demonstrations." In Los Angeles, the call has gone out for "a creative rampage." And in San Francisco; participants are being told to plan to stay out all night, and continue their actions the next day (source: sf.indymedia.org) Should a war begin abroad, Americans can expect trouble at home.
I received a taste of that trouble on March 15th, when I attended the protest in San Francisco, and witnessed the 'civil disobedience' afterwards. Not that the disobedience was particularly civil. Over a thousand people set off on an unpermitted march after the main event, blocking off traffic during rush hour and defying police orders to disperse. Even after arrests were made, the remnant of the crowd would simply retreat, reform, and continue elsewhere. The disorder only ended after over one hundred and fifty people were arrested and detained, some six hours after the original demonstration began.
At the latest string of anti-war protests, it's hard to decide what to cover. Anti-Semitism abounds (note to protestors - 'Israel' is not spelled with a swastika; and the swastika is not equivalent to the Star of David). Everyone's got a different conspiracy theory (one large banner read: "9-11 = Inside Job / U.S. Fascists Guilty"). And the aisles are lined with over a dozen communist groups, selling their propaganda (if I can figure out the difference between the Maoist Internationalist Movement and the Progressive Labor Party, I'll tell you which group was desecrating the flag). But I came for the anarchists, the "No War But The Class War" contingent, who had put out a call for a black bloc - an organizing tactic that had led to arrests and property damage in the recent past, an organizing tactic that enabled the riots at the Seattle WTO protest in 1999.
Articles about the 'black bloc' often give the impression that the black bloc is some sort of organization. However, it is actually a protest tactic. When a batch of anarchists and anarchist 'affinity groups' all dress similarly at a protest - typically, in black, with faces covered - this is a black bloc. A black bloc enables anonymous action at protest events, which allows participants to get away with crimes that would normally lead to arrest. This anecdote is instructive. At a January anti-war protest in San Francisco, a black bloc participant attempted to smash a lingerie store window with a newspaper box. Police tried to arrest him, but by quickly mingling with other black bloc members he managed to elude capture. The reasoning behind the choice of target remains obscure - perhaps he wanted to 'make love, not war'. However, the threat of this anonymity to order is clear.
Black blocs began to be used in America in the 1980s, and caught on in popularity after the WTO riots, when protestors took advantage of them to indulge in what one website called "anarchist shopping" - you and I would call it looting. The presence of black blocs in today's opposition to the war on Iraq is disturbing, when you consider what their anarchist participants stand for. While they often play lip service to 'non-violent civil disobedience', this is code, dependent on a particular anarchist understanding of non-violence. As the infamous communiqué from the Seattle rioters contended, "property destruction is not a violent activity unless it destroys lives or causes pain in the process. By this definition, private property--especially corporate private property--is itself infinitely more violent than any action taken against it." Therefore, when a member of the black bloc calls for 'non-violent direct action', this does not bar property damage in any way whatsoever. He feels perfectly entitled to chuck a non-violent brick through the window of your violent storefront; to bring peace with a bat to your belligerent parked car.
The participants seem to have no respect for the rule of law. Also from the 1999 Seattle riots came the document "A Special Message to the Police", which told police officers that "[a] new protesting ethic is sweeping through North America. We prefer to use nonviolent direct action, but don't be surprised if some of our comrades get a bit more destructive. [.] Our philosophy is that the best cop is an ex-cop. If you are concerned about your safety, and if you are really interested in helping out your community, we suggest that you find a different line of work."
This Saturday in San Francisco, the 'class war' contingent was out in large numbers, keeping to the back of the rally at their pre-announced mobilization point. Besides the 'No War But The Class War' banner, they also favored one that read "We Support Our Troops When They Shoot Their
Officers." This is more 'support' than their New York counterparts, who wrote the following message to soldiers:
"Considering the common practice of talking about "supporting the troops" in times of hostilities, I should let you know how I feel. With all due respect, I want you to know that if you participate in this conflict, you are not serving me, and I don't support you."
The black bloc at the March 15th protest was well-organized. While little happened until the march itself was underway, once the permitted march began a black bloc member appeared with a large box. From it, he began distributing bundles of small paper slips to other black bloc anarchists. These anarchists in turn passed the slips to other anarchists, making sure to give them not to the normal-looking people at the protest. However, there were plenty of slips, and soon people were passing them out indiscriminately. "Unpermitted march," they read, and gave a time and staging location, adjacent to the main rally. While waiting, the black bloc distributed pamphlets on the nature of the black bloc, why they were protesting, and tips to protect yourself from police. People wrote the numbers of the group's legal team on their bodies in permanent marker; masks were donned; affinity groups were organized.
No one from International ANSWER, the main organizers, did anything to stop or discourage this illegal breakaway march from taking place. Earlier in the morning, I'd overheard an ANSWER organizer, a middle-aged blonde, instruct a group of about twenty field marshals. She'd told her marshals that "if some one really wants to go [on a breakaway march], let them go - it's the main march we're worried about. If there's a breakaway march, let them go." Not surprising, since in that same rally International ANSWER would formally commit itself to civil disobedience the day the war begins. So, when the black bloc took to the streets, followed by a large number of miscellaneous militants and curious gawkers, there was no one to confront them but the San Francisco Police Department.
For the next three hours, the San Francisco Police Department was a model of professionalism. Keeping in mind the rowdy protestors' penchant for property damage, they lined the streets and kept pace with the crowd. Although the crowd was easily a thousand people, the police were present in large numbers and deterred them from smashing windows. The unplanned march blocked downtown traffic and delayed commuters; cars enveloped by the march honked their horns in 'support.' When you're surrounded by hooligans, their favorite team is your favorite team.
The police were eventually able to corral the crowd in San Francisco's Mission District, clearing them to the sidewalk. A captain ordered the crowd to disperse; those refusing to leave the street, about twenty in all, were arrested. However, several hundred were not cowed, and set off on a march to the city's shopping district, half on the sidewalk, half on the streets. Stores quickly closed and locked their doors; again, the police effectively removed people from the street and encircled them. A break-out attempt was made, with people suddenly sprinting away - but the quick thinking and fast action of the motorcycle cops encircled the march once again, near the corner of Market and 3rd. Over two hours into the breakaway march, after repeated orders and opportunities to disperse without consequence, after two hours of patiently babysitting the crowd, the police decided to act, no doubt realizing that the cat and mouse game they were playing could go on all night, if they let it. A large number of protestors were surrounded on all sides by riot police; one by one, over a hundred of them, they were arrested and taken to San Francisco's Hall of Justice.
Thanks to the police, the damage done by the breakaway march was minimal. Instead of shutting down the city, the crowd ended up blocking access to a sub shop and a liquor store. However, the protestors put us all in tremendous danger. Containing a black bloc requires an enormous use of police resources; for at least three hours, the bulk of the San Francisco Police Department was tied up babysitting, when they have much more important things to do. Unfortunately, America has changed since the last wave of rowdy street protests, a generation ago. The mass murder of 9/11 taught us something - that we are vulnerable on our own soil, and we have enemies who wish to destroy us. For three hours, the black bloc kept the police, our last line of defense, from keeping an eye out for our enemies. For three hours, San Franciscans were subjected to a heightened risk of terrorist attack.
This increased risk might seem minor, but it will be far greater in the weeks ahead, as the war with Iraq begins. Terrorists have already threatened to use the war as a pretext to attack us - not that they needed a pretext a year-and-a-half ago. On the first days of the campaign, we will all need to be extra vigilant at home, especially the police. But in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, where the black bloc is coming, there will be a lot fewer police to watch for terrorists. The police will be busy keeping black-clad young men from smashing café windows; busy hauling the dupes of International A.N.S.W.E.R. out of the roadways, busy ensuring that ordinary Americans can get to their jobs and provide for their families.
I have every confidence that the police of America will complete this noble task with professionalism and skill, but this is work they shouldn't have to be doing. Yet I fear they will do it again and again and again. Polls tell us that the anti-war protestors have resoundingly lost in the marketplace of ideas - the largely majority of Americans prefer security to appeasement, liberation to dictators. A recent FOX News poll found only one in five Americans against the war.
But these radicals refuse to accept the will of the majority - their 'direct action' is nothing more than an attempt to impose their agenda on the rest of us through intimidation and violence. And as soon as the police release them, they come right back to the protests. The crimes they are arrested for - unlawful assembly, refusal to disperse, obstruction of a roadway - are usually treated as misdemeanors, and the protestors are released as soon as police processing is completed, free to resume their illegal acts. A person committed to the overthrow of the government has no fear of a misdemeanor charge. For the protection of Americans, sentencing for the police-distracting crimes of 'civil disobedience' needs to be much more strict in times of increased terrorist threat.
If this were simply a matter of speech, Americans would both tolerate and protect it. More than a dozen different communist groups at Saturday's main rally were free to hawk their newspapers to whoever wanted to buy, as is their right. But through their direct action and black bloc tactics, anarchists and their radical brethren cross from speaking to acting - and while there is a right to free speech, there is no right to free action. The police of this nation will do their jobs, but prosecutors, legislators, and the American public have to team up to ensure they don't have to do their jobs over again, and again, and again, as long as the threat of terrorism exists. The plans have been
laid; the black blocs are coming. Let's ensure that they only come once.