SF Press on Anti-War Black Bloc
This article, from the corporate SF press, has some inaccuracies, such as the suggestion this is the first time the tactic of the Black Bloc has appeared in SF (it was used during anti-Columbus Day actions in 1992 for instance). Nevertheless it is interesting to read and raises important questions for the anti-war movement, concerning both tactics and strategy.
Anarchists in masks responsible for peace march vandalism, police say
San Francisco -- The band that broke away from the Jan. 18 peace march along San Francisco's Market Street and spent 35 minutes vandalizing the Financial District marked the Bay Area's introduction to "black bloc" protests, police say.
The black bloc, named for its activists' black attire, couples a confrontational style of street protest with anarchist philosophies. It arose in Europe during the late 1980s.
Americans first saw the black bloc in 1999, when black-clad vandals in masks provoked a police counterattack that turned a Seattle rally against the World Trade Organization into a riot.
Although the recent window-breaking and spray-painting spree in San Francisco was not even close to Seattle's experience, Deputy Police Chief Greg Suhr said the vandalism was unexpected and worrisome.
"We've had splinter groups break away from marches in the past and block traffic, but the level has never before reached to the malicious mischief that happened this time," Suhr said.
Bill Hackwell, a Vietnam veteran and spokesman for International Answer, which organized the Jan. 18 rally, said his group hadn't known about the breakaway marchers in advance and had no connection to them.
He said the relatively minor damage caused by the splinter group of about 200 people -- who broke windows on four buildings, tagged various offices (including The Chronicle's) with graffiti and dragged news racks into the street -- should not detract attention from the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 marchers who swelled Market Street to demand that the United States not attack Iraq.
But Hackwell refused to condemn the black bloc tactics.
"If there is violence, let's keep a perspective on it," he said, citing estimates that there would be 500,000 casualties and 9 million refugees if the United States goes to war with Iraq.
David Graeber, a Yale anthropologist who has written about the black bloc, said the reluctance of the rally's organizers to criticize the splinter group stemmed from a desire to avoid exacerbating tensions within the left.
Graeber said the black bloc activists who staged the breakaway march were probably frustrated with the less-than-militant stance of the march organizers.
None of the breakaway protesters in San Francisco wanted to be interviewed Jan. 18, and subsequent attempts to contact those who took part in or organized the black bloc action proved fruitless.
John Zerzan of Eugene, Ore., an author who espouses black bloc tactics but did not attend the San Francisco protest, said, "Things are not going to be stopped with polite and well-behaved marches."
Barbara Epstein, a professor of the history of consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, said the peace movement needs to have the same internal debate that occurred in the anti-global movement after the Seattle riot.
The large, orderly wing of the anti-global movement and the tiny, headline- grabbing black bloc failed to settle their key difference -- whether vandalism hurt the movement by giving it a bad image or helped it by attracting media coverage -- but the two wings nevertheless came to an understanding, according to Epstein.
"They tried to organize (anti-global) demonstrations to leave room for different sectors, so there would be everything from totally peaceful to black bloc," she said.
An opponent of black bloc tactics, Epstein said the peace movement, which has mushroomed in recent months as war talk has intensified, must reach a similar accord or risk frightening away the ordinary folks who filled Market Street, many of whom brought their children along.
"There hasn't been any discussion of black bloc tactics in the context of the peace movement, and so they come out of the blue as far as most of the marchers are concerned," Epstein said.
The black bloc action that occurred this month in San Francisco caught police by surprise. Suhr, the police commander, said that after an Oct. 26 peace march, a small group of protesters in black garb and masks halted traffic on several streets before dispersing. But in San Francisco, that's no big deal.
So when a similar group briefly blocked the intersection in front of The Chronicle at Fifth and Mission streets Jan. 18, police on bicycles and horses simply watched from the sidelines. After leaving the intersection, however, the black bloc raced through the larger body of marchers streaming down Market Street -- losing their police escort -- and did more damage.
Now Suhr is concerned about what might happen if the United States goes to war before the next rally, Feb. 16.
"Will the level of agitation at the demonstration rise if we go to war?" Suhr asked rhetorically. "Yes. We expect it."
Zerzan urged restraint on those who might decide to dress in black and smash or spray-paint property on Feb. 16.
"Your responsibility is that you don't put people in harm's way who don't want to do it the way you do," he said.
Another, earlier article on the ruckus
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