Inside the Black Bloc

After a weekend which had seen one young man killed, cars and offices blackened by arson and a police crackdown which left blood and shattered teeth on the floor of a primary school, the airport lounge on the return home from the Genoa protests was full of the movement's hard core.

Not teenagers in black jeans and black balaclavas, these were a mid-50s crowd of middle Englanders, wearing sensible shoes, sporting their Christian Aid T-Shirts, rainbow scarves and jaunty Viva Jubilee banners.

In Genoa, site of the most bloody protests in the history of the counter-capitalist movement, the vast majority of the protesters were very nice.

While many of the debt relief campaigners could have stepped out of a church fete, the Globalise Resistance coach down from London to Genoa felt like a university debating team on tour, an earnest bunch of young people from the Brighton Collective were talking over the issues on a 28-hour bus ride.

So, which one is it: a movement of violent hooligans or compassionate worthies?

By any measure of the numbers, the rock-throwers are a tiny sideshow. The main constituencies of the movement are environmentalists, human rights activists, Third World policy wonks, peace-loving hippies and, in huge numbers, caring Christians. (Other religious groups play a role, but not in such large numbers.)

But, until September 11 at least, the rioters had cast long shadows. The events of that day promise to stigmatise violent demonstrators in a way the protestations of pacificists and earth-loving greens never have.

The attacks on America have been chastening for everyone, even the critics of globalisation. They now say that violence will not be tolerated. This is a change. Until the gruesome events of September 11, activists were fearful of being divided over the issue of tactics. The critics of the new protest movement, they believed, were seeking to split the fluffies - the peaceful protestsers - from the spikies - those who saw a merit in violent protest, particularly property damage.

Now, though, they say they will be happy to condemn violence in any form. But, to judge from the contentious role of sabotage and violent protest within the movement in the last couple of years, it may not prove so simple.

In Genoa, even before the non-violent direct action was supposed to begin, towers of black smoke had appeared dotted across the city, where Black Bloc activists had set cars on fire. During the day, the windows of banks were smashed in, ATM machines were doused with buckets of paint and the walls of building covered with graffiti: "Class War" and "Fuoco Alle Banche", it said. Genoa city officials estimate the property damage cost $45m.

The peaceful majority likes to say to it is the media's fault that the movement is seen as synonymous with street-fighting. Hooligans make for better television. The hooded men hurling rocks down the Corso di Torino get more airtime than the scenes a couple of blocks away in Genoa this summer, where couples in fairy costumes performed shadow dances, an arts troupe put on a street ballet and hundreds sat in silent vigil.

The people who sing songs and clap hands and parade with giant puppets like to say the violence is counter productive. Their argument is that the rioting has become the story, instead of the issues. The streets are no longer safe for peaceful protest. Campaigners are losing their credibility. World leaders can duck the problems, casting the protesters as a bunch of smelly, dreadlocked thugs out for a ruck.

However, the comforting rationale that violence benefits no-one is not shared by people on the front lines, a small fringe who remain determined to destroy property and fight the cops head-on. A larger swathe are determined practitioners of civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. In private, even peace-loving activists are loathe to condemn the violence. They do not want to be seen to split the movement. And, as much as they find it distasteful to admit it, the violence has given the movement extra momentum.

The death of Carlo Giuliani, the young man shot in the head in a Genoa backstreet in July, has given campaigners a new martyr. "I have wanted to say that Giuliani was a pointless death," says one woman who identified herself as a pacifist green, "but look at the impact."

While critics both inside and outside like to dismiss the "mindless violence" of anti-globalisation protests, there is nothing mindless about it. Those who count themselves in the Black Bloc, which, strictly speaking is a tactic rather than an organised group, argue that direct confrontation is necessary to fight a deaf system.


In interviews with people who count themselves as part of the Black Bloc, the rock-throwing, car-burning and window-smashing protesters who were such a feature of the Genoa protests say that the violence acts as a megaphone for their message.

One Italian protester, who only gave his first name, Simone, came to the protests in Genoa with a motorcycle helmet, goggles to shield his eyes from teargas and a bandana to mask his face from the cameras. He identified himself as aligned to the Black Bloc.

For him, the non-violent approach of the Tute Bianche, the white overalls group which created a human wall to try and break through the police lines, was too timid. "This is a war. The politicians and corporations do not respect peaceful protest, they respect power," Simone said. "We will break through the fences. We will show them power."

But, coming from a poorer suburb of Genoa, he was also out to stick it to the rich who lived in the picturesque quarters of the mediterranean port city. He had been to an anti-globalisation seminar earlier in the week, but left: "Too much talking." On the busride into town, he said he was looking forward to a fight.

He and two others later smashed in the windows of a downtown estate agent.

The Black Bloc in the North America has been a much more civil bunch than in Europe. In general, it has styled itself as a menacing presence, dressed in black and adopting the Black Power salute.

In Quebec in April, the mass protests against the extension of the North American Free Trade Area escalated into a violent confrontation. One Black Bloc activist in Canada, contacted for this article, said she hoped this signalled that direct engagement was gathering supporters. "We are the megaphone of the movement," she said, "We have to get things louder."

James, a British protester who says he has sympathy with the Black Bloc, says: "Nobody should expect radical change to be a comfortable or easy process effective, not symbolic, confrontation is what shows we are serious, and attracts more people to the movement."

Most activists, even radical and confrontational ones, would disagree. Their approach is to send a message using non-violent means, disruptive but not destructive.


Sophisticated organisation and the numbers of protesters was what surprised the police in Gothenburg in June.

While the Swedish security officers were facing their first mass protest, many of the activists were veterans of Nice, Prague and even Seattle. The police arrived on horseback, but the protesters had come with bags of marbles, which they scattered across the streets to make the roads dangerous for the police cavalry. Intelligence officials were frustrated because experienced protest organisers stopped talking on their mobile phones and, instead, sent each other text messages, which are not so easy for the police to intercept.

At Genoa, too, the police officers on hand were largely locals who had never seen anything like the numbers of protesters as they faced in July. Long before the first clash, it was clear the demonstrators had come prepared.

Hundreds had brought swimming goggles to protect their eyes from the teargas. Many carried with them lemons and limes, which they squeezed on their skin and sucked in their mouths to stop the stinging and wretching caused by teargas.

Some wore scarves and balaclavas across their faces to prevent identification by police cameras. Others had on motorbike helmets and strips of cardboard wrapped around their arms, legs and torsos to act as a shield against police batons.

The effect was that the police's crowd control weaponry was ineffectual. While teargas canisters exploded at their feet, protesters kept hurling rocks at police lines. As many officers had no other means of response, the scenes in many areas descended into farce: the police bent down and picked up the rocks and started throwing them back.

Madame Cholet, as one woman calls herself who is part of the Wombles, the White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggle, was one of the people who took part in the most ambitious action at Genoa. She was alongside the other White Overalls, the group known in Italy as the Tute Bianche, which built a wall of perspex and steel bars with which it walked headlong into the police lines. The Tute Bianche approach is to break through the police cordon by absorbing their baton charges. She says: "It was like being part of a Roman army. We moved in Roman army formation."

At so many of the demonstrations, the protesters have not only been prepared, but mocking. At Quebec, a group of activists catapulted teddy-bears at the police lines. In Genoa, another bunch tied their underpants to the high fences surrounding the centre of the city.

Since the teargas at Genoa has cleared, there have been reports of police brutality on the streets and intimidation bordering on torture inside Genoa's prison. Some Carabiniere officials have come forward to say they knew of infiltration of the Black Bloc, that fellow officers acted as agent provocateurs. Legal proceedings have begun against the Italian state on behalf of whose ribs were broken and skulls cracked when they were arrested by police swooping at midnight on the Genoa primary school which acted as the activists headquarters.

The officer who shot Giuliani, it has emerged, was just 20 years old. By contrast with many of the demonstrators, he had never seen a protest like it.

In the airport lounge on the way back from Genoa the church-goers who came to campaign for full debt relief for impoverished countries made much less noise. Perhaps, this explains why their role in the movement has been so widely forgotten.

Both the movement - and its critics - like to think that anti-globalisation found its voice at the Battle for Seattle. From out of the teargas and the spray of water canons, a passionate movement for global justice came of age - or so the romantic history of the movement goes.

But back in 1998, the leaders of the worlds most powerful countries emerged from their G7 summit to find to their astonishment that the buildings had been surrounded by roughly 60,000 people holding hands and calling for debt relief to the world's poorest countries. The masses had poured out of English churches, inspired by the line in Leviticus which commands that every fifty years, in a Jubilee year, all debts should be forgiven.

The first mass demonstration on an issue of global economic justice did not occur in Seattle, but in Birmingham. The violence of the last 18 months has arguably obscured the real 'headbangers' at the root of this movement. Global economic activism was not hatched on the barricades in the Pacific Northwest, but first mobilised from the pews of England's churches.

What enabled protesters in California make the connection with church activists in England, however, was not the pulpit. The line which connects Birmingham to Seattle to Washington and beyond has been the internet.

Part Five: Eco-terrorism

Contact James Harding at (10.15.2001, James Harding)

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