Is the Black Bloc Bouncing Back?

4 MINS READMay 3, 2012 | 13:11 GMT
FBI via Getty Images
From left: alleged anarchists Anthony Hayne, Joshua Stafford, Brandon Baxter, Connor Stevens and Douglas Wright

Five men were arrested April 30 in connection with a plot to destroy a bridge outside of Cleveland, Ohio. The men were charged with conspiracy and attempted use of explosive material to damage physical property affecting interstate commerce. The suspects are anarchists who were noticed and approached by an FBI informant during an Occupy protest in Cleveland on Oct. 21, 2011.

Meanwhile, during the May Day demonstration in Seattle on May 1, a group of anarchists banded together to form what is known as a black bloc. Using the broader demonstration as cover, they caused extensive damage to retail businesses in downtown Seattle, including the iconic Niketown store. Anarchist violence in the United States is cyclical. These incidents indicate that radical anarchists may again be gaining momentum.

Anarchists have been part of the U.S. political landscape in various forms since the late 1800s. They normally maintain a fairly low profile. Occasionally, their acts garner public attention, as with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 or the Sacco and Vanzetti case in the 1920s. More recently, they were active in the late 1990s. Anarchist protesters found the media spotlight when they formed a black bloc that caused considerable damage during the Nov. 30, 1999, World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, which became known as "the battle of Seattle" or just N-30 (for Nov. 30) in the protest community. Anarchists in Europe were also active during this time, frequently conducting violent actions during events such as World Trade Organization meetings, G-8 summits and the annual World Economic Forum. They also held large, violent demonstrations on May Day.

The anarchist movement lost a lot of steam after the 9/11 attacks, especially in the United States, where support for the country and government increased. Some anarchists became involved in the anti-war movement in the mid-2000s. But the anarchist movement lacked the vigor that it had in the late 1990s and appeared to be in a state of decline. As Stratfor noted in 2008, there were only 800 protesters arrested at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Minnesota, down from 1,800 arrests at the 2004 RNC in New York.

Many people associated with the progressive left were energized by the election of Barack Obama, a man they believed would bring dramatic change to U.S. politics. When Obama came into office and essentially continued the policies of the Bush administration, many progressives became discontent. The Occupy movement was one manifestation of this discontent, but it has also been mirrored by a resurgence of radical anarchist protesters.

However, more moderate protesters have not always welcomed the more radical elements of the left. Indeed, Stratfor received reports last year that moderate elements of the Occupy movement in cities such as Austin had rejected radical environmentalist groups that had participated in their protests. The same appears to have happened with the Cleveland group. According to the FBI affidavit filed in the case, the suspects attended the October protest dressed in all black. They used walkie-talkies to communicate, covered their faces and carried anarchist flags. (This is standard black bloc behavior.) The black bloc group became visibly agitated when protest organizers ordered the protesters to employ peaceful civil disobedience tactics only. 

Rejection and Radicalization

The FBI affidavit states that the group of Cleveland anarchists was highly unorganized and inexperienced, but it also shows that they wanted to engage in some sort of destructive violence. They mentioned a wide range of potential targets including banks, trains, ships, tunnels, the FBI fusion center, and oil wells and mines before finally settling on the bridge they attempted to destroy. Had they not met the FBI informant, who arranged for them to purchase bogus demolition charges, they likely would have engaged in some other sort of violent attack against one of their potential targets (perhaps using improvised explosive mixtures or improvised incendiary devices, which have been employed quite effectively by left-wing radicals in the past). They also expressed a desire to conduct follow-on attacks after the bridge demolition.

As Stratfor has noted for many years, danger can arise when some activists become frustrated with the lack of change brought about by non-violent protest tactics. Radical protesters begin to believe that violent, destructive measures are necessary to effect the rapid change they seek. This belief then tends to polarize the movement, as moderate activists split from those who espouse violence.

As the movement polarizes, those promoting violent solutions are likely to separate further from moderating influences — and thus become even more radical and violent. These more radical elements will continue to escalate their actions toward the violent and extreme end of the spectrum.

This is something that will need to be watched carefully as the Occupy movement protests continue without the protesters' demands being met, and as law enforcement continues to evict protesters from the locations they have occupied.  

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