Violence, Harassment, and Selfishness: the counterrevolutionary actions of the Black Block at Chicago’s NATO protest
By Carl Sack
Chicago Indmedia, May 23, 2012
This is an eyewitness account of a bunch of thoughtless hotheads acting like the militaristic plutocracy they claim to be fighting and needlessly placing hundreds of peaceful protesters at a legal march in harm’s way.
On Sunday, May 20, the city of Chicago and global capitalism's military butchers were rocked by a mass protest of over 10,000 people. The protest was youthful and high-energy, with lots of spirited chanting and many colorful banners from the various labor, environmental, LGBT, religious, Philipino, and radical left contingents in the march.
I was one of 90 or so “Peace Guides” (a non-militaristic euphemism for protest marshals) trained for the role and designated by CanG8, the open and democratic coalition that spent eleven months preparing for the protest, including fighting the city for permits and working out the logistics. Every scrap and detail of the protest was planned by the coalition’s various working groups and approved by majority vote of the overall coalition on its biweekly conference calls that anyone could join. The job of the vest-clad Peace Guides was to answer people’s questions about protest logistics, intervene if someone needed help or to try and diffuse a conflict, update the tactical leadership team about cop interference, and generally be allies to all protesters in the march. We had our job cut out for us.
Other than sound issues at the rally, the first problem we encountered was not with the police. Before the rally stepped off, the plan was to have IVAW veterans leading the march, followed closely by two big coalition banners that would keep people back from the veterans, keep a space clear for the disabled in wheelchairs, and keep the front of the march together so it looked well-organized for the media. Peace guides were to lock arms on either end of each banner to keep as few people as possible other than vets and wheelers from jumping the front of the march.
As we prepared to step off, lots of contingents lined up to follow the coalition banners with their own, drumming and chanting as they did. But right away, a huge Black Block of 200 or more people decided that they had to jump-cut everyone and lead a march that wasn’t theirs to lead. Before anyone else knew what was happening, they poured in between the two coalition banners, completely clogging up the space the march organizers had hoped to keep clear. When the plan was explained to those in front of the Block and they were respectfully asked to comply with the Chicago Principles, which have respect for a diversity of tactics with appropriate separation of time and space as a key clause, they were friendly and agreed to go behind the second banner.
The problem was that by this point there was little space behind the banner for them to move to, as those who had lined up first were already there. Slowly the Block moved to the side, but a few in the back who hadn’t heard the discussion and consensus decision of the Block’s front decided that we were being dictators and it was appropriate to scream in our faces for it. One young woman, lying to get what she wanted, yelled in my face that the Black Block had been asked to be security for the IVAW march. This was blatantly false—the vets had their own security detail in green vests, and when asked, the protest organizers knew nothing of this supposed agreement. A Black Block medic briefly tried to take her side, claiming that we were the ones pushing people around, until I turned his view around by simply asking, “who is the one yelling right now?” He admitted I was right.
With that hostility as a backdrop, we stepped off into the tense streets of downtown Chicago. I wound up carrying the end of one of the big banners. It was hot and I carried no water because I wanted my hands free for the protest (a few fellow marchers graciously gave me sips of theirs along the route). It was no small feat keeping this monstrous banner straight and holding it high enough so the handle sticking out at the end didn’t whack cops along the sides of the march in the head in the narrower spots. Nonetheless, I was buoyed by the unified spirit of the march, as we all chanted and walked together.
Then, about two blocks from the end of the march route, the Black Blockers decided they were done playing by democratic rules and rushed the banner from behind to get through, forcefully pushing the line of peace guides around. When we held our ground and refused to break our chain for them, a few turned around and yelled at us to just let them through. While peace guides tried explaining to those coming from behind that this was the procedure voted on by the Cangate body, I tried to reason on a more practical level that we wanted to keep the front of the march together and provide space for the wheelchairs in front of us. I tried pointing out that the Blockers were hurting their brothers and sisters as they pushed them around from behind. I was really afraid that someone was going to get pushed into the line of cops on the side and billy-clubbed. But there is no reasoning with those hell-bent on sabotage and having their selfish way. One guy pulled down his mask just long enough to spit in my face.
Finally we got to the end rally. It took some negotiating to get the cops to let us onto our permitted route on Cermak. As people continued to move in toward the stage, the vets began their moving ceremony, throwing away the medals they were given for serving U.S. imperialism. After the first few speakers, the Block decided to push their way through the crowd and out toward the riot cops stationed on Cermak to the west. This seemed like a fine idea—it drew off the cops and left the rest of us in relative peace for most of the rally.
But rather than keeping the cops away, which would have been a great help, the Block returned right at the tail end of the rally, bringing the riot cops with them and completely plugging up the only exit, as the streets were blocked by cops on all other sides. When the M.C. announced from the loudspeaker that the permitted rally was over and people who wanted to leave should exit to the west, the Block immediately started chanting, “go east, go east!” This completely confused the crowd. To the east was a four-deep line of riot cops, while the Block was totally blocking off the exit to the west.
I and a few other Peace guides on the corner started trying to clear an exit passage by asking respectfully, and eventually pleading with Blockers, to move over enough to open a space for people who wanted to get out of harms’ way to do so. The response from several Blockers was complete refusal to budge. When I waded through the crowd and shouted over the tumult to tell people which way the exit was, Blockers tried to shout me down. They just didn’t care that there were old ladies and immigrants and people with rap sheets who couldn’t afford to get arrested or billy-clubbed there. I even got that exact response a few times—literally, “I don’t care, I do what I want.” What about what the people who came for a peaceful, legal protest wanted? Many Blockers, it seemed, were indifferent.
Fortunately, the cops didn’t react as badly as they could have, and we did eventually manage to open up a space wide enough for a trickle of protesters to get out. But it took a long time. To prevent the Block from going north on Michigan, a line of cops cut off two parts of the rally, forcing people on Michigan to climb over barricades onto the sidewalk to get out. Because the situation was tense, a few people along the margins did get clubbed.
Don’t read this wrong—I’m not in any way trying to justify or defend what the cops did. They could have opened up an exit to the north or south. But nobody at the protest had control over what the cops did, and the planned exit for the rally was to the west. The Black Block actively chose to prevent people from leaving in an attempt to hijack the protest and turn it into a confrontation. In the end, it seemed that all who wanted to leave fortunately were able to, and the Block was able to have the bloodbath they wanted (nevermind, again, what rally organizers had democratically planned).
During the protest, I was screamed at, cursed at, pushed around, shouted down when I tried to give information, spit on, and worst of all, called a capitalist. None of that was done by cops. All of it was done by participants in the black block who set aside their own ability to think for the sake of hijacking a peaceful, legal protest for their petty war games with the cops. Yes, the police were forceful and brutal, but only after they were put on edge by the Block’s provocative actions.
All of my anarchist friends’ high-minded talk of militancy and tactical strategy doesn’t mean a hill of beans when the primary tactic of a 200-strong herd representing (or misrepresenting) anarchism is to put people in harm’s way who didn’t sign on for it. As for diversity of tactics with separation of time and space, the actions of the Black Block in Chicago gave a big “fuck you” to the Chicago Principles. I’m through considering whether or not Black Block tactics are justified; you can count one more anti-capitalist revolutionary as thoroughly disgusted with them—if you even care.
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