From edition

Macht Kaputt Was Euch Kaputt Macht: On the history and the meaning of the Black Block

On the morning of July 28th 1981, in a coordinated action involving hundreds of police officers, a large squat was evicted and more than 30 private homes were raided in and around the area of Frankfurt am Main. Of the dozens arrested, six were charged with founding and membership in a ‘criminal organization’. The name of the organization: ‘Schwarzer Block’ (Black Block). Incidentally, nothing came of the trial itself: the case collapsed, with the authorities themselves admitting that such an organization never actually existed. The charges were dropped and the investigation into the ‘criminal organization’ known as the ‘Black Block’ was closed. Although, this was certainly not the end of the ‘Black Block.’ On the contrary, it thrives as one of the most popular forms of anti-capitalist militancy in use today.

This article, in turn, attempts to write a ‘history of the present’ of the Black Block as a form and as a signifier of anti-capitalist militancy. In an attempt to fill out the partial account found in George Katsiaficas’ otherwise landmark history of European autonomous movements, I trace the origins of the Block Black to the West German Autonomen of the late 1970s and 1980s. I argue that the popularity of the Block Black as a form of militancy is a departure from the tactics and the figure of ‘Stadtguerilla’ [urban guerrilla], a form of resistance that attained a certain degree of notoriety in Western Europe in the 1970s. Indeed, the Black Block’s mass, anonymous militancy—the fundamental characteristic of the tactic—is first and foremost of a defensive measure, but highlights other elements that speak to our current moment. Before we can begin to understand its importance, some historical background is necessary at this juncture.

Channeling both Mao and Brazilian radical Carlos Marighella, the Rote Armee Fraction’s [RAF] ‘Das Konzept Stadtguerilla’ is a more or less straightforward text and one of the earliest theoretical engagements with urban guerrilla ideas in postwar Western Europe. Discussing a wide range of geographic locals and historical settings, the RAF claims that the Stadtguerilla is “one weapon in the class struggle,” and it “assumes the organization of an illegal apparatus, that is to say, residences, weapons, munitions, cars, documents” (RAF, 1997: 42). Resistance here takes the form of bombings, shootings, bank robberies, and kidnappings, a kind of resistance that garnered intense media coverage. Not surprisingly, the RAF quickly emerged as the most well-known of all the militant organizations active in West Germany in the 1970s, proclaiming their dedication to armed, anti-imperial struggle against the capitalist state (some other examples include the Bewegung 2. Juni, Tupamaros West-Berlin, and Revolutionäre Zellen). And also not surprisingly, all of these groups were pursued relentlessly by the authorities. Most of the so-called ‘first generation’ of the RAF were in prison by the end of 1972, only months after their first major offensive. This included legal strategies as well: In 1976, an amendment was added to the controversial §129 to the Germany Criminal Code, known as the RAF amendment, criminalizing the creation and membership of a ‘terrorist organization’.

But there were crucial differences among the groups. The Revolutionäre Zellen did not require participants to go underground—although one statement lauds the RAF for making it clear that “resistance does not end where the criminal code begins” (RAF, 1997: 174). Describing the groups as ‘kleine Kernen’ (small cores), the philosophical-political underpinnings fell much closer to the Autonomen than to any kind of Marxist-Leninism, it was a militancy of small groups, not organized around a central organ. Focused largely (but not entirely—they shot to injure, not to kill) on the destruction of property, it is no accident, then, that the Berlin rock band Ton Steine Scherben’s classic ‘Macht Kapput Was Euch Kapput Macht’ (‘Destroy what Destroys you’) is an anthem of the Autonomen [1]. What Black Block militancy adds to this tradition relates to the question of scale, turning to mass visibility and mass anonymity, with a primary focus on property destruction. Calling it “perfomative violence,” Jeffrey Juris (2005: 420) argues that Black Block militancy “generally has a specific communicative logic: destruction of the symbols of corporate capitalism and the state”. While I do not have the space to engage with Juris’ notion of performative violence in relation to the Black Block, the crucial element here is the fact that the destruction is focused on objects and not on people. As a result, it fundamentally departs from the Stadtguerilla concept.

Let us return to some concrete early examples. According to one source, the first usage of the term ‘schwarzer Block’ can be found in a Frankfurt anarchist call out for the 1980 Mayday festivities: ‘Anarchy=Freedom! Come out to the Black Block’ (Sturm und Drang, 2005). The call was following a particularly brutal battle that took place the previous year between police and anti-fascist protesters, dressed in black, wearing helmets, and carrying sticks, keen on stopping an annual neo-Nazi march, which they succeeded in doing. Unlike contemporary Germany, it was not a crime to wear a motorcycle helmet and a ski mask at a demonstration—and thus it was common to see streams of black-clad, helmeted protesters in demos. During the 1970s, anti-nuclear activists fought brutal battles with police—often resulting in the police’s withdrawal—using masks to hide their identities. The German authorities recognized the importance of being able to obtain someone’s identity and banned the practice of ‘Vermummung’ (the act of covering one’s face) in the mid-1980s—something that France did only in June 2009 [2].

Out of the ashes, a unity came. The Black Block as a form of resistance functions as a singularity, ‘united’ in anonymity against a police apparatus that cannot map its organizational structures. The Black Block is a combination of affinity groups—an anarchist formulation—and free flowing individuals. The individuals share nothing but certain motifs of militancy—attire, chants, and above all, a desire to remain anonymous. Returning to our earlier example, we find a telling statement from the self-described ‘Black Block Investigation Committee,’ which published a newsletter in solidarity with the accused in Frankfurt:

“A ‘Black Block’ in the sense of the BKA [the Federal Crime Bureau]—namely as a terrorist organization—has never existed. Was does exist is an Autonomen scene, which is made up of leftist school children, apprentices, university students, employed and unemployed, which has no organization or parties belonging to it” (Schwarzer Block Ermittlungsausschuss Info.2)[3].

In an ironic letter addressed to prosecutors, we can find a discussion of the ‘origins’ of the Black Block: “The Black Block is black because it dresses in black. It is a block, the word almost gives it away, because of its locked appearance” (‘Offener Brief’, n.d.). In the autumn following the arrests, a long, rambling piece was published in the magazine vollautonom, and re-published in the widely-read radikal magazine: “There are no programs, no statutes, and no members of the Black Block. There are, however, political ideas and utopias, which determine our lives and our resistance. This resistance has many names, one of them is called the Black Block” (‘Schwarzer Block’, 1981). The authors quote a report from the local Verfassungsshutzthe agency in charge of monitoring anti-constitutional activity—with both irony and pride: “they continue to reject Marxist-Leninist conceptions, fixed organizational forms, and every condition and program, and espouse autonomy and spontaneity.” As mentioned, the attempts to render the Black Block into an ‘organization’ failed, although that was certainly not the end.

It is difficult to trace the Black Block through its multiple incarnations and appearances. But one thing can be said with certainty: It has taken form in many places around the world: Europe, North and South America, and even Southeast Asia[4]. The ‘Black Block’ has an entry dedicated to it in one pictorial history of West German protest movements, and is described as having “adopted a consciously militant stance [haltung]” (Jungwirth, 1986: 148). This last point is crucial: It highlights the intimate link between militancy and its expression in the form of the Black Block.

We need to go to 1999 and the gathering of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, where the Black Block emerged onto the international stage. In terms of the spread of the Black Block tactic, the single most powerful development emerging from Seattle has nothing to do with any protests, but rather the founding of IndyMedia. For the first time in history, activists themselves could produce and publish their own reports instantly and share them, reaching an international audience. Seattle inaugurated the era of conference protesting, and the year that followed saw the four major capitalist conferences held in Prague, Quebec City, and Gothenburg, and Genoa all having one thing in common: the (mainstream) media’s obsession with the Black Block[5]. In addition, the last decade has also seen the rise of the self-produced, widely-distributed riot-demo video, propelled by the ubiquity of high-quality digital camera and the popularity of free video file sharing sites. This, in many ways, has played a crucial role in the dissemination of the tactic—as the many of the Black Block ‘fan videos’ prove.

But the police forces have responded in equal measure: At the 60th anniversary of NATO in Strasbourg in April 2009 and the G8 in Heiligendamm, Germany, two years before, the relatively militant Black Blocks that were present at both events were confronted by literally thousands of police officers, backed up by military helicopters, naval forces, and other weapons of crowd surveillance and control. Francis Dupuis-Déri (2005: 80) makes this point well: As a result of its visibility, the popularity of the Black Block and the resulting loss of the element of surprise could actually be its own demise.

What can be said about the Black Block as a form of political agitation? In a way, we can say that the Black Block seeks to undercut the very stability of the ‘militant organization’ as a form of political organization. The appeal of this tactic is fairly clear: Any ‘militant organization’ can be infiltrated, names can be collected, and arrests can be made. Indeed, the awareness of such infiltration seems to be playing in the background in one Black Block participant’s reflections, who, despite her expressed solidarity with the French urban guerrilla group Action Directe, claims that “one is sufficiently aware of the last fifty years of world history to avoid making the same mistakes” (quoted in Dupuis-Déri, 2005: 47). But the Black Block and the disavowal of any organizational strategy—be it Marxist-Leninist or other—resists the police apparatus in some fairly profound ways. Denied any singular ‘head’ or ‘ringleaders’, the forces of order must fall back upon more brutal methods of dispersal. In effect, the Black Block neutralizes (a part of) the bureaucratic machinery of the police. If the coming together and the (albeit varying degrees of) solidarity is grounded in being-there-at-the-protest, then the police can do nothing to disrupt that unity but to forcibly break up the protest.

But questions need to be raised: What role does the Black Block play in the critique of global capital? Can the Black Block function as a model for political action? Obviously not—it is a tactic, not a goal. Even as a protest tactic, anonymity also facilitates police infiltration. Indeed, after every major protest event, stories and photos circulate of police agents dressed in black, using the anonymity to track and pick out individual protesters. Be it a German ‘Zivi’ (a police officer in civilian clothing) or a member of the French BAC [Brigade anticriminalité], or the famous squad of Black Blockers from the Cabinieri caught on camera in Genoa—the forces of order are more than capable of inserting themselves into Black Blocks. The tactic is so open that even the German neo-fascists have begun to use it: Calling themselves ‘Autonomen Nationalisten’, they too dress in black and attempt to use Black Block tactics. Among anti-capitalist protesters, some have raised the question whether the tactic should be abandoned in the face of improved police tactics (Cunningham, 2002: 13). Others have expressed concern that more militant demonstrators were ‘taking cover’ among less militant protesters and hijacking infrastructure without significantly contributing to the maintenance of solidarity networks, focusing only on the production of ‘riot-porn’ (‘Après avoir tout brûlé’, 2009). Indeed, the author of the latter piece reflects quite critically on the Black Block, in the context of anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg in April 2009, and how “the success or failure of the actions, it seemed, could be measured in the number of stones thrown, burnt trash cans, broken windows, or injured cops. Rioting thus ceased to be a tactic and became an end in itself.”

Georgio Agamben (1993: 85) argues that “… what the State cannot tolerate in any way … is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging.” In the case of the Black Block, the condition of belonging is the condition of anonymity. In a similar vein, in a text attributed (by the police) to a group of French anarchists, L’insurrection qui vient [The Coming Insurrection], we read that anti-capitalists need to “flee [fuir] from visibility” and “turn anonymity into an offensive position” (comité invisible, 2007: 102). The Black Block, it can be said, embodies a form of politics that does turn to anonymity (mainly as a defensive gesture) while retaining a certain kind of visibility. In this way, the Black Block forces us to rethink our conceptions of coming together as a project. As the American anarchist collective Crimethinc (‘Blocs, Black and Otherwise,’ n.d.). describes it, the Black Block “can simply be present as a promise of solidarity, or a threat.” And, one could add, as both at the same time.

References

‘Après avoir tout brûlé…Suite à au sommet de l’OTAN à Strasbourg en avril 2009 – Correspondance à propos de stratégies et émotions révolutionnaires’ (2009) Downloaded on 3 September 2009 from http://ch.indymedia.org/fr/2009/07/70590.shtml.

‘Offener Brief’ (n.d.).

‘Schwarzer Block’ (1981) Downloaded on 21 May 2009 from http://autox.nadir.org/archiv/auto/81_radi_98e.html.

Agamben, G., Hardt, M. (trans.) (1993) The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

comité invisible (2007) L’insurrection qui vient. Paris: La Fabrique éditions.

Crimethinc: Ex-Workers’ Collective (n.d.) ‘Blocs, Black and Otherwise.’ Downloaded on 2 September 2009 from http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/atoz/blocs.php

Cunningham, R. (2002) ‘Bashing the Black Block?’ Red and Black Revolution, 6: 13-15. Downloaded on 25 May 2009 from http://struggle.ws/rbr/rbr6/black.html.

DupuisDéri, F. (2005) Les Black Blocs: La liberté et l’égalité se manifestent. Lyon: Atelier de Création Libertaire.

Geronimo (2003) Feuer und Flamme: Zur Geschicte der Autonomen. Berlin: ID-Verlag.

Jungwirth, N. (1986) Demo: ein Bildgeschichte der Protests in der Bundesrepublik. Weinheim: Beltz.

Juris, J. (2005) ‘Violence Performed and Imagined: Militant Action, the Black Bloc and the Mass Media in Genoa,’ Critique of Anthropology, 25(4): 413–432.

Katsiaficas, G. (1997) The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Revolutionäre Zellen (1993) Die Früchte des Zorns : Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der Revolutionären Zellen und der Roten Zora. Berlin: ID-Verlag

Rote Armee Fraktion (1997) Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der RAF. Berlin: ID-Verlag.

Sturm und Drang (2005) ‘Der Papst ist tot! – 25 Jahre Schwarzer Block.’ Trend Onlinezeitung. Downloaded on 31 August 2009 from http://www.trend.infopartisan.net/trd0605/t370605.html.

Winter, M. ‘Police Philosophy and Protest Policing in the Federal Republic of Germany 1960-1990,’ pp. 188-212, in D. della Porta and H. Reiter (Eds.) Policing Protest: The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, (1998).

Notes

[*] This paper was made possible through the support of a Doctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I would like to thank the staff of the Papiertiger Archiv & Bibliothek der Sozialen Bewegungen, who provided invaluable assistance tracking down materials. All the translations from French and German are my own.

[1] This is not the full story. To go into a long discussion on the history of the Autonomen-something I cannot do in this paper-one needs to engage the so-called ‘Militanz Debatte’ which went on for almost a decade in various underground journals beginning in the mid-1990s. Available at http://www.geocities.com/militanzdebatte/. And, of course, Geronimo’s history of the German movement contains an important discussion on armed resistance. Interestingly enough the RAF is critical of the undertones that the phrase ‘Macht Kaputt was Euch Kaputt Macht’ seems to suggest because “organizing is made out to be secondary, discipline bourgeois, class analysis unnecessary” (Geronimo, 2003: 45).

[2] The German law can be found here, http://dejure.org/gesetze/VersG/17a.html. For the text of the new French law, see http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000020763885&dateTexte=&categorieLien=id.

[3] All the documents related to the events in Frankfurt in 1981 are available for consultation in the Papiertiger Archiv & Bibliothek der Sozialen Bewegungen in Berlin, under the folder ‘Schwarzer Block.’

[4] Dupuis-Déri’s (2005: 22-25) text traces the spread of the Black Block, as does David Van Deusen and Xavier Massot’s as yet unpublished collection and analysis of the Black Block in America, ‘The Black Block Papers’.

[5] Eamonn Crudden’s film ‘Berlusconi’s Mousetrap’ engages this media fascination in the context of the G8 that took place in Genova, Italy, in 2001. It is available for download here http://www.indymedia.ie/article/75401. Another video worth downloading is ‘New Kids on the Black Block,’ put together by an anonymous video activist. It combines images of the protests at Genova with cheesy promotional videos of 1980s and 1990s boy bands. It can be found here http://video.indymedia.org/en/2005/09/148.shtml.

This entry was posted in Articles and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues