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(en) Autonomia and the Origin of the Black Bloc

From rcam <rcollins@netlink.com.au>
Date Sun, 10 Jun 2001 15:42:20 -0400 (EDT)


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> Article by: Daniel Dylan Young
> Summary:Whether the Black Bloc continues as a tactic or is abandoned, it
certainly has served its purpose. In certain places and times the Black Bloc
effectively empowered people to take action in collective solidarity against
the violence of state and capitalism. It is important that we neither cling
to it nostalgically as an outdated ritual or tradition, nor reject it
wholesale because it sometimes seems inappropriate. Rather we should
continue working pragmatically to fulfill our individual needs and desires
through various tactics and objectives, as they are appropriate at the
specific moment. Masking up in Black Bloc has its time and place, as do
other tactics which conflict with it.
>
> Article:
> \"Those in authority fear the mask for their power partly resides in
identifying, stamping and cataloguing: in knowing who you are...our masks
are not to conceal our identity but to reveal it...Today we shall give this
resistance a face; for by putting on our masks we reveal our unity; and by
raising our voices in the street together, we speak our anger at the
facelessness of power...\"
>
> --from a message printed on the inside of 9000 masks distributed at the
June 18th, 1999 Carnival Against Capital which destroyed the financial
district of central London
>
> At the WTO protests in Seattle last year, somewhere from 100 to 300
anarchists and others dressed up in black and systematically trashed the
storefronts of odious multinational corporations. Since then the tactic of
the \"Black Bloc\" has been getting quite a bit of attention from different
people concerned with social change. All sorts of upper middle class,
trust-fund progressives and liberals have prattled on moralistically to
great length about how there is no room for such behavior in their movement.
At the same time, the Black Bloc in Seattle inspired a renewed interest in
militant protest tactics which do not placate authority or bow to its power.
The N30 Black Bloc, along with many other aspects of the events in Seattle,
has also inspired radical anarchists to stop hiding out inside liberal
activist groups with reformist agendas, and start being more vocal in their
demands for revolution and total social change. Besides the rapid
proliferation of anarchist publicatio!
> ns and organizations, clear evidence of this resurgence of anarchism in
the United States can be seen in the large Black Blocs which were present on
April 16th in Washington D.C., at the Democratic and Republican National
Conventions this summer, and at many other marches, protests and actions
from sea to shining  sea. For good or ill, it seems that in the last year
the Black Bloc has become an American tradition, and it all started with
those brave kids back in Seattle.
>
> Or did it? In fact, November 30th was far from the first time that a large
group of radicals dressed up in black with black masks in order to engage in
militant protest in  anonymity and solidarity. The Black Bloc as an agreed
upon protest tactic may be as much as 20 years old. Its origins in fact lie
with the European Autonomen or autonomists, a radical social movement that
didn\'t even necessarily proclaim itself anarchist, though many of its
tactics and ideas have become widely appreciated and adopted by
self-proclaimed anarchists.
>
> About Autonomy
>
> Autonomia, Autonomen, or autonomists have been the names used for various
popular social change and countercultural movements in Italy, Germany,
Denmark, Holland and other parts of Europe in the last 3 decades. All these
different movements have sought to radically oppose authority, domination
and violence anywhere that they exist in contemporary life (which is pretty
much everywhere). Autonomy in this case does not mean some kind of regional
superiority complex or isolationism, as with statist nationalism, nor does
it mean individual autonomy at the expense of the majority, as is the the
basis of capitalism. What autonomists value and desire is the freedom for
individuals to choose others with whom they share an affinity, and band
together with them to survive and fulfill all of their needs and desires
collectively, without interference from greedy, violent individuals or huge
inhuman bureaucracies.
>
> The first so-called autonomists were those individuals involved in the
Italian Autonomia movement that got its start during the Hot Autumn of 1969,
a time of intense social unrest. Throughout the 1970s in Italy a widespread
movement for total social change was initiated by autonomous groups of
factory workers, women and students. Capitalists, labor unions and the
statist Communist Party bureaucracy had nothing to do with this movement,
and in fact worked hard to repress and stop it. Yet the power structure was
often at a loss with how to deal with the near complete refusal of large
areas of the population to obey the rules and orders of authority.
>
> Despite the rapid proliferation of direct action, strikes, rent strikes,
mass squats, streetfighting, university occupations and other popularly
supported radical actions during the 1970s, the Italian movement eventually
subsided. This was partly due to violent attacks, imprisonment and murders
of radicals by the police and the Communist party-controlled central
government. At the same time the response to this escalation of  state
violence was often an escalation of terrorism by elite radical urban
guerilla groups . This self-defensive terrorism often served to turn people
away from a large scale, public social change movement. Some chose to become
more militant and secretive, while others abandoned politics all together
for a seemingly more peaceful life of obedience to authority.
>
> Building Revolutionary Dual Power -- The Culture of the Autonomen
>
> Though the revolutionary potential of the Italian Autonomia in the 1970s
died down, their vibrance, confidence and empowerment was an inspiration to
young people in West Germany in the 1980s. Inspired also by the Amsterdam
squatters\' movements and youth organization in Switzerland, young Germans
in Berlin, Hamburg and other major cities began building their own
autonomous culture and social groups based upon radical resistance and
alternative ways of life.
>
> The direction and composition of radical organization in West Germany in
the 1980s was partly determined by the reigning economic recession and the
forms it took. Because of the well established connections between
industrial unions and the German government, the effects of this recession
were felt not so much by blue collar workers, but by young people who found
it increasingly impossible to secure jobs and housing and thereby move out
of their parents\' home and become socially and financially independent.
Therefore points for autonomous youth mobilization included the stifling
conformity of rural German society and the nuclear family, serious housing
shortages, high unemployment--as well as the continued illegal status of
abortion and government plans for a massive expansion of nuclear power.
>
> As a result of economic recession and flight to the suburbs, at the end of
the 1970s huge tracts of buildings in different German inner cities,
especially West Berlin, lay abandoned by developers or government agencies.
Squatting these buildings was a viable option for impoverished young people
looking for independence from the nuclear family home. Vibrant squatters\'
communities grew up in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, the
Haffenstrasse squats of Hamburg and in other concentration points. The
cornerstone of these communities was communal living, and the creation of
radical social centers: infoshops, bookstores, coffeehouses, meeting halls,
bars, concert halls, art galleries, and other multi-use spaces where
grassroots political, artistic and social culture were developed as an
alternative to nuclear family life, TV dreams and mass-produced pop culture.
>
> >From these safe social spaces grew major grassroots initiatives to fight
nuclear power; to break down patriarchy and gender roles; to show solidarity
with oppressed people throughout the world by attacking the European-based
multinational corporations or financial institutions like the World Bank;
and after German reunification, to fight the rising tide of conservative
neo-Nazism.
>
> Similar initiatives for alternative living as resistance were percolating
in the 1980s (and in some places much earlier) in Holland, Denmark and
elsewhere throughout northern Europe. Eventually all of these northern
Europeans living in decentralized social groups dedicated to creating a
non-coercive, non-hierarchical society became collectively labeled as
\"Autonomen.\" Over time the autonomists\' ideas and tactics also migrated
throughout the reunited post-Iron Curtain Europe. I personally have visited
radical autonomous social centers in England, Spain, Italy, Croatia,
Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.
>
> Hardline Oppression, Militant Resistance, And the Origins of the Black
Bloc
>
> >From the beginning the West German state did not take kindly to young
Autonomen, whether they were occupying nuclear power plant building sites or
unused apartment buildings. In the winter of 1980 the Berlin city government
decided to take a hardline against the thousands of young people living in
squats throughout the city: they decided to criminalize, attack and evict
them into the cold winter streets. This was a much more shocking and unusual
action in Germany than it would be in the U.S., and created much popular
disgust and condemnation of the police and government.
>
> >From December 1980 on there was an escalating cycle of mass arrests,
street fighting, and new squatting in Berlin and throughout Germany. The
Autonomen were not to be cowed, and each eviction was responded to with
several new building occupations. When squatters in the south German city of
Freiburg were mass arrested, rallies and demonstrations supporting them and
condemning the police state\'s eviction policy took place in every major
city in Germany. In Berlin on that day, later dubbed \"Black Friday,\"
upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 people took to the streets and destroyed an
upper class shopping area.(1)
>
> This was the seething cauldron of oppression and resistance from which the
Black Bloc was birthed. In late 1981 the German government began legalizing
certain squats in an attempt to divide the counterculture and marginalize
more radical segments. But these tactics were slow to pacify the popular
radical movement--especially since the period of 1980-81 had seen not only a
brutal treatment of squatters but also the largest police mobilization in
Germany since the reign of the third Reich in order to attack non-violent,
sitting protesters at the \"Free Republic of Wendland,\" an encampment of
5000 activists blocking the construction of the Gorleben nuclear waste
dump.(2) Even formerly ardent pacifists had been radicalized by the
experience of sustained, violent police oppression against diverse squats
and activist occupations.
>
> In response to violent state oppression radical activists developed the
tactic of the Black Bloc: they went to protests and marches wearing black
motorcycle helmets and ski masks and dressing in uniform black clothing (or,
for the most prepared, wearing padding and steel-toed boots and bringing
their own shields and truncheons). In Black Bloc, autonomen and other
radicals could more effectively fend off police attacks, without being
singled out as individuals for arrest and harassment later on. And, as
everyone quickly figured out, having a massive group of people all dressed
the same with their faces covered not only helps in defending against the
police, but also makes it easier for saboteurs to take the offensive against
storefronts, banks and any other material symbols and power centers of
capitalism and the  state. Masking up as a Black Bloc encouraged popular
participation in public property destruction and violence against the state
and capitalism. In this way the Blac!
> k Bloc is a form of militance that mitigates the problematic dichotomy
between popularly executed non-violent civil disobedience and elite,
secretive guerilla terrorism and sabotage.
>
> Autonomen Black Bloc Accomplishments
>
> Black Blocs, Autonomen militance, and popular resistance to the
police-state and the New World Order spread among European youth in the
1980s.
>
> Though Dutch radicals did not begin calling themselves \"Autonomen\" until
around 1986, earlier Dutch counterculture activists shared tactics,
organizing structures and militancy with self-proclaimed autonomists.
Holland\'s squatting movement really got started around 1968, and by 1981
more then 10,000 houses and apartments were squatted in Amsterdam, and there
were around 15,000 squats in the rest of Holland. Squatted restaurants,
bars, cafes, and information centers were commonplace, and the organized
squatters (usually referred to as \"kraakers\") had their own council to
plan the movement\'s direction and their own newsradio station.(3)
>
> Although some Dutch autonomists rejected wearing ski masks while in Black
Bloc(4), the movement was no less militant. One book about the Dutch
squatters movement reports that \"Ever since the beginning there had been a
\'black helmet brigade\' which felt it had joined battle with municipal
social democracy.\"(5)
>
> Battles at the evictions of Amsterdam squats often featured the
construction of huge barricades and walled-in squatters tossing furniture
and other projectiles of all shapes and sizes out the window at riot police
below. In the early years there were certain limits to the violence which
Dutch squatters would use to retaliate against police attacks. However in
1985 when a squatter named Hans Kok died in police custody after being
arrested during a particularly brutal raid and eviction, the ante was upped.

Following the news of his death a night of fiery destruction reigned in
Amsterdam, with even police cars set on fire in front of many different
precincts. Said one squatter: \"Everyone had the idea, now we\'ll use the
ultimate means, just before guns anyway: mollies...Everyone went around with
mollies in their pockets, everyone had full gasoline cans...it was the new
action method.\"(6) Though Hans Kok\'s death and the fiery retribution that
followed had a negative effect on!
>  the popular squatters\' movement, the new militancy of tactics proved
useful in some activist circles. In 1985 the Dutch Anti-Racist Action Group
(RARA) mounted a successful campaign to force the Dutch supermarket chain
MARKO to divest from South Africa: the campaign was accomplished through a
series of extremely expensive and damaging firebombings of MARKO\'s stores
and offices.(7)
>
> In Germany in 1986 mounting police attacks and attempted evictions against
a complex of squatted houses in Hamburg called the Haffenstrasse were met
with the counteroffensive of a 10,000 person march surrounding at least 1500
people in a Black Bloc, carrying a huge banner that read, \"Build
Revolutionary Dual Power!\" At the march\'s end, the Black Bloc was able to
successfully engage in street fighting that put the police on the retreat.
On the following day fires were set in 13 department stores in Hamburg,
causing nearly $10 million in damage.(8)
>
> That same year, the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant brought
new militance to demonstrations against nuclear power plants under
construction in Germany. Once account of these anti-nuclear demonstrations
reported, \"In scenes resembling \'civil war,\' helmeted, leather-clad
troops of the anarchist Autonomen armed with slingshots, Molotov cocktails
and flare guns clashed brutally with the police, who employed water cannons,
helicopters and CS gas (officially banned for use against civilians.\"(9)
>
> In June of 1987 when Ronald Reagan came to Berlin, around 50,000 people
demonstrated in the streets against this Cold War-mongering old man,
including a 3000 person Black Bloc.(10) A couple of months later police
antagonism against the Haffenstrasse intensified again. In November 1987
residents and thousands of other Autonomen fortified the complex, built
barricades in the streets and fought off police for nearly 24 hours. In the
end the city chose to legalize the squatters\' residence.(11)
>
> Over ten years before Seattle and the American WTO protests, the Autonomen
mobilized a similar event with a greater number of resisters. In September
of 1988, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund met in Berlin.
Autonomen used this meeting as a focal point for worldwide resistance to
global corporate capitalism and government\'s destruction of grassroots
autonomy and community. Thousands of activists from throughout Europe and
the U.S. were mobilized, and 80,000 protesters met the bankers (at least
30,000 more than in Seattle).(12) The totally outnumbered police and private
security at the event attempted to maintain order by banning all
demonstrations and brutally attacking any public assembly, but riots still
ravaged fashionable upper class shopping areas (as was tradition).
>
> Pre-Seattle Black Blocs In the U.S.A.
>
> In November of 1999 the Black Bloc tactic seemed new to many Americans
partly because the actions and ideas of the autonomist movement in Europe
were mostly blacked out of the American media and have been barely written
about at all in English. However, ignorance of the Black Bloc also stems
from the fact that most Americans get news of domestic events from a
corporate-controlled media that ignores any happenings that don\'t fit their
view and purposes, and which represents every event that takes place as
singular spectacle disconnected from past and future, to be forgotten in a
blur even when it is only a few months old.
>
> Radicals in the U.S. have never been totally ignorant of the actions and
ideas of European autonomists, and the development of the punk rock
subculture in the U.S. throughout the 1980s in many ways mirrored that of
the autonomists. By the beginning of the 1990\'s anarchists and other
radicals in the U.S. were masking up at marches and protests to build
solidarity and create anonymity for militants.
>
> When the Gulf War was going one protest in the streets of Washington D.C.
included a  Black Bloc that smashed in the windows of the World Bank
building. That same year on Columbus Day in San Francisco a Black Bloc
showed up to help show militant resistance to the continuing genocide of
North American domination by Europeans.(13) Personally, the largest Black
Bloc that I\'ve ever seen was at the Millions March For Mumia in
Philadelphia in April of 1999. I\'d say there were at least 500 dressed in
Black, masked up, and carrying banners such as \"Vegans For Mumia.\" Though
there was no street fighting and no particularly noticeable property
destruction, some kids did manage to get into a parking garage along the
march route, climb to the roof and wave the black flag.
>
> The Global Future of the Black Mask
>
> The symbol of the black-masked autonomist militant has spread to the third
world as well. As the North American Free Trade Agreement\'s destructive
neo-liberalalizing economic policies took effect on January 1st, 1994, a
guerilla uprising took place in Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico. The
uprising sought to create space for the development of autonomous social
organization among downtrodden Mayan indigenous peoples. The armed wing of
this struggle for community autonomy and direct democracy without coercion
or hierarchy has been and continues to be the Zapatistas, men and women who
wear black balaclavas (similar to ski masks) whenever they appear in public.
Many autonomists and anarchists have visited and tried to help them in their
struggles with knowledge, money, materials and by building inernational
awareness and solidarity of the situation in Chiapas.
>
> Back in Germany, the Autonomen are seeing dark days. It is said that in
the past squatters held at least 165 large, five-story apartment buildings
in eastern Berlin, but by late 1997 only 3 remained.(14) Legalizing some
squats while brutally evicting others has been an effective policy for the
police state. Many people living in legalized squats are unwilling to rock
the boat by encouraging or expressing solidarity with militant tactics
practiced by other squatters, and this marginalization makes it easier for
the squatters to lose out in street-fighting against an increasingly
militarized police force.
>
> The resurgence of neo-Nazism in what once was East Germany and other areas
of the country has meant no end of troubles for German Autonomen. They face
violence and death from neo-Nazi attacks, especially in most of eastern
Germany which neo-Nazi gangs police as a \"no-punk, no-foreigner zone.\"
Massive amounts of Autonomen time and effort goes into organizing to oppose
the spread of neo-Nazism, but this means neglecting the tasks of developing
new viable alternatives to authoritarian society, one of the main original
goals of autonomists. \"Antifa\" or anti-fascist organizing brings the
Autonomen into more and more violent confrontations with the German police,
who basically support neo-Nazi groups and their nationalist, racist
ideologies--when individual police officers aren\'t directly involved with
fascist groups.
>
> Rumour has it that many militants in areas of northern Europe where the
Black Bloc was a common demonstration tactic have been increasingly given it
up, as it has ceased to serve its purpose. The forces of state repression
have caught on, and use ever greater technological, legal and physical force
to observe, isolate, pursue and target those involved in Black Blocs. A
similar process is taking place in the U.S., with a resurgence of
COINTELPRO-style tactics aimed at radicals who oppose the global
capitalist-statist American empire.
>
> Whether the Black Bloc continues as a tactic or is abandoned, it certainly
has served its purpose. In certain places and times the Black Bloc
effectively empowered people to take action in collective solidarity against
the violence of state and capitalism. It is important that we neither cling
to it nostalgically as an outdated ritual or tradition, nor reject it
wholesale because it sometimes seems inappropriate. Rather we should
continue working pragmatically to fulfill our individual needs and desires
through various tactics and objectives, as they are appropriate at the
specific moment. Masking up in Black Bloc has its time and place, as do
other tactics which conflict with it.
>
> 1. Katsiaficas, George. The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous
Social Movements And The Decolonization of Everyday Life. New Jersey:
Humanities Press International, Inc., 1997, p. 91.
>
> 2. Katsiaficas, p. 82
>
> 3. Katsiaficas, p. 116
>
> 4. Katsiaficas, p. 116.
>
> 5. ADILKNO. Cracking The Movement: Squatting Beyond the Media. Trans.
Laura Martz. New York: Autonomedia, 1990. p. 25.
>
> 6. ADILKNO, 123
>
> 7. Katsiaficas, 119.
>
> 8. Katsiaficas, 128.
>
> 9. Katsiaficas, 211.
>
> 10. Katsiaficas, 131.
>
> 11. Katsiaficas, 130.
>
> 12. Katsiaficas, 131.
>
> 13. Mid-Atlantic Infoshop. \"Black Bloc For Dummies.\"

>
> 14. Thompson, A. Clay. \"Street Battles--German Squatters Squeezed to Near
Extinction.\"

>



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