My May Day Highlight

The loving embrace of Black Bloc

This essay is also published in Mitchel Cohen's book, "What Is Direct Action? Lessons from (and to) Occupy Wall Street" (foreword by Richard Wolff)

by Isis Feral

On the eve of May Day a black-clad crowd indiscriminately smashed up a neighborhood in San Francisco's Mission District, and continued unhindered even after they hit the police station. In a sensationalistic frenzy, the bourgeois media denounced anarchists as the ones to blame, but there were reports that no one among local anarchists and black bloc participants knew the vandals. In fact, comrades in black bloc explicitly distanced themselves from the vandalism, and most left the scene as soon as they realized that the action was without direction and not principled. In the days following, Occupy San Francisco, which includes anarchists and black bloc, condemned the action and offered help to repair the damage to homes and small local businesses.

Wearing black and masks, and smashing things, does not a black bloc make.

May Day itself was an amazing day here in the Bay Area. While it was not a traditional general strike, several unions did go on strike, including janitors, nurses, and ferry workers, while longshore workers effectively shut down the ports for a contractual stop work meeting. Immigrant workers marched as they have every year since May Day 2006, a national day without immigrants, the first general strike in the U.S. since Oakland 1946, and the union busting Taft-Hartley Act that followed in 1947. It really felt like International Workers Day, a holiday observed in most of the world except in this country, where it originated when the 1886 general strike in Chicago won the 8-hour work day.

We left Oakland at 2:30am for the Larkspur ferry terminal in Marin County, to picket with the striking inlandboatmen there. The Golden Gate district officially canceled the ferries that morning, but we'd heard that they had lied in a previous strike, so we didn't take any chances, and showed up early to help defend the strike.

The picket line was slow to start, but when a driver threatened to run me over, more workers got pissed off, and finally picketed in earnest. Until a union bureaucrat showed up and ordered everyone not to block cars. I didn't violate her wishes, but did challenge her, hoping that the rank and file might follow my example in the long run. Too many unions are neutered by the rank and file relying on their bureaucracies to make decisions for them that are not in their own best interest. Rather than take her word for it, I asked how we can be sure that none of the drivers are scabs, and told her that if she asks me to come to a picket, I'll picket, but if she asks me to come to a protest, I'm not showing up at 4 o'clock in the morning.

As the sun came up the rally was bolstered by a teamsters' big rig, blasting Marianne Faithful's version of 'Which Side Are You On'. They also brought a giant inflatable fat cat grabbing a worker by the throat. We left the party atmosphere behind by around 9am, and headed to Berkeley to support the striking nurses.

Though the hospital was surrounded by nurses, they weren't too clear on the concept of picketing either. I asked some of them whether they were really picketing, or were they just protesting and letting people through. They said they stop only union workers. They let non-union scabs go in to fill the jobs they had walked out of. Something obviously got lost in the translation. How sad when THE militant direct action strategy in defense of the working class is so woefully misunderstood, and its effectiveness diminished by catering to laws that were written to enslave.

At Noon we left the nurses and went to Oscar Grant Plaza, the center of activity for Occupy Oakland. We arrived just after the first police riot, when they discharged teargas, and snatched individuals out of the crowd. I later saw video footage, and at one point cops were surrounded by angry protesters. IF Occupy really was violent, those cops would have gotten seriously hurt, but all the crowd did was yell, 'we are not afraid'. And IF Occupy really was violent, it wouldn't have been just bottles and paint that were thrown at cops later that evening, when they lined up to clear the plaza long before curfew, as a peaceful crowd milled about. Not one of the cops in their armored riot gear got hurt. They did not even react to the shattering glass, seemed more concerned about the paint stains on their uniforms. They went after occupiers quite some time later, so their actions were most definitely not in 'self-defense'. The violence originated ENTIRELY from the cops, who were armed to their teeth.

We hung out at the plaza for a couple of hours, a very chilled out scene, nothing illegal going on that I could see. It didn't even smell like pot! We were using the plaza for its intended purpose. But then we heard the familiar sound of a police projectile exploding about a block away, and a little later, someone came up saying that the cops had announced (out of earshot, in a side street) that they would arrest everyone at the plaza, so most of us left. A few people stayed behind to test it out, and were not arrested after all. But looking down from the nearby parking garage, we saw a huge crowd in the intersection, which looked like a very large protest. All riot cops! It looked like there were hundreds of them. This was around 3pm.

We came back a couple of hours later, after lunch, and people were back at the plaza, waiting for the permitted immigrants rights march to arrive. The cops took down the banners while we waited, and I saw one of them reach for the pink pig piñata with a police badge on its chest, hanging out of reach. Some occupiers were all too happy to assist, and smashed the piñata to shreds, with candy and fake money flying everywhere. The only 'violence' from protesters that I saw was against a papier-mâché pig. The cops decided not to interfere. You can see a short, satisfying video of the piñata meeting its demise, with comrades singing "No more pigs in the community!" -- "No more brothers/sisters in jail!"

We left around 8:30pm, right before another police projectile exploded in the intersection. In footage I saw later, the cops pushed the crowd away from the plaza up Broadway, at one point with a line of motorcycles with all sirens blaring. In one video a red SUV turned onto a street in my neighborhood, several blocks away from the plaza, and riot cops spilled out of it, and jumped a guy just standing on the sidewalk. The protest crowd was nowhere to be seen. There is also footage of two Alameda County Sheriffs (the notorious, and aptly named 'blue meanies') with M4 assault rifles in front of city hall earlier in the afternoon. They drove through downtown with an armored personnel carrier, which appeared to have on its roof an as of yet unused LRAD (long range acoustic device, which can make you deaf), apparently trying to intimidate the crowd. When I was at the plaza in the evening, I saw a group of about five Oakland cops patrolling the park, and one had his hand firmly placed on his pistol with live ammunition.

With the overwhelming and threatening presence of ever more militarized riot cops, the highlight of my day was when we approached a small cluster of black bloc at the plaza. My comrade was distributing his organization's critical defense of black bloc in response to Chris Hedges' article of condemnation, and we stopped to talk for a while. I told one of them that I've been defending them a lot in recent months, because I know that in the face of police violence it's usually black bloc, whether individuals or in a group, who shield others, preventing a lot of injuries and arrests. I don't have to agree with every smashed window to stand up for those who have my back.

I wish someone had taken a photo, because what happened next should disintegrate all the stereotypes of black bloc being out of control thugs: This completely cloaked ninja-like figure, whose eyes were all I could see, and who I will likely never recognize again, quietly spread his arms out wide, then wrapped them around me in a loving embrace.

It was a snapshot that encompasses the way I've always experienced black bloc: Loving towards their community, concerned for our safety, and ready to defend us. When the explosion went off in the afternoon, black bloc participants were right in the front of the crowd that swarmed to help our comrades under attack. Some of us have been calling for 'Workers Defense Guards' for decades, but few among organized labor have heeded the call. Until workers organize such defense guards, black bloc is the only group of people who mobilize to do this necessary work, who put their own bodies on the line to defend our comrades from the direct violence of state repression. I love them for it, and from now on I just may start all my participation in actions by first hugging everyone in black bloc.

The morning after May Day my neighbors found one of the black bloc shields, which the City of Oakland has since attempted to ban as a 'Tool of Violence': a plastic garbage can, cut in half, with a big heart painted on it, abandoned on the sidewalk in our neighborhood, battered, like so many more of us would be, if it wasn't for the courage of a few anonymous comrades.

posted June 5, 2012

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