[Marxism] Critique of black bloc

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 21 06:22:07 MDT 2011


A.K. Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot

While Whirlwind is a sprawling anthology and a pleasure to read, 
containing much inspiration, A.K. Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot is a 
very different kind of book. In this work, Thompson attempts to analyze 
the core themes and dilemmas of the North American anti-globalization 
movement. He particularly looks at the militant wing of this movement, 
epitomized by the Black Bloc, in which (mostly anarchist) activists 
march together, hide their identities, attack corporate institutions, 
and street fight with the police.

The black bloc tactic emerged out of the German autonomen movement, 
which began in the 1980s. The autonomen, or “those who are autonomous,” 
struggle to defend squatted housing, protest US imperialism, and fight 
against neo-nazis. This tactic of mass anonymity used to engage in 
political militancy and property destruction spread beyond Germany in 
the 1990s and was embraced by US anarchists protesting ecological 
destruction at Wall Street and the first Gulf War, culminating ten years 
later in the widely publicized actions at the 1999 World Trade 
Organization in Seattle. Black blocs in the decade since have become a 
common component of US protests. For Thompson and others, the black bloc 
as a tactic symbolizes the most militant wing of social protest in its 
willingness both to confront the state and to defy legality.

Thompson takes on the task of analyzing this political phenomenon and 
its implications. Unfortunately, his intentions are overshadowed by his 
writing style, which is extremely alienating. Thompson’s prose is dense 
and challenging, seeming like a hybrid of Judith Butler and G.W.F. 
Hegel. At times, his book is close to being unreadable, with references 
to “the logic of inversion and conceptual negation,” which “have tended 
inadvertently to reiterate the restrictive epistemic frame.”(3) While it 
is essential that radicals grapple with difficult ideas, Thompson’s 
writing style tends to hide his genuine insights in post-graduate 
philosophical prose.

Black Bloc, White Riot begins by identifying the North American 
anti-globalization movement as a white middle class phenomenon. The 
forces that marched in the streets against the World Trade Organization, 
International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Group of 8 were largely 
white, as has been addressed by people such as Elizabeth Martinez in her 
piece “Where was the color in Seattle?” (4)

The claim that the movement was middle class seems less clear. While 
those who jet-set across the planet to every major summit may have 
economic privilege, they also are a minority in the movement. By 
assuming a middle class movement, Thompson universalizes the experience 
of privileged activists, while making invisible the experiences of 
working class militants. Another problem with this assumption is that, 
while Thompson spends pages talking about the history of “middle class” 
politics, he never defines what this class is or who is in it. This lack 
of clarity reinforces the tendency to universalize middle class as being 
the normal and majority position.

As Chris Carlsson writes in “Radical Patience: Feeling Effective Over 
the Long Haul,” his contribution to Whirlwind,

“If you are not pushing a shopping cart down the street looking for cans 
and bottles, or riding your Lear Jet to your next golfing vacation in a 
tropical paradise, you probably think you are middle class. In the 
United States, nearly everyone believes they are middle class. Whether 
anyone wants to admit it or not, the majority of us are working class.” (5)

Carlsson and other Autonomist Marxists argue that those who do not own 
the means of production and need to sell their labor to survive make up 
the working class. While autonomist politics is sometimes overly broad 
in its definition of “worker,” this expansive materialist approach is 
useful as a challenge to the United States’ universal “middle class” 
approach, which Thompson unfortunately perpetuates.

Thompson takes on the debates that raged in the movement around race and 
the importance of local organizing.

Following the WTO shutdown of November 1999, Chicana movement veteran 
Martinez’s piece “Where was the color in Seattle?” critiqued the 
whiteness of the emerging anti-globalization movement and the ways in 
which radicals of color were unable to participate fully. Thompson takes 
this critique and the white activist response to it as his jumping-off 

Many in the movement responded to this critique by increasingly 
prioritizing “local organizing” with the communities most affected by 
capitalist globalization, largely communities of color. While this shift 
was an important move away from the “white” of the white Left, Thompson 
speaks to some of its limitations in practice.

While the focus on how capitalism attacks oppressed communities in the 
United States was an important corrective to a movement initially 
focused on “summit hopping,” Thompson critiques the way in which a 
simplistic notion of “the local” separated struggles from the context of 
global capital in which they exist. He also rightfully criticizes white 
activists’ tendency to romanticize “oppressed communities” and seek 
authenticity in them and in relationship to them. There also was (and 
remains) a tendency to view communities of color as natural and 
homogeneous. White activists in their quest for authentic struggle 
idealize communities of color, seeing them as stable and united. It 
would be easy to follow the adage “follow the leadership of people of 
color” if this were true. It is not true, and Thompson points out the 
ways that this white vision of communities of color ignores real 
contradictions around politics, gender, and power that exist within 
these communities. Without being sensitive to these divisions, white 
activists often follow the “official” leadership in these communities 
while ignoring other forces that may be more radical. Thompson urges 
white radicals to be mindful of these dynamics and to try to build real 
relationships and solidarity with people of color-led struggles, rather 
than tailing conservative forces in communities of color based on a 
simplistic, and ultimately racist, view of community.

Thompson also addresses issues of gender in the black bloc.

Thompson goes after the critique that black bloc militancy was macho and 
male-dominated. He rightfully challenges the liberal and radical 
feminist essentialism that argues that violence is inherently male, 
pointing to the role of women in riots and uprisings historically. 
Drawing on the work of radical women of color such as Audre Lorde, he 
critiques the false assumptions of universalizing “sisterhood” that ends 
up locking militant women out of Feminist politics. He then goes on to 
suggest that rioting women destabilize gender categories by crossing the 
boundaries of gendered behavior, and thus that riots can in a limited 
way serve as an experiment in the abolition of gender.

Thompson draws on Frantz Fanon’s work, arguing that violence is a 
precondition to real politics. By engaging in violent activity through 
black bloc tactics white middle class radicals began to break through 
the limitations of representational and staged opposition and open up 
space for the creation of new worlds and possibilities. Unfortunately, 
Thompson’s definition of violence is incomprehensibly academic and 
broad, understood as any act “by which objects are transformed through 
their relationship to other objects,” as well as being “the precondition 
to politics and the premise upon which it rests.” (6)

He explicitly places the act of breast-feeding in the “violent” 
category, suggesting that the breast-feeding of a child undermines 
traditional notions of autonomy and bodily integrity. By this standard 
almost any act that people engage in in the world is violent, from 
gardening to cooking. While his understanding of violence as central to 
all politics is a useful challenge to liberal notions of rational 
negotiation, this definition serves to make violence almost meaningless. 
If violence is understood as being synonymous with transformative 
activity, there is no real reason for the focus on the Black Bloc rather 
than other movement actors, whose civil disobedience and other direct 
actions were equally “violent.”

The use of Fanon’s work is noteworthy, as his Wretched of the Earth 
adorns many an activist bookshelf. But it is not engaged here as it 
should be. Fanon, while certainly a proponent of the necessity of 
violence, was first and foremost a fighter for and theorist of 
decolonization. He argued about the transformative and liberatory power 
of force and militancy within the context of a brutal and violent system 
of colonial oppression of Black and Third World people. The idea that 
this is easily related to the theatrical pseudo-violence of white punk 
rockers breaking Starbucks windows seems dubious. In the context of 
North American settler colonial societies whose very existence is based 
on the colonization and genocide of indigenous people, and, in the case 
of the United States, chattel slavery and apartheid, the application of 
Fanon to the black bloc seems confused and not rooted in the material 
conditions and real history that Fanon always addressed.

While Black Bloc,White Riot contains real insights in its analysis of 
the debates and tensions within the radical wing of the North American 
anti-globalization movement, it does not go very deep. Thompson quotes 
from a handful of communiques and CrimethInc documents, but there is 
little in the way of real engagement with the writing or debates within 
the movement. One wants to get a feel for what young radicals were 
thinking and doing as they challenged global capital. One wants to know 
what they were arguing about, how they lived and organized, and what 
they were reading and writing. Instead, one is treated to lengthy 
analyses of the movies “Fight Club” and “Natural Born killers” (which 
Thompson somehow thinks were major influences on the movement) and the 
highly theoretical works of Fanon, Butler, Paulo Freire, and Michel 
Foucault. These Leftist philosophers are used to make incredibly 
abstract philosophical points about the necessity of violence for 
meaningful political action.

Theory is certainly a necessity in our struggle for freedom. 
Understanding it sometimes requires great concentration and hard work. 
However, Thompson fails to really connect his theory to the practice he 
is examining. Further, he does not give the reader a living sense of the 
activities, ideas, and overall composition of the movement he purports 
to analyze.

Team Colors’s Uses of a Whirlwind and A.K. Thompson’s Black Bloc, White 
Riot are both attempts to understand and learn from people’s struggles 
against neoliberal capitalism in North America over recent years. 
Whirlwind is a diverse, sprawling collection full of insight, 
experience, and wisdom engaged in building relevant resistance. It does 
at times lack focus as an anthology, and sometimes feels like a 400-page 
issue of Left Turn magazine in its wide-ranging snapshots of activity 
without a strategic orientation of how struggles fit together and what 
their potentials are. The anthology also has a real blind spot in its 
lack of attention to race and state violence, leaving its broad overview 
unfortunately skewed.

Black Bloc, White Riot is far more focused in its intention to examine 
the white middle class radical wing of the anti-globalization movement. 
It contains significant insights into and important critiques of the 
ways in which gender and race play out in the movement, and also makes a 
necessary call for the importance of taking risks and engaging in 
uncompromising militant action. Problematically, these insights into 
real movement debates are the exception, overshadowed by long 
theoretical tangents and often unreadable verbosity.

What both of these works leave us with is the necessity not only to 
continue struggling and building movements, but also to theorize, sum 
up, and share the lessons of our work with others. Too often, we are so 
engaged in our day-to-day organizing that we fail to think about how our 
work connects to our vision of a radically different world. If we take 
our work seriously, we need not only to think about these questions of 
revolutionary strategy, but to write about them. Both Team Colors and 
Thompson have made serious attempts to do this. And, for this, they 
deserve our thanks.


1. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Andrej Grubacic, “Preface: In the Wind,” in 
Team Colors Collective, eds., Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, 
and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States (Oakland, CA, 
2010), xxiv.
2. When making these critiques, it must be taken into account that this 
is an anthology of previously unpublished work. Team Colors worked with 
what was submitted to them and they cannot be entirely blamed for what 
is missing here. Nonetheless, the gaps in this vision of radicalism are 
too significant to ignore, despite how good this collection is in many ways.
3. AK Thompson, Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the 
Genealogy of Dissent (Oakland, CA, 2010), 38.
4. Elizabeth Martinez, “Where Was the Color in Seattle?,” in Colorlines, 
Spring 2000.
5. Chris Carlsson, “Radical Patience: Feeling Effective Over the Long 
Haul,” in Team Colors Collective, eds., Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, 
Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States 
(Oakland, CA, 2010) 306.
6. AK Thompson, Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the 
Genealogy of Dissent (Oakland, CA, 2010) 23.

Geoff Bylinkin is a healthcare worker and anti-capitalist activist in 
Portland, Oregon, where he is active in struggles against police 
violence and white supremacy. He lives with a dog, two cats, five 
chickens, three ducks and many bees. He spends his little spare time 
obsessing over queer liberation, self-determination, and obscure 
historical Left groups.

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