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Studies | The Black Blocs, Who and Why

Screenshot from 2013-10-16 10:48:39

Source: Ricardo Noblat (O Globo)

Stores broken into, agencies and patrol cars set afire, buses full of detainees, the U.S. consulate stoned, Molotov cocktails and bombs thrown at street beggars and barricades afire in the midst of historical buildings: last night, masked demonstrators promoted an atmosphere of all-out war in the downtown area of one of Brazil’s most important cities After infiltrating peaceful demonstrations commemorating Teachers Day, the Black Bloc once again confronted the military police of Rio and São Paulo.

By 11 p.m., 206 persons had been detained — making this one of the events with the highest number of arrests since June. In Rio, the confrontation was so intense that in Cinelândia, fiery barricades were erected across from the National Library, the largest collection of books in Brazil. A hundred meters away, the front steps of the Municipal Theater provided shelter to masked demonstrators, hurling  stones and Molotov cocktails at the PMs, who responded with flash bombs. Across the street, the National Museum, with its collection of classic artworks, became a rallying point for the Black Bloc.

The barbarians are at the gates and threatening to set fire to Os Lusíadas.

Who Are The Black Bloc?

In a more edifying sidebar, meanwhile, Bruno Paes Manso, of the Estado de S. Paulo, describes the evolution of a “second generation” of Black Bloc militants “united by rage.”

There were already 70 persons who began participating in public marches, especially after June 26, when 13 bank agencies were destroyed in São Paulo. The episode marks the beginning of protests called by adepts of the Black Bloc tactic, which involves the destruction of banks, shops, and luncheonettes as a form of political expression.

They range in age from 15 to 25, are lower middle class in origin,and were taught mainly in public schools and private universities.  They are, even so, a heterogeneous group: teachers, system analysts, ecologists, ex-convicts and residents of the social services program Fundação Casa. The majority learned of the protests when the Free Pass Movement (MPL) took to the streets during the June protests, which they accompanied as supporters.

“The protest actions of the MPL taught us a lesson. I was already really angry , but it was not until June that I learned what direct action is, how violence is capable of provoking changes in the system. This type of protest is the reslt of the hatred I feel for the system. The objective is to destroy and rebuild,” said one Black Bloc adept.

In order to understand the motivations of these hooded figures, the Estado de S. Paulo interviewed five Black Bloc practitioners — two women and three men. We also had access to the impressions and part of the dialogue that Esther Solano, an International Relations professor at UNIFESP, and Rafael Alcadipani, of the FGV, have established with these young people.

An article by Alcadipani is selectively translated below.

During the last two months, the two researchers spoke with some 20 activists whom they met at demonstrations. “Our goal is to understand the role of violence in these protests. Violence is present in the actions of the police and demonstrators alike. This says something about São Paulo and Brazil,” says the Spaniard Esther, 30. “There is no point simply pretending the phenomenon does not exist. It could teach us something we do not already know.”

The strategy of this new phase in the evolution of the Black Bloc has changed. During the MPL marches, the destruction took place only after the Polícia Militar tried to disperse the crowds or unblock the streets. The Black Bloc acted in the name of lowering bus fares. “The tactic of reaction is inspired by European protesters. After July, when the Black Blocs began scheduling and organizing events, they adopted the American model, created in Seattle, which attacks without provocation. The destruction has no clear objective. It signifies indignation and rage.”

Scream. The aggression was inspired by the Black Blocs of Rio. It was the masked protesters of Rio who came up with the idea of the scream that immediately precedes the smashing and bashing, a cry similar to that of monkeys or cavemen. During the MPL marches in June, the first phase of the protests, the most familiar sound was the chanting of political slogans and the bass drum of the marching band Fanfarra do Mal.

Since September 7, when the Black Bloc tactic was reproduced in various Brazilian states and 200 persons arrested, the repression has intensified. Quite a few have already been arrested. Many are being summoned for questioning at police precincts. “We now take special care.  We take down our Facebook profiles, learn to use encryption software”, he says.

Last week, the excesses of the Black Bloc made headlines again when masked young persons hurled bombs, Molotov cocktails and iron balls at police. In one of the most symbolic moments of the protest, Black Blocs turn over a police car. “It was beautiful. It was a trophy moment,” said one.  “We are against violence against persons, but in the case of police, they represent the State that uses violence against us.,” a member explains.

On Tuesday, the state government of São Paulo announced a task force targeting these tactics. Persons caught destroying property during demonstrations will be prosecuted for criminal association.  “This will not affect the number of actions. Our protests will continue to take place. Our focus is on the World Cup and the Olympics,” says a young Black Bloc woman.”

The Solano-Alcadipani Study

It was not long before the term “vandal” began to be heard. In order to explain the Black Bloc movement, analysts tend to apply the label to masked young persons who promote acts of violence against symbols of capitalism.

Together with Prof. Esther Solano of Unifesp, I have begun a study of the protests. In the course of our work, we have hit the streets to observe and converse with young persons, police and journalists present at these events.

Our research methodology is inspired by anthropology and we start from the premise that in order to comprehend something, you need to observe and converse with those who are living it.

It is one thing to form an opinion from a distance, through the media. It is quite another to form your opinion out in the field. 

As a researcher, I can speak only of the data I have on hand, which I have analyzed without pretending to obtain some absolute truth. 

What I observed on the streets can be summed up as follows. The young Black Bloc followers are intellectually oriented. Many are high school students. A number attend public schools.  

Many live on the urban periphery, though some live in downtown São Paulo, in neighborhoods such as Bela Vista and Luz. Others seem to belong to the economic elite, but are perceived as a minority within the movement. These are young people who say they have no future in Brazil. 

They say that protests should call attention to themselves. One of their actions lasted for more than four hours and cases of violence were relatively few. 

The protestors are under the eye of the police at all times. There is tension in the air. The adolescents frequently provoke the police. There is a behind the scenes debate over who is going to go violent first and then accuse the other to the media. 

I was struck by the number of people with smartphones and cameras filming everything that happened, especially acts of violence on both sides. 

All of this has an aspect of spectacle to it. It seems to me that the notion of “vandalism” does not help us understand what underlies these acts. We are talking about a level of violence that achieves a certain theatrical effect. After all, breaking a window with a rock produces high-impact imagery. 

Prof. Jeffrey S. Juris of the University of Arizona, performed a similar analysis of Black Bloc actions during the G-8 Summit in 2001, in Genoa. His study appeared in the journal “Critique of Anthropology”.

Like the protesters, the Polícia Militar is also the victim of stigmas that characterize it as an essentially violent institutions. I witnessed officers attempting to establish dialogue with the protesters at the same time they needed to calm their subordinates. As it seems to me, they need to review their tactics for dealing for civil disturbances. The protests are a challenge for the PM as well. 

This scenario is  the basis of a symbolic struggle for public support. Who bears the worst stigma? A violent PM or the vandals? An independent researcher, in analyzing the phenomenon, is soon torn between the two. 

To understand what is happening in Brazil today, we need to be able to think. Violence, to be condemned in any form it takes, must be understood in more sophisticate terms than these. 

We have no defintive answers regarding the protests and their evolution. The debate remains open. To make sure it remains open, it is important to study the facts in order to discuss them at a more advanced level than common sense.