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The Politics of a Punch: Richard Spencer and the Black Bloc

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Unless you do not own a computer or have been in a coma for the past week, you are probably aware of alt-right leader Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a man dressed in black bloc garb. For a beleaguered left, this became as inspirational as the appearance of a silhouette of Jesus on the sidewalk created by bucket of paint dropped accidentally from the top floor of a building under construction would be for Christians. In either case, there is little connection between overcoming the evils of capitalism or Satan but it matters little to those desperately in search of a victory.

One of those believers is Natasha Lennard who wrote an article for The Nation breathlessly announcing “Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc”. For Lennard, the punch was a “transcendental experience”, akin to watching Roger Federer. Not being a tennis fan, it is a bit hard for me to relate to this. Maybe if she said it was like watching Muhammad Ali deck Joe Frazier, it would have had more resonance but Spencer hardly seemed worse off 15 seconds after the punch.

Lennard was not only a reporter; she was a participant in a black bloc action that consisted of 500 people, the largest she bragged since the antiwar protests ten years ago. I suppose if the USA had the same population as Iceland, this might have been impressive. I admit that if the goal is to run around in black clothes and break windows that number might count for something. Leonard describes the experience as if it were akin to a Sufi ceremony rather than a political protest: “You don’t know who does what in a bloc, you don’t look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty.” Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty? I hate to sound like an old stick in the mud but knocking over a trash can happens all the time in my neighborhood as drunken 24-year old Ivy League graduates pour out of sports bars late Saturday night.

The one thing that stuck in my craw, however, after reading Lennard’s muddleheaded article was the notion that this kind of puerile adventure had something to do with the millions who protested against Trump: “One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall.”

The notion that breaking windows, burning limousines, knocking over trash cans or throwing rocks at the cops has anything to do with the epochal struggle against American capitalism must be interrogated. Keep in mind that this is a recent “tactic”, for the lack of a better word, that emerged in the 1970s as a largely student movement grew frustrated over its ability to change society. If it was impossible to get steelworkers, truck drivers and oil refinery workers to join a revolutionary movement, maybe the next best thing would be to carry out “exemplary” actions that might encourage them to resist the ruling class. This was what the Weathermen believed and it must be noted that the black bloc was following their example as they would willingly admit. For me, this is tantamount to someone starting a new car manufacturing company based on the Yugo or Corvair but perhaps success matters less to people such as Lennard than bodies being reconciled and kinetic energy.

In an online book titled “The Black Bloc Papers”, David Van Deusen of the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective makes clear that the Weathermen were the forefathers of Lennard’s comrades:

The Black Bloc can trace its historical roots all the way back to when- and wherever people comprising an oppressed class or group militantly rose up against their oppressors. Elements of the particular tactics of the Bloc were previously utilized by the Weather faction of Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS) in North America during the “Days of Rage” in 1969.

I have vivid memories of the “Days of Rage”, which can best be described as a collective nervous breakdown by Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn and others who have led productive political lives in recent decades. Even Van Deusen, who wrote in defense of the black bloc, has a more grounded existence today as a union representative of the Vermont State Employees Association.

The Weathermen were fond of making épater la bourgeoisie type statements such as Bernadine Dohrn announcing that the Weathermen “dig Charles Manson” and Bill Ayers advising young people to kill their parents. In an attempt to build up their strike force for the “Days of Rage” between October 8–11, 1969, they used to invade high schools or community colleges, barge into classes and harangue the students about the need to “fight the system”. If teachers got in their way, they’d get a karate chop for their efforts. Most students felt like they were being addressed by maniacs, a function no doubt of the mixture of ultraleft fantasies reaching epic proportions and marathon LSD sessions at Weathermen crash pads. One of the people involved in these “jailbreaks” was Diana Oughton, the daughter of a banker who died in an accidental explosion making bombs in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970.

Why anybody would want to emulate such “tactics” is an enduring mystery. But things were not that different in Europe where the student left was going through the same kinds of paroxysms. On the continent, you had the same sort of adventurism but it was cloaked in a neo-Marxist ideology called “Autonomism”, which was a reference to being “autonomous” of the traditional trade unions and left parties.

One of the more exotic of the Italian autonomist groups was the Metropolitan Indians, a group that dressed up and put on war-paint as if they were Sitting Bull, a sign of their “autonomy” from bourgeois society. Among their demands were free pot and LSD for anybody who wanted to use them and occupying empty buildings as sites for alternatives to the nuclear family.

In 1973 they stormed a jazz festival in Umbria and harangued the audience with the message that the “weapon of music cannot replace the music of weapons”. Apparently, they had a big fetish over the P38, a pistol made by Walther. (James Bond used the Walther PPK.) Obviously, we are dealing with some very humorless people despite their feeble attempts to the contrary.

On February 17 of that year a two thousand strong detachment of CP trade unionists accompanied party leader Luciano Lama to the campus of the University of Rome where he intended to deliver a speech against a student sit-in protesting tuition hikes. Not long after Lama’s talk began, the Metropolitan Indians donned masks and led an assault on Lama and his supporters.  At least fifty people were seriously injured in the fracas. This violent attack gave the government the pretext it needed to launch an assault on the university. Two thousand cops raided the campus and used tear gas and clubbed everybody in sight. Between the naked opportunism of the CP and the agent provocateur-like behavior of the Metropolitan Indians, it is not surprising that the Italian left crashed and burned in this period.

Antonio Negri became a leading figure in the autonomist movement and particularly as the leader of a group called Autonomia Operaia (Worker’s Autonomy). Like the Weathermen’s intervention in high schools and community colleges prior to the Days of Rage, Negri’s followers would rather punch people than debate with them.

In a review of Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” in the New York Review of Books that is behind a paywall, journalist Alexander Stille provides some detail on Negri’s bully-boy past:

Professors and former students at the University of Padua, where Negri taught, describe a reign of terror in which, for about three years, the autonomi, who recognized Negri as their principal leader, took over buildings, disrupted classes, shouted down opposing speakers, set off bombs, humiliated and beat up professors, and intimidated dissenting students. During their so-called Nights of Fire, Autonomia set off bombs in several different places in or around Padua.

The gestures of what Negri called “proletarian self-affirmation” assumed truly grotesque forms: under threat of violence an elderly professor was forced by the autonomi to give an oral examination to a dog. Guido Petter, a psychology professor who had supported the student demonstrations of 1968, was so badly beaten with iron bars that he was taken to a hospital. Oddone Longo, a professor of ancient Greek literature and the dean of the literature department, was also savagely beaten by three autonomi wearing ski masks and wielding metal wrenches.

Things were just as bad in Germany.

A group of autonomists in Hamburg issued a communique in 1982 that denounced the “absurd demands of unions for more jobs that only integrate people into oppression and exploitation”. Instead the idea was to “sabotage, to change the political, moral and technical structures of domination is a step toward a self-determined life.” Since many of these student radicals were from privileged families, it is no surprise that they would sneer at the need for having a job.

While they were deeply influenced by the Italians who preceded them, the Germans can be “credited” with inventing the black bloc tactic. (Don’t ever refer to the black bloc as a group to its supporters since they insist that it is only a tactic—as if the people who use this tactic are not part on an informal network that can be counted upon to mobilize for a particular action and share identical beliefs.)

Ironically, it was the German cops who first coined the term referring to the “Schwarzer Block” in a raid in Frankfurt on July 28, 1981 against squatters and other “subversives”. The cops did not view the schwarzer block as a tactic, but as a group even if was ill-defined. In fact, it was so ill-defined that charges were eventually dropped against those arrested.

But the tactic predated its naming by the cops and its enshrinement as a permanent tactic by the autonomen. In the late 70s, a wing of the radical movement donned helmets, masks and black clothing when they went out to fight neo-Nazis and the cops. There was such a deep hatred toward the German state in this period that the black bloc tactic could summon thousands of activists into battle. Only a few years earlier the Red Army Faction, led by Baader and Meinhof, could count on support that the American Weather Underground could only fantasize about. Fully one out of four Germans supported their activities and one out of ten said they would hide an RAF member from the cops.

In “The Subversion of Politics”, one of the deeper analyses of the European ultraleft, George Katsiaficas views the widespread choice of black as a “style” preference rather than an indication of any kind of deep ideological affinity with anarchism:

The black leather jackets worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by others signalled less an ideological anarchism than a style of dress and behavior — symbols of a way of life which made contempt for the established institutions and their U.S. “protectors” into a virtue on an equal footing with disdain for the “socialist” governments in Eastern Europe. Black became the color of the political void — of the withdrawal of allegiance to parties, governments and nations.

In West Berlin, the autonomists began to use their muscle against “yuppies” in the same way they had used it against fascists. Apparently, a middle-class life style was just as much of a menace to their vision of a liberated territory as a swastika.

To block the gentrification of a neighborhood called Kreuzberg, they vandalized upscale restaurants catering to professionals, in some cases throwing bags of shit at diners. They also torched luxury automobiles in the same way limousines were torched in Washington.

They functioned as a morality police just like the Taliban. When a small theater called Sputnik decided to show the low-budget anti-Nazi satire film “Terror 2000”, a group of activists sprayed the projectionist with teargas, and used butyric acid to destroy a copy of the film, which they considered “sexist and racist.” Afterward, they threatened to return and “destroy everything” if the movie was ever screened again.

Having a thing about movies, they also invaded a small art house showing Lydia Lunch’s movie called “Fingered” that they considered pornographic. Twelve masked men and women invaded the theater, destroyed the film and projector, and emptied the cash register on their way out.

They also targeted a relatively modest restaurant called Maxwell that sounds exactly like those that have opened up in Brooklyn neighborhoods where Jacobin writers live. The restaurant was launched by a man named Hartmut Bitomsky, who was a film student who took part in a leftist occupation at the German Film and Television Academy in West Berlin that he and seventeen other students renamed the Dziga Vertov Academy in honor of the Soviet documentary filmmaker. He was expelled for his efforts.

This did not prevent him from acting on his leftist beliefs afterwards. He wrote a Marxist treatise on film titled “The Redness of the Red in Technicolor” and began making decidedly uncommercial films in Berlin. Becoming obsessed with “German images” like forests, superhighways and blond braids, he reworked them into a film critique of Nazi totalitarianism.

In the summer of 1986, Hartmut Bitomsky discovered that he had become the “enemy” of the people dressed in black. Late one night when there were only four customers in the restaurant, nineteen men and women clad in black leather and wearing Doc Martens stormed into the restaurant, started throwing beer cans and turning over furniture. His first reaction was to think that he was dealing with neo-Nazis. Some people who ran a soup kitchen down the street told them that they had been victims of the Redskins, a hard-core autonomist gang that had apparently been following the example of the Italian Metropolitan Indians. They were advised to pay protection money, just as if they were characters in “The Sopranos”.

The Redskins came back on Sunday and instructed Bitomsky that he was going to stand trial. He was denounced by an autonomist Vishinsky who demanded to know: “What are you doing in Kreuzberg? You are destroying the infrastructure of Kreuzberg”. Yes, the poached tilapia was certainly a threat to humanity.

Thankfully, the Americans who were inspired by the Weathermen and other self-appointed morality police have displayed little such aggression. For the most part, they are too weak to do much of anything except adopt “revolutionary” tactics such as breaking Starbucks windows and turning over trash cans.

Unfortunately, every time they carry out such tantrums, they manage to get media coverage all out of proportion to their actual influence. In many ways, they are the same kind of diversion as the handful of people who used to burn American flags on the fringes of a massive antiwar demonstration in the 60s or 70s. There might have been a half-million people in Washington demanding Out Now but the evening news would inevitably lead with footage of the flag being burned.

One of my favorite takes on these people comes from Osha Neumann, the son of the late German Marxist Franz Neumann whose Behemoth remains as one of the primary texts on Nazism. It seems that Neumann understands what it means to be a lunatic ultraleftist since he was a member of a group called the Motherfuckers in the sixties that he wrote about in his “Up Against the Wall Motherf**er: a Memoir of the ’60s, with Notes for Next Time”. Like Mark Rudd et al, this experience left him wiser and better prepared for the genuine class struggle. Nowadays he is a lawyer defending homelss people.

In a February 3, 2012 article for CounterPunch, Neumann commented on the presence of the black bloc in Oakland in an article titled “Occupy Oakland: Are We Being Childish?”, where he wrote:

Occupy is not a monolith. On Saturday within the motley of demonstrators one group stood out. They were the “kids” with the black bandannas and hoodies. Some carried makeshift shields constructed from segments of plastic trash cans painted black with peace signs spray-painted in white on the front. Some carried impressive movable barricades composed of rectangular sheets of strong corrugated steel, screwed to wooden frames to which handles had been attached so that three or four people could hunker behind them and push them into lines of police. It was this group that was in the forefront in the attempt to pull down the chain-link fence around the Kaiser Convention Center. A takeover of that center had been announced as the goal of the demonstration. Thwarted in that effort, the group got into a confrontation with a line of police blocking Oak Street south of the intersection with 12th. This black block of anarchist youth tends to identify with insurrectionist anarchism. They are our militants who will be the first to challenge the police, and who proudly proclaim their disrespect for property rights. I imagine that for them the rest of us appear as somewhat compromised and a bit timid, for we are unwilling to go as far as they in our commitment to the revolution. Here something of the dynamic between child and adult reemerges as a political division within the movement. We who do not come to demonstrations dressed in black become the model of a not quite legitimate “maturity;” the purest revolutionary energies are represented by those who reject this maturity, as a fraud — the heroic kids.

Returning to that viral punch of Richard Spencer, I enjoyed it just as much as the next person. It was like my favorite Youtube clip of a monkey teasing a cat but with a sort of piquancy that comes with a scumbag getting clocked.

I could not help but wonder if the black bloc guy would have done the same thing if it had been a top-ranking police official like William Bratton giving the interview. After all, NYC’s cops have killed far more Black people than Richard Spencer ever will. The cops don’t go around talking about White Identity but they sure as hell act on it. Obviously, this would not have happened since Bratton would have had a bunch of cops standing around just to make sure that such an incident would not occur. Furthermore, it is the police departments of the USA that is our problem, not out of control fascist mobs like Golden Dawn or Hitler’s Stormtroopers for that matter.

When I was in Houston in the early to mid-70s, we had to put up with something much more like Golden Dawn, namely the KKK that had not only been given a free hand by the city’s mayor but included a number of cops in its ranks including this fellow.

Two years before I arrived in Houston, the SWP headquarters had been firebombed by the Klan, which had tried to invade party headquarters but were turned back. A couple months later, our offices were shot full of bullet holes. The company insuring the building canceled its policy and for a few months we could not get offices anywhere.

We had a member named Fred Brode who was a retired railroad worker in his sixties back then. He was a communist in Germany who had taken part in street fights with the Nazis in the 1920s. In Houston, he became a leader of the Vietnam antiwar movement and gained the attention of the Klan who drove past his house and fired a machine gun through his kitchen window one night. There was a photo in leading newspapers of our members filling up and placing sand bags in front of his house.

Our approach was not to “destroy the Klan” by retaliating in eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth fashion. The Communist Workers Party tried that in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979 and they suffered the loss of 4 of their members by gunfire that day.

Instead, we built a high-profile civil liberties campaign that enlisted the support of the ACLU, prominent liberal politicians, professors and other notables. The struggle was conducted through press conferences and election campaigns rather than fisticuffs or property damage. Debbie Leonard, the SWP candidate for Houston mayor, debated Klan leader Frank Converse on television. These debates received widespread publicity and exposed the complicity with the Klan by city officials. As a result of this campaign, four Klansmen were indicted in June 1971 for acts of terrorism in the bombing of the SWP offices three months earlier. From that point on, the KKK was no longer a factor in local politics.

Tactics are always dictated by local conditions. I don’t want to turn what happened in Houston into a template but it only suggests that as the USA becomes much more like Houston under Donald Trump’s rule, it will become necessary to think through how to respond. Ultimately, the fist that landed on Spencer’s jaw will be much less important than our ability to unite massively and make it impossible for terror to take place, either by men in blue uniforms or white robes.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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