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Black Blocs: Upping the Ante at Protests

Written by Fred Burton

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March 12, 2008 | 1528 GMT
By Fred Burton

stratfortir.jpgA small bomb exploded outside a military recruiting station in New York City’s Times Square in the early morning hours of March 6, causing minor property damage but no injuries. The New York Police Department said surveillance videos of the area show a single person arriving at the scene riding a bicycle and wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt.


Police say the blast was caused by a crude device made from a small, green ammunition container filled with black powder. In the video, the attacker appears to be acting alone, suggesting the person who planted the device was also the bombmaker. There have been no credible claims of responsibility for the attack, though police have lifted latent fingerprints off of what they believe to be the bicycle used by the perpetrator.

Although bombings are uncommon in Manhattan, several unsolved incidents have occurred that could be related to the March 6 attack:

These incidents all bear striking similarities. They all caused small-scale damage, and they all occurred early in the morning when few people were around. This suggests the attacks were aimed not at taking casualties but rather at sending messages to the targeted businesses and government offices and gaining media attention.

The devices used in each of the incidents involved readily available materials, and they were designed rather simply, although they did demonstrate a small degree of skill, given there is no evidence that any of the devices malfunctioned. Also, no known claims of responsibility were made or lists of demands issued in any of the cases. Moreover, each attack appears to have been carried out by an individual acting alone. If a more established group had been involved, the attacks likely would have been more spectacular.

At first glance, the targets appear to have been randomly selected and unconnected. However, on closer inspection, the choice of targets reveals that a specific ideology seemed to have guided the attacker or attackers. In addition, the bicycles and the attackers’ dark hooded sweatshirt in at least three of these cases might indicate a connection to certain protest groups. The tactics and target selection of the latest New York City attacks bear some similarities to the actions of black bloc groups in past protest activities.

The Black Bloc
A black bloc is a nebulous entity that has no centralized command and control structure, similar to organizations such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. Instead, activists who join black bloc groups usually also participate in other more benign activist organizations and affinity groups. Because a black bloc is not a formal organization, there is no clear definition of its ideology. However, individuals who participate in black bloc actions are typically anti-capitalism, anti-globalization and anti-war and often identify themselves as anarchists. Overall, they oppose “authoritarianism,” which they believe is present throughout modern society.

Black blocs often are organized on an ad hoc basis to participate in larger protest activities, such as those at the 2003 G-7 meeting in Washington and the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. The black bloc activists participate in large protests and often serve as a tactical brigade — adding conflict to a given protest event. While there may be a large group of individuals participating in one black bloc, there also are smaller autonomous cells within the group that carry out unilateral action. These groups have engaged in a number of violent activities over the years, mostly involving the destruction of property, and they claim that engaging in small-scale violence and destruction is a legitimate political statement.

Members of black bloc groups often dress in dark clothing and wear masks and scarves to conceal their identity, making it difficult for law enforcement to track them down. During some protest activities, groups have been known to send out scouts on bicycles to conduct reconnaissance on police in the area. Using handheld radios, the scouts then alert others in the group to areas where the police presence is less robust or where security measures can be more easily breached.

Black blocs rose to prominence as a movement during the 1999 Seattle WTO meetings. During the protests, groups mostly of young men began burning trash cans in the streets and smashing windows of retail stores and restaurants, including Old Navy, Gap, Planet Hollywood and McDonald’s.

The New York Attacks
Although there are no definitive connections between black blocs and the series of New York City attacks, the targets reflect the elements of society that black blocs most oppose. Large and influential banks are a frequent target of anti-capitalist actors, and these same individuals would likely cite Planet Hollywood as an example of crass culture and globalization.

The October 2007 attack against the Mexican Consulate was likely related to the first anniversary of the death of journalist Brad Will, who was shot to death in Oaxaca, Mexico, allegedly by domestic law enforcement, while reporting on protests in the city. At the time of his death, Will was working as a reporter for Indymedia, a media outlet for radical activist causes. Following Will’s death, many activists called for blockades and other black bloc-style direct actions against Mexican consulates around the world. Similarly, the May 2005 attack against the offices of Caterpillar is likely related to the death of Rachel Corrie, a member of the International Solidarity Movement who was killed in the Gaza Strip in March 2003. Corrie died during an incident that involved a Caterpillar-made armored bulldozer operated by members of the Israel Defense Forces.

The recent attack against the military recruiting station follows the same pattern as seen in earlier attacks. Times Square is one of the ultimate symbols of American capitalism and popular culture, making it an attractive target for individuals involved with the black bloc movement.

Additionally, many affinity groups and other more mainstream activist organizations have adopted an anti-war message, making the Times Square recruitment center a frequent location of protest activities. However, this incident also could have been connected to events in Berkeley, Calif., where activists affiliated with the anti-war group Code Pink are protesting the presence of a U.S. Marine recruiting facility in the town.

The conflict has received widespread media attention, peaking Jan. 29 when the Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution that called the Marines “uninvited and unwelcome intruders.” It also is possible the attack was meant to coincide with the verdict in the case of Oakland, Calif., activist Briana Waters, who was convicted on two charges of arson in connection with a fire at the University of Washington. Waters is an alleged member of the Earth Liberation Front.

There is not enough evidence to suggest these unsolved attacks in New York are connected to one black bloc group, although that could be the case. At the very least, the person involved in the latest attack took a page from the black bloc playbook.
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