Like most of us ‘Muhricans, I’ve been transfixed by the events in Aurora, Colorado. James Egan Holmes was arraigned this morning for the crime of turning a movie theater into a shooting gallery. The memes floating about this AM about this story are many. Apparently one can arm oneself with 6,500 rounds of ammunition online, a day’s ammo supply for the average infantry platoon in Afghanistan. Never mind the assault rifle based AR15 he was able to arm himself with (side note–good thing he armed himself with a jam-prone m16 semi-automatic clone. If he’d had an AK 47, he could’ve avoided that pesky jamming problem and continued shooting).
But I suspect the coming weeks and months will find more and more people trying to understand the motives of James Holmes. And the Right wing noise machine has already started. Over the weekend various right-wing bloggers tried to make a connection between Holmes and the Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot of people are making noise about Holmes being a ‘Black Bloc’ member. I’m trying to illuminate some things here, so let me inject some history.
Black Bloc started in the 1980’s as a tactical response–a means of defending people who were engaged in nonviolent protest from violent police encounters. Police violence against protesters in Germany lead to the formation of Black Bloc groups. These were never formal groups, but arose as the violent vanguard of protesters with genuine grievances. Black bloc participants wore dark clothing and some kind of mask or scarf in order to obscure their identities. While this made it harder for participants to be identified, it also meant that provocateurs could easily infiltrate protests and set up protesters for arrest (or incite violence sure to be filmed by compliant media and used as justification for crackdowns).
I first became aware of Black Bloc when I was writing about the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980’s. Those protests took on a different character in Europe because the anti-nuclear weapons movement was also tied up with other anarchist movements including squatting (setting up living space in abandoned buildings) and other activities foreign to the US. In Germany, the Black Bloc was able to fight the authorities to the point where in some cases, squatters got rights to the abandoned buildings they occupied. No such luck here. There were isolated squatters movements in the US (mostly centered around groups like ACT UP and Housing Works here in NYC). in 1988, NYC had a huge clash at Tompkins Square Parks during a ‘police riot’ against squatters. But it never got much public attention.
Then came Seattle and the anti-globalization protests of 1999. There were numerous incidents reported of Black Bloc violence, and the violence–not the story of the protesters and why they were in the streets–became the story in the news. The violence of the protests also made some religious organizations shy away from supporting the Jubilee 2000 campaign, an effort to get Western banks to cancel government debt in poor parts of the developing world.
In 1999, I wrote a play about the WTO and Seattle and what the debt was about. A monologue play called ON THE GRID, it was a WTO executive laying out all the dirty laundry about globalization to a class of newly-minted ‘aid professionals’. We got invited to take the play to the anti WTO events in Prague, Czech Republic in 2000. I had other things going on, so my actor (we’ll call him ‘Ben’) agreed to go on his own. the Prague folks were doing serious arts outreach as a way of counteracting the meme of the black bloc.