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Seth Tobocman reviews AK Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot

By jessica | July 20, 2011

Hot on the tails of the long awaited Rabble.ca review and a mention in Pop Matters, comes another new review of AK Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot by author and political graphic artist Seth Tobocman.

Get your own copy of the book at akpress.org, and hell, if you’re interested in reviewing it yourself we’d be happy to send you a free copy! Just drop us a line at publicity@akpress.org.

Also, if you’re not familiar with Seth Tobocman, you should be! You can find an assortment of his outstanding work at akpress.org.

PHILOSOPHY ON THE BARRICADES

BLACK BLOC WHITE RIOT is AK Thompson’s literate and passionate defense of the Black Bloc.

The Black Bloc, for those of you not up on contemporary left wing jargon, is the name given to a tactical formation originally used by Anarchist and Communist protesters in Germany in the 1980s. Activists hide their identities through wearing masks, helmets and uniform black clothing and move in a column like a Roman phalanx, often carrying shields and weapons. In this way they may be able to push through lines of riot police or skirt around them to attack banks or other targets that symbolize capitalist order. The Black Bloc first came into American consciousness during protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle in 2000, where a minority of protesters broke off from the nonviolent majority to smash the windows of Starbucks, The Gap, Nike Town and other chain stores. So AK Thompson is not only defending a tactic, he is defending the most militant, countercultural and downright punk rock faction of the Anti-Globalization Movement from criticism by the more moderate tendencies.

To his credit, the author makes no pretense of objectivity. He identifies himself early on as one of “the dirty kids”. The masked radicals are his friends, his lovers, and his peops.  And he’s gonna stand up for them. The weapon he brings to this battle is his enormous scholarship of politics and philosophy. The book is chock full of quotations from and references to Baldwin, Sorel, Foucault, Engels, Orwell, Heidegger , Aristotle, Artaud, Dyer, Conrad, Freire, Starhawk and many others. That so many footnotes are marshaled in defense of the act of throwing a brick through a bank window would be funny, if AK weren’t so painstakingly sincere.

But he also has a wry sense of humor reminiscent of Malcolm X or Frederick Douglas, a talent for phrasing the most catastrophic ideas in the most genteel, and therefore disquieting, possible way. For example:

“… violence is the name of the process by which objects are transformed so that they no longer correspond to the concepts to which they had previously been tied … as when “architecture “ is magically rematerialized as “property” the minute you set it on fire.”

It’s no surprise that pacifists find rioting morally objectionable. It’s also easy to see why reformers, bent on generating positive press, would be afraid that the Black Bloc makes protesters look like a bunch of ignorant violent thugs. But the accusations against the militants go a lot further than that.

Haters say that by increasing the risk of arrest at protests, and even by their appearance and body odor, “the dirty kids” have kept people of color, immigrants and other vulnerable groups from participating in the mostly white anti-globalization movement. They accuse them of a machismo that discourages the participation of women. In other words, they are calling the Black Bloc sexist and racist. It is to this second set of accusations that AK Thompson really takes umbrage.

But the Black Bloc is not the first group on the American left to be vulnerable to such charges. For decades movements that profess to represent the interests of the proletariat have had to resolve the contradiction that so much of their support comes from the middle class.

AK Thompson addresses these concerns as forthrightly as one could. He does not try to deny the middle class character of his movement. He does try to understand it, explain it and maybe even find some virtue in it.

According to AK, the modern middle class exists in an alienated space. They are disempowered, suicidal and separated from reality. He sites the growing industry producing anti-depressant drugs as proof. In order to regain their humanity the middle class must pass through redemptive violence. This may sound romantic but it echoes the experience described by many people who have participated in radical rioting, that before that moment they had never really lived.  AK wants to celebrate and build on this breakthrough into reality. He feels that before white activists can be good allies to other groups they must acknowledge that they have their own reasons for revolt.

AK Thompson really gets going about the role of women in the Black Bloc. He goes through the history of women’s participation in militant street action, from bread riots to Suffragist riots, to show that political violence is not an exclusively male preserve. He quotes from the writings of female members of the Bloc, to show that it’s not just a boys club. But he takes it further. He points out that once activists mask up it is impossible to know if they are men or women. So, rather than being a bunch of macho troglodytes, he proposes that these darkly dressed dissidents are on the cutting edge of a movement of gender abolition.

But AK knows that to promote a strategy you have to do more than defeat it’s detractors. So he articulates what he thinks is valuable in violence. Like many other anarchist writers, he sees rioting as a way to escape the symbolic realm of representational politics into direct action, to move from expressing an idea to creating a reality.  He sees the Battle of Seattle as an unfinished project that points to new and as yet unrealized possibilities. And he also points out that we learn a lot from these experiences, that new areas of knowledge come out of militant street protest.

Over years of activism, I have found that peoples’ feelings about revolutionary violence come from a deep and subjective place, from their own experience, and that such positions are immune against logical argument. So I doubt that, if you are a Black Bloc hater, anything AK says will turn you into a Black Bloc lover. He will give you a lot to think about and he may, in an odd way, make you laugh. One thing’s for sure, if you bother to read this book, you will know that the Black Bloc are more than a bunch of ignorant violent thugs.

Seth Tobocman, July 2011

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