Out of the sea of largely peaceful antiwar demonstrators marching in San Francisco’s Financial District in 2003, a more militant subgroup emerged. Its members wore black masks, black jackets, black hoods and helmets. They smashed windows and looted military recruitment offices.
Since then, the so-called black bloc protesters have become a force in the Bay Area and beyond. They have been blamed for violence during protests in Oakland over corporate power and police abuse, notably the case of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was killed by BART police in 2009.
Scorned by critics on both the left and right and hunted by police, the black bloc is bringing its radical tactics to the massive protest movement sparked by the presidency of Donald Trump.
And early this month on the UC Berkeley campus, black bloc militants tore down police barricades, broke windows, started a fire and assaulted Trump supporters.
They represented a small percentage of the 1,000 mostly nonviolent demonstrators who went to Berkeley to protest a speech by controversial Breitbart columnist and conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos, but they dominated the outcome.
The university had been determined to allow the event in the name of free speech. Within minutes of the bloc’s assault on the building where the speech would be held, officials shut it down.
The term “black bloc” was used to describe the tight wedges of black-clad protesters in helmets and masks who appeared in street demonstrations in Germany in the 1970s, confounding efforts to single out, identify and prosecute individuals.
Its aim was, and still is, direct action. Practitioners care little for speech or to shape public opinion, and the media are held in disdain, as are liberals who espouse nonviolence.
Members operate in small squads that organize themselves around flags during the havoc of a protest.
They say they battle police brutality, corporate greed, immigration bans and erosion of civil liberties. The Bay Area has provided a fertile base for the group, especially Oakland, birthplace to the armed militias of the Black Panther movement.
In the weeks leading up to the Berkeley event, campus administrators made clear their intent to allow the controversial speaker, part of a larger state university system’s adoption of the ACLU mantra to “combat hate speech with more speech.”
After a Yiannopoulos supporter shot a protester during demonstrations in Seattle, UC Berkeley responded to the rising threat of violence by pulling in officers from nine other campuses.
They stayed inside the barricaded Student Union building during most of the protest, arguing that to intervene would have escalated the violence. The effect instead was to raise the ante for the black bloc.
Berkeley put the blame for the violence at the Yiannopoulos event squarely on the black bloc faction, which campus police said numbered 100 to 150 members.
They “marched onto campus and began immediately throwing rocks, M-80s flares and Molotov cocktails at our officers and the crowd,” UC Berkeley Police Department Sgt. Sabrina Reich said.
Videos show black bloc members using firecrackers as a shield to get close to the Student Union, where they pulled down barricades. They took turns whacking at its windows with their sticks, rocks and the crowd-control barriers themselves. The bulk of the blows were directed at the Amazon store.
Videos also show black bloc members tackling and assaulting Yiannopoulos supporters.
There is a strategy behind much of the smashing, according to interviews and published manifestos.
The bloc pushes back against police lines, opening and holding space for mass demonstrations as police seek to corral and disperse the crowd. They draw pepper spray, rubber bullets and other uses of force. They say they focus destruction on standard-bearers of capitalism: Bank machines and a campus Starbucks were hit after Berkeley called off the Yiannopoulos speech.
“Starbucks is a symbol of global capitalization,” the black bloc member said.
They do recruit. An anarchist group is hosting a two-day conference in Oakland and San Francisco next month to draw newcomers. The black bloc member said he hopes it will help more people find the movement.
“The people I see coming in are curious about what this direct politics looks like. They have come up in the post-Oscar Grant, post-Occupy sort of political environment,” the member said. “In the next few years, they’re going to get their wings and they’ll start flying.”