Black Blocs and Free Speech


Ben Schumin, Own Work – March on Crystal City CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the more disturbing trends coming to university campuses as well as other public settings is the rise of the “black bloc.” Black blocs first came into being in Germany in the 1980’s in Autonomists movement protest against squatter evictions. These spread to the U.S. in 1990 and became prominent in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

What is a “black bloc?” Wikipedia gives the following description:

“A black bloc is a name given to groups of protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items. The clothing is used to conceal marchers’ identities, and hinder criminal prosecution, by making it difficult to distinguish between participants. It is also used to protect their faces and eyes from items such as pepper-spray which law enforcement often uses. The tactic allows the group to appear as one large unified mass.”

It should be noted that the term “black bloc” refers to the clothing worn by the groups and not the racial identity of the participants. 

Recently, black blocs have come into the public awareness during the Trump inauguration, when they smashed windows and destroyed property in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the country.

More troubling yet were the riots that broke out in Berkeley when controversial conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to speak. About 1500 Berkeley students gathered to peacefully protest, something quite appropriate under their First Amendment rights. This protest was broken up and turned into mayhem by a group of 150 using black bloc tactics. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, they came:

“…to start fires, break windows and hurl rocks at police officers — and who accomplished all of those things. They wore black and concealed their faces with masks. They brought — and used — bats, metal rods, fireworks and Molotov cocktails to get their message across, in the process undermining ‘the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence,’ a spokesperson for Berkeley said in a statement.”

Perhaps the most troubling incident took place recently at idyllic Middlebury College. Charles Murray, author of the controversial The Bell Curve was slated to speak there. A political science professor, Allison Stanger, would be moderating a question and answer session afterwards. In this case a group of students and faculty shouted and chanted so long that Murray could not speak. Then Stanger was attacked by protesters afterwards who yanked her hair so violently she needed to wear a neck brace. Then about 6 to 12 who may not have been students and using black bloc tactics attacked her car until police were summoned when they fled.

Many of those who have engaged in black bloc actions have been described as anarchists, and indeed, it seems that the effects of their actions are the destruction of civil order. In most cases there is a protest against something, and often the destructive acts have been against symbols that represent what they are protesting (e.g. smashing the windows of a Starbucks).

One of the troubling aspects of black blocs is how they undermine legitimate but peaceful protest. It is likely for example that all those at Berkeley were tarred with the same brush as a result of the black bloc tactics. Yet there were two different groups present, one acting legitimately and one illegally.

The Middlebury incident tells a more nuanced tale. It would suggest that black blocs represent an extreme of what has become acceptable in many public fora–to simply shout down and suppress speech we do not like or disagree with. It is troubling to me that faculty, those who should represent reasoned discourse and collegiality joined in these protests, even against one of their own colleagues.

Most faculty I know would repudiate such things, yet it is troubling that some will join in. It suggests how deeply the disease of poisoned discourse has penetrated not only our social and news media, but even the halls of education.

I wonder if some of it comes down to our loss of a capacity to have a good argument. I speak of good in two senses: both in being able to support a contention with cogent reasons and in being able to do so with charity toward the person with whom we differ. When all we speak in are soundbites, we may lose the capacity and intellectual heft for substance.

I also wonder if it arises from a belief that there is a “right not to be offended.” That has always puzzled me. I have always believed that being offended was not something others could do to me but a choice I made, which means I have other options when I hear something to which I could take offense. I could be curious to know why someone would hold such an idea. Or I might simply decide that they are acting the fool–someone impervious to reason, in which case I might change the subject or just walk away.

While I never approve of such violence or anarchy, I do wonder if sometimes it arises from a perceived or real sense that speech is being ignored, or even suppressed. Nihilism and anarchy seem to be close cousins. Do people turn to anarchy when they become convinced that reasoned discourse and civil protest are meaningless? Do people act in these ways when they see others doing immoral but legal things because it is within their power to do so? Only those with a very different outlook can take the long view of a Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the wake of police violence and efforts to suppress basic human rights, King chose the way of love and non-violent resistance.

This leads me to ask whether our present inability to foster civil discourse, and the increasing incidents of the suppression of free speech reveal the paucity of the spiritual resources in our lives. Do we feed our lives on anger and outrage because we have no reason for hope? Do our tantrums reveal that we have given up on truth? Have we give up on the faith of a King, a Desmond Tutu, a Karol Wojtyla to embrace the blackness of nothing? These are the questions the rise of black blocs, and other forms of suppressing free speech and civil discourse raise for me. What about you?

2 thoughts on “Black Blocs and Free Speech

  1. “Yet there were two different groups present, one acting legitimately and one illegally.”

    How would you respond to the contention by some conservative writers, in this case David French, that “the rioters and the ‘peaceful’ protesters have a symbiotic relationship. The rioters break people and destroy things, then melt back into a crowd that often quickly and purposefully closes behind them. They’re typically cheered wildly (to be sure, some yell at them to stop) and often treated as heroes by the rest of the mob.”

    I suppose that would mean even the “peaceful” protesters are starting to match the description in your last two paragraphs.

    • I want to be careful that we do not lump all dissent into the invidious tactics of the black blocs and their like. But I do think this requires dissent rooted in a worldview and informed by a moral framework rather than an inchoate sense of outrage, which indeed can be hard to distinguish from anarchic hooliganism.

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