disempowerment in front of the black bloc

Ellie Schling is a member of the Hackney Housing Group. Hackney residents self-organise in Hackney Housing Group to give and receive support on housing problems and campaign for better housing. The group is part of London Coalition Against Poverty, a coalition of groups which are based on the idea that through solidarity and direct action, ordinary people have the power to change our own lives.


I was marching with London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) on the March for the Alternative on Saturday 26th March when the black bloc came down Piccadilly. I, along with the people I was marching with supported the actions taken against the banks and the Ritz. I wanted to write down my experiences to express what it was like to be on the other side of the block. I am not writing to condemn violence or property damage, but I hope that this could help those involved reflect on how the black bloc related to the other marchers that day.

London Coalition Against Poverty is an umbrella for various self help, mutual aid groups who campaign around benefits and housing issues and against poverty. We had a contingent of around thirty members who marched together. I really enjoyed being part of such a large march. I think it helped all of us to feel we are not isolated, while we can feel that way sometimes in our every day activities. It was good to see such a diverse crowd of people, all affected by the cuts in one way or another.

As we walked down Piccadilly hundreds of people wearing masks and black clothes entered the march.  Loud bangs from fireworks and bangers came from our right, making us jump and banks were splattered with paint. I was worried about the children in our group. I stuck close to a double buggy with two babies in it, wondering what would happen if the police charged. Their mother was less concerned then me. There was some smoke in the air from the bangers and one of our group, an asthmatic, started having difficulties breathing. Luckily we were able to go down a side street to get some space because the police were not kettling us or trying to surround us. I’ve been on many demonstrations where that wouldn’t have been possible. After a while the person who had had the asthma attack was able to continue on the demonstration.

By this point the TUC stewards had blocked off the march saying ‘there is a bottle neck down there, we need to create some space’. We realized that they wanted to separate the march from the black bloc, possibly so the police could move in, and we refused to allow this. We continued to march and called on the rest of the people to join us. The march joined up and we marched behind the black bloc into Hyde Park.

We talked afterwards in the park about what had happened. We had different opinions but many of us felt that it was good that some people had taken a risk to make sure the government wouldn’t easily ignore the demonstration. However, the experience left me feeling uncomfortable. Some suggestions for the future could be to use medics on a black bloc to look out for people who might be panicked or unwell, because not everyone is lucky enough to march with a supportive group of people. I couldn’t see what the point was of the bangers and fireworks; they made the atmosphere more tense. Even though I knew what the black bloc tactic means; being on the other side of it was very disempowering.

The way the action was organised made it feel like it was very separate from most people on the march, rather than encouraging people to think about ways they could participate in more disruptive action. Actions against the cuts must escalate if they are going to work and of course there will be different things happening in different ways. However, we will be stronger the more people can get involved and feel ownership of what they are doing. One example of an alternative tactic could be to encourage the crowd take part in an occupation, giving the other marchers the option of whether they get involved or not. I think we need to spread disruptive action to fight the cuts; whether that’s on a mass demonstration or day by day in our local areas. To get to the point where that is possible we need to build and strengthen our connections with each other. I don’t think the black bloc helped us move towards that on 26th March. While it was inspiring there was little thought for the people around the bloc and the actions taken were self contained and frightening for many. I hope that we will move forward towards ways of struggling that include more people, increase the level of confidence we have in ourselves and each other and succeed in stopping the cuts.

7 thoughts on “disempowerment in front of the black bloc

  1. I think this is an important reflection and this seems to sum it up: “we will be stronger the more people can get involved and feel ownership of what they are doing.”
    On the feeder march from Kennington we had a similar moment as to when the stewards tried to hold you up. It was when the march decided to stick to it’s route across Westminster Bridge despite the police wanting otherwise. It was a bit heart-in-mouth – we also had babies in buggies and so on. More on that at http://lambethsaveourservices.org/2011/04/04/lawa-reports-on-26th-march/
    I sometimes get that feeling that there is an arrogance about among black blockers whereby they have a whole justification of not wanting to relate to anyone else because it’s not about winning over opinion but just ‘doing it’ – and they extend that to include everyone on the march. A bit more self-reflection would be good.

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  2. I think you have bought the line that this is a homogenous group – it wasn’t – indeed it consisted of people just like yourself . The big problem is the psychological barrier that this group is homogenous and ‘other’ – that would seem to be the obstacle to be overcome. Cover your face, join in, make sure you have a buddy or affinity group with you – do what you feel is appropriate while never being isolated from the larger body of the bloc. Simples.

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  3. Rudolf – I think the writer knows that it isn’t a homogenous group. They make it clear, I think, that they understand the black block.

    What differentiates this piece from so many liberal critiques is that it is based on the real experience of a definite, self-organised, working class grouping. We need to listen to these experiences, and take account of them: not just criticise everyone who doesn’t join the black bloc for not doing so. The article doesn’t say ‘black blocs are no good’. It says: there are issues with them – and offers some suggestions for how they could continue to be militant, but also perhaps be more inclusive.

    You need to read or listen a bit more carefully.

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  4. Thanks for your honest and heartfelt account. For me it’s really good to see this kind of reporting from the day, which appears to be a real persons’ experience and not some partisan or hypocritical crap.
    I was on the march, too – together with my partner and children. We had prepared an action, admittedly a fluffy one, which we couldn’t carry out because we were indirectly attacked by the black bloc and ironically protected by the police. Of course they didn’t mean to attack us, but nevertheless that is what happened. People were hurt and kicked, fireworks and paint bombs were shot at us, with the children at risk & ending up being very scared and traumatised. We were part of a lose group of parents, taking a shortcut near the Ritz.
    Now I’m not having anybody telling me that we shouldn’t have been there. Police are always telling me that when we go to demos and actions with children and to me that is oppressive! On that day however the only people who oppressed us were the people who were shooting fireworks and smokebombs, and the black bloc people who didn’t stop them.
    Black Bloc action is not justified in all situations, especially when it stops other people from doing their actions – or if it endangers other people, like it did on the day.

    Nobody knows what is going to work in the long run, whether it’s fluffy actions, spikey actions, autonomous community projects or whatever. There is no hierarchy between those choices, unless you create one.

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  5. Speaking from the other side I can see how some of the actions of the black bloc might have been alienating for people outside it, particularly the firecrackers which tbh I didn’t see the point in anyway. Black blocs should get back to their original purpose, as action stewards defending demonstrators from the police. That way their positive relationship to the movement will be much more apparent.

    Sorry to hear about your experience, AV. I didn’t see that, although I did see the start of the attack on the Ritz, and didn’t understand it at first because the Ritz in Manchester is just a cheap nightclub, so I didn’t realise the Ritz in London was basically a symbol of wealth. If I’d seen you get attacked I would have done my best to stop it. Was it a misunderstanding, do you think, or just a case of nihilist hooliganism?

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  6. Kaze no Kae says “Black blocs should get back to their original purpose, as action stewards defending demonstrators from the police.”

    Have black blocs ever functioned like this? I don’t remember them doing so in the UK but maybe they did elsewhere.

    Then there is still the issue of consent: if they are to be there at all it should be there because the demonstrators want them to be. Otherwise they are yet an other self-appointed vanguard, and we have enough of them already!

    I’m not trying to have a go: the issue of self-defence is an important one. But different contingents on a demo can have their own stewards for example, of people known to those taking part. In fact this happens anyway to some extent.

    Elsewhere Rudlfrocker says

    “The big problem is the psychological barrier that this group is homogenous and ‘other’ ”

    Well if there is a group of people all dressed the same and masked then it is very difficult for the rest of us to avoid the impression that it is ‘homogenous and other’ ! How to convince peole otherwise?

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