Black Bloc: Interview with Chris Hedges

Had enough of discussions about Black Bloc? No? Good! Because we’re running a three-day series on Black Bloc tactics. Click the Black Bloc Series tag to read the other articles, delving into the controversy currently sparking throughout the Occupy movement and beyond.

This article was originally published in Truthout.

by J.A. Myerson

photo by numina

Chris Hedges’ syndicated Truthdig column “Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy,” printed Tuesday at Truthout and elsewhere, created quite a stir among members of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Some endorsed the sentiment. Among others, including some central organizers who helped plan the action over the summer, the column raised eyebrows and hackles. I compiled what I considered to be the best critiques of the piece that I came across (as well as my own questions) and interviewed Hedges over the phone.

I explained at the outset that I, too, had written in Truthout to urge doctrinal nonviolence and that I am enormously fond of Hedges’ prodigious body of work. Nevertheless, I explained, there was a lot about the column that confounded me and many people I’d heard from, and I asked him to let me push for clarification on a number of points. Here is the transcript of that recorded interview, edited very minimally for clarity.

J.A. Myerson: A previous column of yours entitled “The Greeks Get It” insinuated that the riots there were productive and, as you know, they committed vandalism and arson and so did protesters everywhere from Iceland to Romania, where the prime minister just resigned. I wonder if the arsonists and vandals in those movements were cancerous to you as well.

Chris Hedges: Yes.

JAM: Then I wonder if you would explain your writing, “Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country… Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out … The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.”

CH: The article and the column lauded the Greeks for responding. It was not an article about tactics. You use the word “insinuate.” That’s correct. You would have to insinuate that I supported rioting, but I don’t know how you can in the long history of everything that I’ve written. The point that I was trying to make in that article was that the Greeks had gotten out on the street and risen up. I didn’t agree with everything they’d done out on the street, but I was confounded by the passivity on the part of the American public that was being fleeced and abused in a manner not dissimilar to what was happening in Greece. I never in that article approve rioting. I had to put it in there, because it’s what they did, but the point of the article was that the Greeks had responded and we hadn’t – What’s wrong with us?

JAM: You speak of the black bloc as though it were a political organization with membership, a violent, secretive, nihilistic cabal, which calls to mind the Black Hand, conveniently. It sounds like a really snarky question, but I swear I am genuinely interested in your answer: were you aware writing this piece that that is not an apt description of a black bloc, which is no organization at all, but a protest tactic that does more than just smash and burn?

CH: I put in there that they detest organization of any kind. I use part of their jargon – “feral” and “spontaneous” protest – whereby you walk down a street and nothing is planned. You walk by a window and you break it. They feel that any kind of attempt to plan immediately imposes a kind of hierarchy that they oppose. That’s in the piece. There’s a limit to expounding upon the internal – I didn’t get into primitive anarchism and all this kind of stuff. But that was certainly part of the piece. It’s precisely because they detest – there’s a line in the article that says that they are opposed to those of us on the organized left. The operative word is “organization.”

JAM: I have seen black blocs de-arresting their comrades (stealing people back from police custody), without hurting anyone or anything. I have seen them win a tug of war with the police and confiscate their kettle netting. I have seen them returning tear gas canisters from whence they came in order to mitigate the suffering of children and elderly protesters in their midst.

CH: Let’s not paint these people as the Boy Scouts, come on.

JAM: Obviously, there is smashing and burning, but I wonder if tactics like those, which are also part and parcel of black bloc protests, are also cancerous.

CH: First of all, let’s be clear. I don’t have a problem with anarchism. The problem is they’re not tactics I would engage in. I wouldn’t classify them as “violent.” I would classify violence as the destruction of property and vandalism, the shouting of insulting messages to the police, physical confrontations with the police. Those are very clear cut acts of violence. The issues that you raise are more nebulous and circumstantial. Throwing a tear-gas canister back that’s been fired at you I would not classify as a violent act and yet it was something that probably would not have been done during the civil rights movement under King.

JAM: I think he might have thought of that as violent.

CH: I don’t know that he would have thought of it as violent. He wouldn’t resist arrest. I know that’s an issue. When I’ve been arrested, I don’t resist arrest. Many people do resist arrest. King never did resist arrest. But I prefaced it by saying that it’s not something I would do. On the other hand, those are more nebulous issues, which may be part of black bloc activity, but let’s be careful. Black bloc activity includes other things that are clearly defined as acts of violence. They don’t limit it to those activities is what I’m saying.

JAM: Did you speak to people who had participated in a black bloc in the compilation of this column?

CH: No.

JAM: I’ve got some assertions you make in the column and I want to ask you about them. Let’s start with the one you mentioned. “Black Bloc adherents detest those of us on the organized left and seek, quite consciously, to take away our tools of empowerment.” How did you arrive at that conclusion?

CH: Because of the tactics that they embrace. Smashing the window of a coffee shop – which happened in November in Oakland to a local coffee shop owner and then the coffee shop was looted – is an activity that is destructive to OWS, in my view.

JAM: And it necessarily entailed detesting the organized left and consciously seeking to take away the tools of empowerment?

CH: If you look at the writings of black bloc ideologues, they’re very clear. I did listen to several hours of Anarchy Radio before I wrote this, which is out of Eugene. None of that made it into the piece, but I was curious to hear them and hear them on the Zapatistas.

JAM: I’m interested in that, because the excerpts I have written out are instances of you describing black blocs and their attitudes and their ideology.

CH: This is the radio program that’s run by John Zerzan. They’re all archived online, plus his publications are online, so I read a lot of the publications and quoted from some of the publications and I listened to probably four or five hours of the radio broadcasts. Like I listened to them on Noam Chomsky. I was curious as to what their attitudes were on a variety of issues.

JAM: I’m struggling with the seemingly conflicting proposals that they are opposed to organization, have no organization and hate organization and, yet, monolithically ascribe to any ideology at all.

CH: I didn’t say that they subscribe to an ideology. I said that they subscribe to tactics. I don’t know how much you know about them, but it’s the whole anti-civilization movement. That’s another discussion. But there is a hostility towards civilization as it’s currently configured and it must be taken down. Their problem with those of us on the organized left is that we, in essence, are attempting to reform it rather than destroy it. And that’s their attack on Chomsky. Zerzan calls him a sell-out. They hate Derrick Jensen, which is why I called him. They’ve really gone after Derrick.

JAM: Here’s another excerpt. “These acts, the movement argues, can never be organized. Organization, in the thinking of the movement, implies hierarchy, which must always be opposed. There can be no restraints on ‘feral’ or ‘spontaneous’ acts of insurrection. Whoever gets hurt gets hurt. Whatever gets destroyed gets destroyed.” Where does “the movement” argue this?

CH: When they talk about the tactics. That’s what “feral” activity is. It rises out of the moment. That’s what they embrace. You don’t walk down the street and say, “We’re going to target that shop.” It’s a spontaneous response.

JAM: That’s interesting taken in the context of this quotation. “The Black Bloc movement bears the rigidity and dogmatism of all absolutism sects. Its adherents alone possess the truth. They alone understand. They alone arrogate the right, because they are enlightened and we are not, to dismiss and ignore competing points of view as infantile and irrelevant. They hear only their own voices. They heed only their own thoughts. They believe only their own clich├ęs. And this makes them not only deeply intolerant but stupid.” How did you arrive at the conclusions that they’re rigidly dogmatic and dismissive of all other points of view?

CH: From listening to anarchist radio and reading anarchist web sites.

JAM: You cite an article by someone named “Venomous Butterfly,” which criticizes the Zapatistas on anarchist grounds, in a magazine called Green Anarchy, whose publisher, John Zerzan, you describe as “one of the principal ideologues of the Black Bloc movement in the United States.” Seemingly on these grounds alone, you contend that “Black Bloc adherents” “argue” that the “real enemies” include “populist movements such as the Zapatistas.” I can personally confirm that many Black bloc anarchists support the Zapatistas and I’m left wondering about the wisdom of thinking one article in one magazine that no one has endorsed as representative indicates much. An equivalent would be if someone attributed Alexander Cockburn’s views on the climate crisis to Katrina van den Heuvel, furthermore adding that van den Heuvel is one of the principal ideologues of the Occupy movement and that therefore Cockburn’s views on the climate crisis are broadly applicable to the Occupy movement. Did you have better grounds for this assertion than I’ve detected?

CH: I certainly, first of all, don’t consider myself an expert on the black bloc. I am certain that there are, as with any group, varieties of opinions and divisions. I think it is pretty uniform that they are dismissive of the organized left and I see it as a value judgment. I think that their tactics are ones that essentially are destructive to the tools of empowerment of the organized left. The vandalism that they carry out and the cynicism that they express are juvenile. I am sure that there are black blocs who support the Zapatistas, but they are by and large hostile to any organized entities on the left, including unions, including environmental activists, including populist movements. If you look at the sentence, it says “populist movements such as the Zapatistas.” I just pulled it out as an example. Zerzan is hostile to the Zapatistas. I’m sure that others are not. But I used it as an example of a movement that has been attacked by black bloc proponents.

JAM: You write, “The Occupy encampments in various cities were shut down precisely because they were nonviolent.” I think I get the point, but I wonder if you’d game that out, because it seems to insinuate that, had camps been violent, they would not have been shut down.

CH: That’s a pretty broad leap. They were shut down because they articulated the concerns and anger and frustrations of the mainstream. This is a mainstream movement. Any time you went to Zuccotti Park on a Saturday, it was filled with strollers from mothers and fathers from New Jersey. And the movement spread and resonated. There has been an extremely concerted effort to destroy it, first by physically removing their centers of operation and now attempting to create internal divisions within the movement, using black bloc activity to discredit the movement, attempting to set up front organizations like Van Jones to channel the energy back into the Democratic Party and electoral politics. I think these movements really terrify the power elite and, in particular, the Democrats. One could argue that the greatest enemy of the Occupy movement is Barack Obama. I don’t want to see the movement destroyed. We cannot underestimate, in this security and surveillance state, the extent to which there are internal forces within this movement seeking to rip it apart. The black bloc is a gift to their hands.

JAM: What then is the solution to the problem? What is the prognosis for the cancer?

CH: There has to be a rigid adherence to nonviolence. That does not mean that the black bloc can’t exist. We saw a multiplicity of groups in the 1960s – from the Yippies to the Panthers to the Weather Underground – but the movement itself has to continue to operate in a way that it does not alienate the mainstream. If the security and surveillance state is able to alienate the mainstream from OWS, then OWS will be far more vulnerable to being destroyed. That’s very similar to the civil rights movement. I’m a huge admirer of Malcolm X. And, yet, the establishment didn’t really fear Malcolm X; they feared King. That’s true here. They fear OWS. They don’t fear the black bloc.

JAM: That sentiment I agree with completely. But it’s interesting to track the basis for your compunction in the piece. That expression seems sort of practical-strategic-pragmatic in a way that I really agree with, but you weren’t quoting Gene Sharp, you were quoting “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” so it seems like part of your objection to black bloc tactics is less strategic-tactical than almost spiritual.

CH: It’s both. I’ve spent my life around mobs and groups and crowds and armies and they foster for me very frightening physical and emotional responses.

JAM: Thank you for taking the time to answer combative questions.

CH: I don’t mind combative questions. But a lot of it was tenuous conjecture. The idea that because I mentioned the word “riot” in the piece about the Greeks, that I embrace rioting.

JAM: It’s actually a thing that confuses me personally and I’m looking for your advice on it. I am myself a big nonviolent advocate. But Iceland, Italy, Tunisia, Egypt, Chile, Romania – all over the place …

CH: That’s a longer discussion. Eight hundred people were killed in Egypt. It’s a different discussion. When we get to those levels, let’s talk.

JAM: Will you expand on that? Are you saying that once there’s a big, widespread revolutionary movement, then there’s room for that kind of thing?

CH: I’m not going to go there. Personally, I’m always nonviolent. But once that kind of repression manifests itself, it inevitably provokes counterviolence. I wrote a whole book on this called “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” Violence is a poison and even when it’s employed in a just cause, it’s still a poison. This is something I intimately understand. I’m not a pacifist. You can push people to a point where they have no option but to employ violence. That’s certainly what happened to the people in Sarajevo, but once you do, it’s always tragic. I don’t want to go there. That’s why I’ve been such a fervent supporter of OWS, because I don’t want us to descend into that.

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