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Behind the Mask: Inside the Black Bloc

One year ago, the City of Roses—Portland, Ore.—was rattled to its core with the shocking murder of two bystanders who intervened in an ugly confrontation on one of its MAX commuter trains. Jeremy Christian will soon stand trial accused of killing two men and almost a third after they objected to his alleged verbal attack on two  female passengers on the train. A Vancouver, Wash.-based conservative free speech group named Patriot Prayer has been labeled guilty by association in the court of public opinion due to Christian’s presence at one of the group’s publicly held rallies in April 2017.

Also one year ago, shortly after the stabbings, Patriot Prayer staged a protest in Chapman Square in the heart of the city that attracted both mainstream conservatives and alt-right sympathizers. The rally was met with confrontational antifa counter-protest in an event now legendary among Portlanders for its brazen standoff against police moderation. Portland has long stood as a hotbed of political activism and, more recently, anti-fascist resistance.

As one-year memorials for the victims of the MAX stabbings occur and another Patriot Prayer rally is set for June 3 in downtown Portland, antifa activism is bound to play a role. But what are the motivating factors for those who don black balaclavas and arm themselves for “direct action” resistance? Who are the masked individuals who make up the black bloc?

Meeting an Anarchist

Sam, a pseudonym used by the spokesperson for a local anarchist set agreed to talk with me at a local coffee shop. “What people are seeing now,” Sam said, “they think is in response to the Trump election, but it isn’t. It’s been going on for a long time. I don’t think people are fully aware how much fringe extremists are constantly in battle underneath the overt political system.”

Sam described street fights with neo-Nazis and meme campaigns on social media competing with capitalists for the winning of hearts and minds. She talked graffiti wars, public service and community, inequality and misunderstanding. She casually used terms like “anarcho-capitalism,” “direct action,” and “wage slaves.”

“We want the public to see the anarchists are organized,” Sam said. “We’re rational. We’re not a bunch of young kids that wanna break things. We’re professionals. We’re physicists, we’re programmers, we’re social workers and we’re out here to make the world a better place, not to just have a good time throwing bricks.”

Sam also claimed to have a history with the anarchist movement that goes back over a decade. I looked up from my notes when she said this, visibly questioning. She might have told me so because she was aware of how young she looks—not at all physically intimidating and perhaps contending for respect in a male-dominated scene. She also might have mentioned it as a means of protecting her true identity. When I said I would have guessed 21 and was really thinking something like 19, she chuckled and said she was flattered.

Sam explained that she and her friends are motivated to participate in the movement by the economic disparity in the United States. They’re young, she says, mostly under 30, many just barely adults. They share common bonds of homelessness, addiction issues, racism and discrimination, homophobia, and sexual and physical abuse. They see a capitalist system that insulates those in positions of economic power and disenfranchises those of targeted groups.

“We don’t want freedom from but freedom to,” she said. “We focus our efforts toward programmers, physicists, mathematicians—people who can come together to engineer our way out of the situation that we are in.”

Sam also suggested a book by Francois Dupuis-Deri called Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs?, in which the origins of the black bloc tactic are explained. Anarchists in West Germany first used the technique in the 1970s in response to a resurgence in neo-Nazi activity, and the concept has since spread around the globe. On May Day 2017, the tactic was used in the streets of Paris with alarming video of police being set on fire.

Meeting the Militia

I then met a man named Damian, a self-described commander in the John Brown Militia, an anti-fascist group bent on armed, militant resistance to what the movement deems the creeping specter of fascism, named for the radical abolitionist movement of the 19th century. Damian organizes “socialist rifle clubs” and other forms of self-defense training for verified associates of the many anarchist and antifa groups. When I met him, he was using Kickstarter and GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for a commune to be built on Lakota tribal land, a manifest resistance haven.

Immediately, Damian’s explanation of the John Brown Militia’s end-goals presented contradictions with those of other anarchist groups. Damian insists communism is the solution. A major fallacy of the anarchist movement is the illusion of a monolithic mindset. There is no holistic anarchy. There is no hierarchy, no leadership or consensus en masse.

“What we want is plain and simple,” Damian said. “A socialist economy and for the land to be returned back to Natives, [an end to] all foreign wars, clean up the environment, end consumption of fossil fuels and delve into serious renewable energy sources.”

Damian believes his movement has the answer to what ails America. “By the rich oligarchy giving up their money and power,” he said. “And seriously, if they don’t give it willingly, the people will take it.” Damian envisions a coming civil war, a necessary reset to the flawed foundations of the United States.

“The revolution must start in your mind before it can be manifest,” he said. Damian folded and squeezed his hands together as we spoke, the muscles and tendons in his forearms rippling as he flexed, seemingly wavering back and forth between interest in our discussion and what I perceived to be the desire to punch me in the face.

Meeting an Anti-Fascist

An antifa at a local rally introduced herself to me as “Naps,” a lean, twenty-something woman with fair skin and blue eyes. Naps told me she got the name while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, where she often worked 20-hour days and slept only in brief naps.

Naps handles communications for a Portland antifa group. She told me anti-fascist and most resistance groups dislike the media’s slant of their tactics, perpetuating the brainwashing of the general public, so the movement tends to promote its own public relations instead. And while the majority involved are males, women often provide the voice of the movement, especially while antifa are enforcing direct action: window smashing, blocking traffic, and confronting the increasingly militarized police.

Naps explained the color-coded, three-tiered categorization of antifa participants in the black bloc, the massive swarm of black-clothed marchers. “The black bloc is not a group,” she said. “It’s a tactic.”

Yellows are active, present, and vocal. Yellows might or might not completely conceal their identity. They do not perform any illegal acts but serve as a front wall, a barrier, to absorb and conceal the identity of the deeper levels.

Greens maintain the interior of the bloc, fully concealed in black and often carrying the tools of protest—banners and flags but also milk and Maalox as antidotes for pepper spray, first aid supplies, fireworks, weapons and other necessary tools. Greens also help conceal the identities of interior individuals but most likely do not perform anything illegal.

The third group is the reds. Reds emerge from the interior of the bloc to perform lightning-fast actions that may or may not be illegal. They smash, hammer, blast, and attack. “No one knows who they are,” Naps claimed. The black bloc tactic best serves its own purpose—to protect the identity of all antifa in their direct action tactics—when few know each other by name.

In order to participate in the black bloc, Naps said, “You just have to show up.” Fliers promoting resistance events are often posted publicly, and an app called Signal and social media play a role in coded communications.

Naps asked if I planned to attend the June 4 resistance rally. I said yes and that I would look for her.

A pro-Trump “free speech” rally organized by Patriot Prayer was segregated from counter-demonstrators in downtown Portland on June 4, 2017. Photo: Bill Dickens

Confrontation: Opposing the June 4, 2017 Patriot Prayer Rally

The free speech rally to come was massively hyped in local media, and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler petitioned federal judges to revoke its permit. But the feds insisted the permit had been legally obtained, and local police were tasked with providing protection for the few hundred attendees to hold a pro-Trump/pro-free speech rally in downtown’s Chapman Square.

Although the event had been planned for weeks ahead of time, it came on the heels of one of the grisliest crimes in the city’s recent history. The attacks for which Jeremy Christian was arrested had devastated the city, and the people gathering to voice their distaste with the rally’s poor timing and unfavorable message were palpably edgy.

The day was improbably gorgeous and sunny, the perfect temperature to be outdoors. As I walked down to the park around noon, the drone of helicopters overhead and the drums of protest were audible from several blocks away.

Police were stationed on every corner as I entered the park. A double-line of heavily armed Oregon State Police and Homeland Security personnel formed a barrier between adjacent city blocks of opposing audiences, antifa and anarchists on the left and their opposition patriots on the right.

Hundreds of black bloc protesters were assembled in the park and visibly agitated. I wandered through, attempting to find anyone I would recognize, but the majority were already masked. I thought of Naps’ categorization scheme and began to declare in my mind which protesters were greens and which might be reds.

Someone touched my forearm and I turned to see a young woman completely covered in black — hoodie, sunglasses, and scarf. “My glasses get fogged up all the time,” Naps said. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Several antifa around her were leery of my presence, and some voiced their disapproval with grumbles of, “He looks like a cop,” or “Get the fuck out of here.” Naps and I ducked behind a large, old elm.

“We’re going to be on the move soon,” she said. “I don’t know if you want to come along, but you’re welcome to. You should find some better protection,” referring to my clothing — I sported running shorts and shoes and a t-shirt. Hardly the garb of the resistance.

The bloc erupted in the familiar chant of “Antifa! Antifa!” as the swarm drew tight round the square at the center of the park. Everyone pushed toward the eye, where an antifa held up an American flag for burning. Another held a torch and all cheered as the acrid smoke of the burning cloth emanated throughout.

Naps disappeared for a few minutes, then popped up and pushed both of her gloved hands into my chest. “We have no faith in the old liberals and their reliance on hierarchy,” she said and gave me a little shove. “If you aren’t willing to do anything about it, you have to get out of the way.” Naps and the black bloc then made their way out of the park.

The confrontation at the front line—the police barrier separating the left and right blocks — peaked as projectiles were thrown in both directions. Police would later claim they had been struck with thrown pieces of bricks, sticks, and bags of an unknown, foul-smelling fluid. By 3:30 p.m., police cancelled the permits of both assemblies and pushed everyone out of Chapman Square to the northwest corner of the park on Fourth Avenue. The black bloc reassembled and began to march up Fourth.

About one hundred black bloc protesters would be “kettled” and detained three blocks north of the park. In a controversial move, police took their photos, recorded identities, and released them. In an interview with OPB, Portland Police Chief Mike Marshman declared the day a success in that both sides were able to carry out their respective events and “violence, destruction, and arrests were kept to a minimum.”   

Portland police reported 14 arrests on the day, and I feared for the safety of the idealistic albeit misguided young people I had met in the previous weeks, though I knew they would soldier on. Their convictions drive them to it.


Feature photo supplied by Andy Ngo.


Thomas Spoelhof is a writer, cultural critic and editor based in Portland, Ore. 

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