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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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42 Comments

  1. Alex says

    Capitalism works, and the left can’t get over it so they resort to “You will become my friend or I will crack your skull”.

    Democrats have turned a blind eye on those methods, in the name of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. How corrupt those people have become?

    • SkipTownCPA says

      Smartly regulated capitaism works.

        • Carmi Turchick says

          It starts with strong and active enforcement of anti-trust laws and continues with the knowledge that anti-regulation campaigns always harm advanced economies, increase corruption, and lower GDP growth rates Then it includes making the rich pay higher taxes than the poor, wiping out their numerous tax shelters, and making a social safety net that is robust. The goal must be equal opportunity for all, equal rights for all. Then corporate/wealthy dominance of political elections must be thwarted too.

          theroadtopeace.bligspot.com

        • Martti O. Suomivuori says

          Should be possible once capital develops a conscience. Stranger things have happened.

      • Alex says

        Capitalism works for what it is designed to do: create wealth. All the rest is unrelated, so long as expenditures are properly budgeted.

        The left simply refuses to accept that capitalism is the only reliable tool capable of creating wealth.

        • Tim says

          Capitalism has a lot in common with (biological) evolution and science.

          Market economics, often simplified as capitalism, is the only way we know to reliably generate wealth.

          Evolution is the way organisms adapt and change to meet challenges and fill environmental niches.

          The scientific method is the only way we know to reliably gain insight into empirical reality.

          None of them have a moral component. Any morality is imported from outside the system.

          For instance, there is no scientific reason not to perform Mengele-like experiments on humans.

      • Dan says

        Agree. Capitalism and particularly capitalism in a democratic society needs to be contained withing boundaries.

    • ADM64 says

      This is true however it is actually even simpler than that: these are people who can’t get over the fact that reality will not respond to their wishes, desires, or tantrums, so they want to kill anyone who suggests otherwise.

  2. Daniel PV says

    Engaging in this kind of criminal behaviour isn’t ever going to drive any kind of lasting change. All that will happen is; they’ll hurt someone, someone will hurt them, they’ll end up in prison, or someone else will end up in prison. Absolutely none of the outcomes helps anything or anyone. I just don’t get it.

    • Alex says

      On cold-hearted inspection, it really depends on how many skulls they crack.

      • Northern Observer says

        And let’s not forget that the last time the Reds actively pursued a street fighting strategy it allowed the German National Socialist Party to re-frame itself as a responsible and necessary choice for the German electorate. Way to go Antifa!

        • Deafening Tone says

          We should consider whether that is actually what they want. God forbid.

          • Deafening Tone says

            Follow-up: consider the politics of memory here. Antifa finds its memory in the Leninist-Stalinist opposition to rising German fascism. It also finds its collective “glory” right along with the Russians, who to this day celebrate May 9 (Victory Day) as a national holiday when “the Soviets” defeated Hitler. This is where Antifa draws its collective memory. “We” defeated the fascists once, and we’ll do it again, so the logic goes. It’s a powerful social tool.

            The leader of the Revolutionary Communist Movement in America for the last 40 years, Bob Avakian, founded ResistFascism.org. Here is the front page of their website:

            “We are horrified and angered at the shocking damage already done to lives here and around the world by the Trump/Pence regime. We recognize that they are poised to do far worse, including threatening WAR, even nuclear war. Through an unrelenting barrage of daily outrages and twitter outbursts, the Trump/Pence regime is radically remaking society – step by step hammering into place a vicious American fascism. This is not insult or exaggeration, it is what they are doing.”

            They have to include Pence because, for Avakian, it’s Christian fascism that is the truly dangerous kind of fascism (cf. p. 224 of his tome “The New Communism”). Communism and the anti-fascist movement are deeply intertwined. Renewing old hostilities against a (predominately imagined) fascist bogeyman is a purposefully selected tactic designed to call upon the highest glory of the Red movement: victory against the previous installation of incarnate evil.

            They need a breathing enemy to feed on. They’ll raise it from the dead if they have to.

    • Nick says

      I agree with you Alex that it is objectively counter productive. But I think I understand why they believe they are right in behaving as they do. When I was a radical teenager George Bush was president. My mom (a republican) asked me point blank if I would kill him should I have they chance to do it. I told her no because Chainey was worse but if I could kill them both I would. Now that I am an adult I understand that these people are not evil, but at the time, I thought that their death was such a good for humanity that it was worth the bloodshed. This is how antifa feels. If you think that fascists run the right then using violence to stop the seems justified. If they were correct in their assumption we would agree with them. They think the way a person who blows up abortion clinics do. If you really believe that the few people who preform abortions at high levels are mass murderers than why wouldn’t find murder justifiable or even brave and correct. Antifas’ Actions are wrong because they have an incorrect world view, we have to find a way to change the way they think or they will never change the way they behave.

  3. Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  4. Charles White says

    These young people are not idealists as suggested in the concluding paragraph. An idealist from the left would be someone like Bernie Sanders who has spent decades thinking out and understanding his ideology. On the other hand these thugs are opportunists using an ideology without thought or understanding to justify their wilful destructive behaviours.

    • kris says

      Sanders may have spent decades thinking about his ideology but it is still basically the same one with the anarchist additive that the end justifies the means,namely violent revolution. Why does the left refuse to roundly condemn these far left extremists?

  5. Shenme Shihou says

    Pretty good, but it would be nice if this article went into the history of the “anti fascist” movement. I use quotations because the anti fascism aspect was just a means to put lipstick on a communist pig. The whole movement was never about stopping fascism, it was just a means to make Communism look good to sympathizers and fence sitters.

  6. The animals in Antifa use violent fascist tactics to spread their Marxist message, and while Europe is scared of them, we know how to take care of these kind of people here. Let them try to execute their violent lightning attacks in the months and years ahead. Their force will be met with force.

    The fact that they label anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders as alt-right or Nazi or fascist says everything you need to know about these people. Their inane hatred of capitalism, the one economic system proven to actually lift people out of poverty instead of keeping them there (socialism; communism) shows their inability for rational thought.

    At the end of the day, the neo-fascist, Marxist-wannabes in Antifa will never succeed in America to the level they have succeeded in Europe for one reason, and one reason only:

    The Second Amendment.

    • Ad Francis says

      Matt: I think you make some relevant points – until the very last line. How does the Second Amendment provide any solution here? To the contrary – it provides Antifa with the same access to firearms as any other American. If anything, the prevalence of violent extremism on both ends of the political spectrum should motivate us to enact reasonable gun control laws. Anarchy poses a naively simplistic solution to complicated societal problems. Incidentally, so does the NRA.

      • It’s hard for a Commie junta to do its thang against an armed citizenry. Nothing “simplistic” about the second amendment, and someone has to protect it. The NRA works.

  7. Matthew B says

    “We want the public to see the anarchists are organized,” Sam said.

    This made me laugh out loud. The statements from the others interviewed for this article went downhill from there.

  8. Debbie says

    The author was concerned the idealistic youths might be hurt by the cops. That’s funny. But hey: it ain’t passion without some sufferin’.

  9. It’s easy to make fun of the Black bloc because they are a relatively small number. But they have the potential to strike in a fatally disruptive manner. Think Aun Shrinkyro, a small Japanese cult which almost killed hundreds with Sarin gas released in the Tokyo subway system. We need more even handed articles like this to give us insight into their thinking. Fortunately organized thinking doesn’t seem to be their strong point. I am impressed that Quillette would go outside its usual ambit of articles to bring us this different view point.

  10. These people are head cases. You won’t understand their motivations by interviewing them and considering what they have to say. Their behavior is a consequence of their psychological characteristics; they are blind to their own motivations. This trait is characteristic of extremists.

    • Jeremy H says

      Not only that, they’ve evolved the perfect strategy to stay blind: attack others for the very vice that they embody. Probably the most obvious example of shadow projection in contemporary culture.

  11. Northern Observer says

    The People who Thought they were The Good led by the few who Know they are Bad but can Hide it. Same as it ever was.

  12. Hal says

    East Germany? Something about that doesn’t sound quite right.

  13. Rick says

    “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.”

    These clowns are laughable. If you give the land back to the Native Americans, you don’t have to do any of the other steps, because the country ceases to exist and everyone becomes a refugee to somewhere.

  14. markbul says

    ” They share common bonds of homelessness, addiction issues …”

    Yeah, that’s who I take seriously. That’s who I want telling me how to run the world. Clean your room. Get a job – and keep it. Pick up the litter in the streets. For a year. Then, get back to me.

    • Susan says

      “We’re physicists, we’re programmers, we’re social workers” who “share common bonds of homelessness, addiction issues” yet “No one knows who they are.” George Soros, help me out here.

  15. Mary Chandler says

    Antifa should be labeled for what it is, an extreme left-wing terrorist group. And should be dealt with accordingly. In that respect they are no different than Nazis during WWII or more currently Al-Qaeda or ISIS.

    Groups who willingly and deliberately choose to adhere to an ideology based on violence, and whose goal it is to destroy civilization or the extermination of certain groups within that civilization, have chosen to place themselves outside of society. These groups do not recognize the laws and rights of others they claim for themselves. They have proven and admitted to this on many occasions.

    Civilization needs to protect itself against these groups with extreme and lethal force. Members of antifa should be hunted down and terminated.

    It is a sad admittance that a non-violent solution is no longer viable with groups like Antifa or ISIS. Violence should never be civilization’s first response. It should however be the last, and final one.

  16. These people are the scum of the earth and they are cowards wearing masks. They claim its so they won’t face reprisal from angry conservatives but what they don’t want is less radical friends and family recognizing them or bosses or the police in case video shows them clearly committing crimes they can be hunted down with a clear face shot.

  17. tibbles says

    The fact they wear masks says it all.

  18. Toni Pereira says

    ““We want the public to see the anarchists are organized,”- You couldn’t make this stuff up…

  19. Zoe says

    They “fight fascism?” They ARE fascism!

  20. “What surprises one, when listening to the frustrated as they decry the
    present and all its works, is the enormous joy they derive from
    doing so. Such delight cannot come from the mere venting of a
    grievance. There must be something more—and there is. By
    expatiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times,
    the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation. It is as if
    they said: ‘Not only our blemished selves, but the lives of all our
    contemporaries, even the most happy and successful, are worthless
    and wasted.’ Thus by deprecating the present they acquire a vague
    sense of equality.” –Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer”, sec. 53.

  21. Florin says

    why is ‘Free Speech’ in scare quotes?

    Antifa is anti-free speech, anti-democracy, and often simply anti-White (European/Christian) racists who regurgitate the language of social justice while going to OTHER PEOPLE’S lawful assemblies to precent their speech via violence.

    And if they want violence, they’ll get far more than they can handle, and not from ‘nazis’ but from people who fought the same Bolsheviks, and later Communists, who claimed to be ‘for the people’ while mass murdering them, banning books, outlawing dissent, and generally being worse than the fascists who, in Italy. Spain, and Germany – were REACTIONS to Bolshevik-supported anti-democratic, anti-nationalist violence.

  22. LAW says

    The thing about antifa is that the name is all marketing. Dressing up menacingly and roaming the streets as a mob beating up your political opponents is the textbook definition of fascist behavior. Every fascist movement had people who did exactly this, and did it effectively. The idea that these people are somehow “anti fascist” is completely ridiculous.

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