A black bloc is a tactic for protests and marches, whereby individuals wear black clothing, ski masks and motorcycle helmets with padding, steel-toed boots and often carrying their own shields and truncheons. The clothing is used to avoid being identified, and to theoretically, appear as one large mass, promoting solidarity, and creating a clear revolutionary presence.
The tactic was developed in the 1980s by anti-nuclear activist autonomists. Black blocs gained broader media attention outside Europe during the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations, when a black bloc damaged property of GAP, Starbucks, Old Navy, and other retail locations in downtown Seattle.
Tactics of a black bloc can include vandalism, rioting and street fighting, demonstrating without a permit, misleading the authorities, assisting in the escape of people arrested by the police, administering first aid to persons affected by tear gas in areas where protesters are barred from entering, building barricades, and attacking police. Participants in such blocs often use peaceful methods of protest as well. Although black blocking is usually connected with some form of direct action, some black blocs also participate in wholly symbolic action, as well as actions that fall entirely within traditional definitions of nonviolent protest. Property destruction carried out by black blocs tends to have symbolic significance: common targets include banks, institutional buildings, outlets for multinational corporations, gasoline stations, video-surveillance cameras.
There may be several black blocs within a particular protest, with different aims and tactics. As an ad hoc group, they share no universally common set of principles or beliefs apart from an adherence to – usually – radical Left/autonomist values. A few radical right-wing groups, like some of the autonomous nationalists of Europe, have successfully adopted "black bloc" tactics too.
This tactic was developed following increased use of police power following the 1977 Brokdorf demonstration by the German police in 1980, particularly aimed at squatters and anti-nuclear activists. These were social spaces occupied by dissidents, who preferred to create their own social institutions based on communal living and alternative community centres, seeking to create non-coercive, non-hierarchical social relations, as in anarchism. Key areas for this development were Hafenstrasse, Hamburg and Kreuzberg, Berlin. In June 1980, the German Police forcefully evicted the Free Republic of Wendland, an anti-nuclear protest camp in Gorleben, Wendland. This involved the largest mobilisation of the German Police since the demise of the Third Reich in 1945. This attack on 5,000 peaceful protesters lead many former pacifists to become willing to use violent methods. By December 1980 the Berlin City Government organised an escalating cycle of mass arrests, followed by other local authorities across West Germany. The squatters resisted by opening new squats, as the old ones were evicted. Following the mass arrest of squatters in Freiburg, demonstrations were held in their support in many German cities. The day was dubbed Black Friday following a demonstration in Berlin at which between 15,000 to 20,000 people took to the streets and destroyed an expensive shopping area. The tactic of wearing identical black clothes and masks meant that the autonomen were better able to resist the police and elude identification. The German media labeled them der schwarze Block ("the black block"). In the Netherlands, similar militant resistance developed, but the wearing of ski-masks was less prevalent and the phrase Black Helmet Brigade was used.
In 1986 Hamburg squatters mobilised following attacks on Hafenstrasse. A demonstration of 10,000 took to the streets surrounding at least 1,500 people in a black bloc. They carried a large banner saying "Build Revolutionary Dual Power!" At the end of the march, the black bloc then engaged in street fighting that forced the police to retreat. The next day 13 department stores in Hamburg were set alight causing nearly $10 million in damage. Later that year, following the Chernobyl disaster, militant anti-nuclear activists used the tactic, prompting the comment "In scenes resembling 'civil war' helmeted, leather-clad troops of the anarchist Autonomen armed with slingshots, Molotov cocktails and flare guns clashed brutally with the police, who employed water cannons, helicopters and CS gas (which has since been officially banned for use against civilians)."
When Ronald Reagan came to Berlin in June 1987, he was met by around 50,000 demonstrators protesting against his Cold War policies. This included a black bloc of 3,000 people. A couple of months later, police intensified their harassment of the Haffenstrasse squatters. In November 1987, the residents were joined by thousands of other Autonomen and fortified their squat, built barricades in the streets and defended themselves against the police for nearly 24 hours. After this the city authorities legalised the squatters residence.
When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund met in Berlin in 1988, the autonomen hosted an international gathering of anti-capitalist activists. Numbering around 80,000, the protesters completely outnumbered the police. Officials tried to maintain control by banning all demonstrations and attacking public assemblies. Nevertheless, there were riots and upmarket shopping areas were destroyed.
The first recorded use of the tactic in United States of America was in 1989 at a protest at the Pentagon. Other early use in the US were the Earth Day Wall Street Action in 1990 and the February 1991 protests against the Gulf War. These were initiated by Love and Rage, a North American revolutionary anarchist organization active in New York. Black blocs gained significant media attention when a black bloc caused damage to property of GAP, Starbucks, Old Navy, and other retail locations in downtown Seattle during the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations. They were a common feature of subsequent anti-globalization protests.
Police and security services have infiltrated black blocs with agent provocateurs. Allegations first surfaced after several demonstrations. At the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, amongst the many complaints about the police  there was mention of video footage in which "men in black were seen getting out of police vans near protest marches" . In August 2007, Quebec police admitted that "their officers disguised themselves as demonstrators." However, they were easily recognized by the genuine protesters as police, as they were still wearing their police-issue footwear.
In the late 2000s, black blocs have also been formed by far right protesters, such as "Autonomous Nationalists" (German: "Autonome Nationalisten") at May Day riots in Hamburg in 2008 and National Anarchists protesting the 2007 APEC summit in Sydney.
The Black Bloc Papers is availible at: www.infoshop.org/page/BlackBlocPapers