INTERVIEW: A French Black Bloc rioter explains reasons for protest violence

INTERVIEW: A French Black Bloc rioter explains reasons for protest violence
A Black Bloc protester throws a stone during a protest in Paris on April 19th 2018. Photo: AFP
They appear in the news almost weekly, smashing windows and setting fires, but who are France’s ‘Black Blocs’ and what do they want? Ingri Bergo talked to one activist about her life of violent protest.

The phone call was supposed to come in sometime between 5pm and 6pm, from an anonymous person somewhere in France who would “likely be calling from a tabac”.

I got in touch with the French Black Bloc network after the most recent protest against the security draft law, on December 5th, which turned violent in several French cities. In Paris the masked, black-clad figures smashed shop windows, torched dozens of cars and launched violent attacks on the police.

 

These scenes are nothing new in France.

Demonstrations, of which there are many, generally follow the same pattern – thousands of people take to the streets to peacefully protest about an issue they feel strongly about. The march reaches its end point and at around 4-5pm dozens or sometimes hundreds of black-clad figures appear and begin creating mayhem. On December 5th the march had barely started moving before the violence started.

READ ALSO: Close to 100 arrests made at violent French demos against new security bill

Situation extrêmement tendue. Les forces de l’ordre se font repousser à coup de projectiles.#MarcheDesLibertés #Paris #5decembre #manifestation #StopLoiSécuritéGlobale pic.twitter.com/TGZRPcuvdT

— Yazid Bouziar (@ybouziar) December 5, 2020

 

In France, some of the violent protesters are described as casseurs – vandals or hooligans – who just turn up to cause trouble. Others, the more committed and extreme ones, are those part of movement known as the Black Bloc – even if the lines between the two seems increasingly blurred.

Black Bloc is the name of a protest strategy, but its members are usually associated with anarchism, anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism. In France their political ideology appears increasingly vague to onlookers as they turn up at the end of a wide variety of demos, from environmental protests to the ‘yellow vest’ marches of 2018-2019.

“If you rally 20,000 people for the cause of frozen beans today, you will get Black Blocs,” said Grégory Joron, a police officer and union representative, in the documentary “Police Attitude: 60 years of policing”, available on Public Senat. “Black Blocs are professional rioters.”

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See also on The Local:

 

But we rarely hear from the Black Bloc themselves, who they are and what they want, which is how I ended up waiting for this mysterious phone call from somewhere in France.

Black Bloc protesters carry a banner reading “to fight” during a protest in Paris in April 2018. Photo: AFP

The woman on the line would not tell me her name of where she was calling from. She said she was a 35-year-old Parisian. Since she joined the movement six months ago she said she had no permanent address and moved around to wherever the next protest is.

She has not revealed her involvement in the movement to her family or friends, who she said would be unlikely to understand or support her.

Her involvement in the Black Blocs is recent, and followed losing her job in the restaurant industry as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown.

She said: “In the beginning (of the pandemic) I wore a mask, I followed all the rules. But then colleagues began to lose their jobs and people became depressed, at the same time as we had to listen to (government) ministers telling us that there would be financial help for those in need. But there wasn’t. At least we never got anything.

“I used to do different jobs in the restaurant sector, I had a stable income. I lost it all.

“So there you are, locked inside because of a flu, having to wear a mask for no reason, and you aren’t allowed to say anything. On top of that, you’re not getting paid and the bills start piling up.

“So anger begins to rise. Hatred rises. There is something within that needs to get out. I told myself that I need to get all that hatred out of my body, otherwise I would implode.”

She had not previously been involved in any political activism, saying: “To me, protests are just walking in the street. There is no point in that. Not now. Protesting worked when we had presidents who listened to the people, but this government doesn’t care.”

Black Bloc actions tend to hog the headlines because of their violence, and to protest organisers the high-profile stunts are an unwelcome distraction from the issue that they are trying to raise.

Black Bloc protesters throw cobblestones at a van in Paris during the annual May 1st Labour Day protest in 2019. Photo: AFP

Many also complain that the Black Bloc violence discredits the actions of thousands of peaceful protesters, and some even believe that the Black Bloc themselves are government agents, working to undermine protesters.

The Black Bloc are violent and frequently attack police. Some smash buildings and street furniture and torch cars that are parked along protest routes.

During the 'yellow vest' protest movement, French authorities estimated the cost of the damages, fires, thefts and pillages totalled some €217 millions. Nearly half, 41 percent, was damage inflicted on Parisian businesses.

 

Not all this can be contributed to Black Bloc, even if they are those who explicitly aim to smash and destroy along their way. But I asked this Black Bloc if she didn't see a problem with all this collateral damage, of destroying the car or shop of someone who had nothing to do with either the government or the global financial elites.

She responded: “You should not park your car on a street where a protest is declared. The same goes for shop owners. If they stay open and get their windows smashed, they can’t complain – they knew that they were taking a calculated risk because they earn so much money during protests.

“I’m not saying that it’s entirely their fault, I feel sorry for them, but everyone is responsible for their own actions. We’re in 2020. There is always havoc during protests. 

“The goal is to show the government that we are angry, that we are ready to go really far. There are people now who are ready to lose their lives.” 

 

 
But what's behind the violence, and do the Black Bloc today actually have a political ideology?
 
When they originated in the 1980s in Germany and spread in the early 2000s to the United States and internationally, their message was clear. The members were committed anarchists, anti-globalists and anti-capitalists.
 
They target banks and recent actions in Paris also targeted real estate agents as 'agents of gentrification'.
 
 
 
Black Bloc protesters take part in a protest against a proposed pension reform in Paris, on December 5th 2019. Photo: AFP
 
But this woman was describing a movement that had changed. She said many of those currently active were not convinced anti-capitalists who had a philosophical reasoning behind their violence. Rather, she said, they were lashing out in despair.
 
She said: “Some carry the anti-capitalist message of smashing up banks, but mostly there is just anger and hatred.
 
“Either we keep all that inside, get ill and end up on antidepressants, or we dress up in black and explode on the streets.”
 

 
 
French police have come in for criticism for being apparently unable to stop the almost-weekly explosions of violence at protests, and it often seems that their their only tactic is to start using tear gas once the Black Bloc appear, which frequently also affects all passers-by in an area, but the Black Bloc themselves are organised, secretive and difficult to infiltrate.

The activist explained: “When I participate in a protest I take the train in the evening before or in the morning. I do several tours of the city to avoid staying anywhere too long before the protest starts.

“I always bring an ice pick, a baton if I have to protect myself from the cops. I bring a change of clothes and balloons of paint to throw at the police. Personally, I don’t do things that are too violent. I’m not there to fight with the police.

ANALYSIS: How did France's relationship with its own police get so bad?

 

“The movement is completely without hierarchy. We don’t know each other, there is no leader.

“We only communicate via [messaging apps] Telegram, or Signal and dark web. We never send emails.

“We pass messages by hand in order to give new people tips such as, wear gloves, wear a mask all the way through, don’t wear shoes with recognisable colours, don’t go straight from your house to the protest. Do like they do in (TV) series, take three detours first.

“There are cameras everywhere, if the police want to find you, they will.”

And the violence against police officers, hundreds of whom have been injured – some seriously – while policing demos?

“To me, that’s not a problem whatsoever. I’m all about “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”.

“We have a police force who have been beating up kids in the Paris banlieues for years without any reason. That they take a few kicks or hits during protests does not bother us at all.

“Not at all.”


Member comments

  1. @Seanin9701 I have been charged and beaten by the police for no reason and have watched a family member have his skull smashed to pieces with no provocation in word or deed. I know it’s very hard to believe, and I would not have believed it myself if I had not experienced it first hand. The police do *not* hit in retaliation, they charge and then beat innocent protesters because their orders are to scare us into not coming again. In contrast, I have watched Black Blocs protect older protesters they did not know from the viciousness of the police. No one on here seems to have a clue what they’re talking about. I acknowledge that a portion of protestors are ticked off about the violence but I think they don’t know or care that the police start it and they appear to not understand that there is no point protesting if no media reports it. And unfortunately, protestors getting beaten for no reason is ignored by the media but a small fire in a wheelie bin gets headlines.

  2. @Claudia thank you for proving my point: “When I get screwed over, I make myself a cup of tea” – in short you enjoy all the rights we have but let others fight for them.

  3. @Eleanor P. I admire your courage for writing what you feel, even though I may not agree with everything you’ve said. :-))
    Thank God we live in a country with freedom of speech, so you continue saying whatever you like and don’t let people shut you down, Eleanor. Well done!

  4. @Claudia Firstly, if you go back and re-read what I wrote, you’ll see I said that I DO NOT condone the actions of the black bloc lady. To me she sounds desperate. To suggest she sits down and has a cup of tea and contemplates her life, is laughable, actually quite ridiculous.
    Secondly, easier said than done to leave the country and go elsewhere if you hate it so much. You have no idea about life here, do you? You’re probably sitting in your lovely warm house, comfortable chair sipping your tea, waiting to have your dinner, all your bills paid, etc. Because if you did know about people’s hardships and their struggles, you wouldn’t be talking like this. You have no empathy, have you.
    And lastly, you immediately lose the argument when you get personal. You have no idea who I am, or what education I’ve had.
    It’s easy for the likes of you to sit behind a computer (because your electricity has been paid) mouthing away such rubbish. If anyone needs to grow up, Claudia, it’s you.

  5. …sorry hit the wrong key. Here is how I intended to finish this comment on the article… From what I CAN SEE IT IS their seeming impunity that leads to some people saying that they are ‘agents provocateurs’, allies of some perverse government notion of how to ensure that citizen protests on the streets will always descend into gratuitous violence that works against the people who organized the demonstration. Instead of bringing in new laws, new measures, trying to protect the police and also ordinary people, the government should finally get its act together and start to identify who this minority are. Instead of having a protest degenerate because of 5 or 600 Black Blocs, everything should be done to identify them in advance and/or not let them get away after a protest. The interviewee confirms what I have come to think over the years, the only motivation these people have is nihilistic selfishness and there is no altruism in any of their acts.

  6. Good article from the Local. This Black Bloc phenomenon needs to be understood better. Innocent people are being injured during asymmetric Black Bloc confrontations with the police, in which the police have to respect the rule of law and try to do civilized crowd control while the Black Blocs can create any sort of mayhem they want and put innocent lives in danger. The Gilets Jaunes movements’ efforts were totally destroyed, by the Black Blocs (who can’t, if this lady’s story is to be understood correctly, even lay claim to any sort of political justification for their actions). From what I haIt is their seeming impunity that has led to some people saying that they are ‘agents provocateurs’, allies of some perverse government notion of how to ensure that citizen protests on the streets will always descend into gratuitous violence that works against the people who organized the demonstration. Instead of bringing in new laws, new measures, trying to protect the police and also ordinary people, the government should finally get its act together and start to identify who this minority are. Instead of having a protest degenerate because of 5 or 600 Black Blocs, everything should be done to identify them in advance and

  7. @Daniela, you can see my responses above. Do what educated people, people who genuinely want a better life and don’t just want anarchy and chaos do; move elsewhere, find a job elsewhere.

  8. @Eleanor, are you French? My French husband who has had the experience of being screwed over many times by the French government doesn’t condone the actions of the “Ridiculous Black Bloc” who just make life infinitely harder for the lower and middle class who are already suffering. Already it’s damn impossible to build a life in this city, and what do they do? Add more chaos to the lives of others. Have you tried filing paperwork in France, before? Then you know how damn impossible it would be for store owners to get their insurance on the damage that the BB do in a timely manner that allows them to continue to provide for their families. These are temper tantrums, period. Hate France so much? So no opportunities here? Do what my husband did: leave France and start a business elsewhere. Don’t set things on fire and put people’s lives and livelihood in danger. You know what I do when I’m depressed? I drink tea and contemplate how things could be so much worse (because, guess what, I lost my job too and you don’t see me setting fire to buildings). Really works. I recommend it.
    And by the by, if these people are your “absolute heroes” then either you’ve not read or seen the stories of true heroes like Marie Curie or Martin Luther King or Ada Lovelace or Warren Buffet. If the Black Bloc are your heroes, you’re either 17 years old and angry at your mother for not letting you stay out late, or you’ve lived a heck of an uneducated life. Find some real heroes. Grow up.

  9. Hilarious to have expats say things like “She should count herself lucky, France is much better at providing support and healthcare to its citizens than most other places!” and not wonder why that is… I thank the black blocs for their service, I’ve been demonstrating on French streets a lot, and they are my absolute heroes. Long may they continue to break windows and protect us from the police.

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