Here's some radical chic with a violent twist: After apologizing for allegedly normalizing a Nazi sympathizer last week, the New York Times celebrated violent hard-left Antifa (the “anti-fascists” who actually delight in wearing identify-hiding uniforms, committing violence, and indulging in other fascist tactics) on the front of the Styles section Thursday. Don’t expect a similar backlash from the paper’s leftist readership.
Freelance journalist Rick Paulas’s offensive, and offensively headlined “Black Is Always in Fashion – Blocs of hard-core protesters dressing for the job they want: punching Nazis,” was accompanied by several pseudo-stylish photos by New York Times photographers of brave activists with their faces covered Antifa-style, the better to commit mayhem and property damage. The online headline: “What to Wear to Smash the State”:
In late August, a crowd of thousands -- primarily leftists and liberals -- cascaded down Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, Calif. They were marching on a spattering of right-wingers, Trump supporters and Nazis who were gathering under the mission to say “no to Marxism in America.” At the front of the march were about 100 people dressed in head-to-toe black.
According to many people present, this was the largest so-called black bloc they’d seen. This medley of black-clad anarchists, anti-fascists (known as “antifa” activists) and their fellow travelers was a response to the previous week’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. There, protests ended with 19 injured and 32-year-old Heather Heyer killed when James Fields, an admirer of Hitler who demonstrated with white supremacists, drove his car into a crowd.
This mass of solid black descending upon the park in Berkeley, hunting for fascists, was an intimidating aesthetic. That’s by design.
Is that intimidation the motive or just a benefit? Do black bloc practitioners dress up because, as many progressives wonder, they want to commit crimes? What do they get out of “masking up”? Where does uniform merge with tactic?
Note that in the National edition the sentence in bold above reads: “Do black bloc practitioners dress up because, as many sympathetic progressives wonder from home, they want to commit crimes?” Perhaps that phrasing cut too close, portraying many liberals as (accurately?) cheering on violence and property destruction for a just cause.
It’s impossible to say which anarchist street movement first donned all black. The generally agreed-upon genesis for the bloc’s current incarnation is the Autonomen movement of the 1970s, which grew out of class struggles in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and beyond. (Antifa groups, an overlapping but not at all identical set of people, trace their lineage back further, to those who fought against the rise of Hitler; generally, where there is “fa,” there’s been “antifa.”)
It was a look so successful that the bloc’s greatest enemies considered adopting it. As Mark Bray details in his incisive “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” there have been occasional attempts to co-opt the bloc look by right-wing fascist groups. That’s died down recently, with the loose overlapping affiliation of nationalists, white supremacists and Nazis instead adopting an overdressed, old-fashioned style often referred to as “dapper.”
Paulas actively celebrated Antifa:
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So, while they wear khakis and white polos, the black bloc are left with some particular defensive and offensive benefits of their very own.
The creation of mass anonymity protects practitioners from the threat of post-action doxxing by white supremacist groups, a process by which their identities and contact information, including addresses and places of employment, are publicized. People at home can use this information to harass and threaten. Similarly, police and other agencies have staff devoted to documenting demonstrations, and they work to identify people on film and video. These are among the reasons that some anarchists and anti-fascists advocate smashing cameras at demonstrations.
Paulas couldn’t stop fawning over the thuggery:
There is solid beauty advice as well: “A layer of glitter or highlighter dusted over your cheeks can serve double duty, showing off your glorious bone structure while simultaneously providing a helpful way to determine which side of your bandanna was in contact with your face and which side is saturated in tear gas particulate.” (Also, jean shorts are probably not ideal.)
There is more practical advice on how to dress for a riot. One should decide on organic or synthetic gloves before participating in an action: Wool and cotton may allow chemical contaminants, like pepper spray, to absorb, while nylon can melt if you grab something hot, which historically has included some kinds of tear-gas canisters but can include various things on fire.
These defensive methods work only if there are enough black-clad others nearby. A single person in all black and multiple face masks is an eye grabber. This effect of anonymity-by-mass has allowed for the offensive side of bloc tactics to flourish. The uniformity camouflages those who participate in illegal acts like property damage, refusing police orders or physical assault against white supremacists or Nazis. This willful protection of the group is embedded in the style’s aesthetic.
“People sometimes do things that are illegal, but I think they’re ethical,” Ben said. “I’m happy to be in this mass that creates anonymity for those people, even if they’re doing things I’m not willing to do.”
Tactical considerations aside, it’s this emotional connection with other members of the bloc that many practitioners highlight the most in interviews....
Paulas perhaps unwittingly located the pathetic heart of the movement: A desire to be absorbed into an amorphous movement, any discerning personality traits or thought patterns lost in the name of “solidarity,” through vandalism and violence:
“It was like a goth party,” Min said. “There were queer people, black people, white people, Asian people, and, because, we were all wearing black, there was no way to even think about the things that are often barriers to our connection.” Min said this anonymity, where she was unable to identify even people around her, had a way of purifying her actions. “There’s a difference between me helping you because I know you and care about you, and me helping you because I want you to be helped,” she said.
Min is an artist. For her, this is one of the most unappreciated aspects of black bloc as a style. It’s tactical, and practical, and it’s also an art form with the effect of building solidarity long after the boots go into the closet. The experience of being enveloped in anonymity helps retain the movement’s ideology, after the balaclavas get folded up and stacked in the drawer.