Article by Esther Solano Gallego and Paulo Rogério Lugoboni Filho.
It was in the first weeks of the massive anti-government protests that started in June 2013 and shook Brazilian society to its very foundations that the Black Bloc made its first appearance on the protest scene. Demonstrations took place in dozens of cities across the country, but the black-clad youngsters who covered their faces and linked arms at the front-line of the marches, ready for any confrontation with the security forces, made their appearance mainly on the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
While being denounced by some for their violent tactics, actively looking for confrontations with the police and smashing banks and other symbols of global capitalism, those joining the Black Bloc in a protest could also count on some support from fellow protesters. During last year’s education crisis in October, which drew thousands of indignant teachers to the streets, the Black Bloc was present to protect them from the police violence.
In response, the SEPE Teacher’s Union declared its unconditional support for the Black Bloc, claiming that many have been protected by the masked youngsters from the excessive use of force by the police. Even though the SEPE has now retracted its support for the Black Bloc, and popular opinion has turned against it due to its negative depiction in the mainstream media, this strategy of radical anti-authoritarianism is still alive and kicking on the streets of Brazil today.
Despite the disproportional attention paid to the Black Bloc’s violence in the mainstream media, it is in fact still a largely marginal phenomenon. Even in a metropolis like São Paulo, where protest marches tend to draw in thousands of supporters, the Black Bloc usually does not consist of more than fifty to a hundred people.
Another flaw in the mainstream media’s reporting on the Black Bloc is its false presentation as an organization with a command structure, internal hierarchy and a clear agenda, whereas in fact it is nothing more than a tactic in which a group of like-minded people naturally flock together to resist the violence of the state, bound by the unconditional solidarity that lasts only as long as the protest itself, after which every individual goes their own way. In the words of some black bloc participants, the tactic has been described as a performance, a form of direct action that uses symbolic violence as a way to call for public debate.
Why so violent?
Ever since the Black Bloc entered the protest scene in Brazil, three crucial questions have intrigued observers and government officials alike: what motivates these people to take their anger to the streets; how do they justify the use of violence; and why do they not engage in peaceful protests?
Due to the explicit distrust that the majority of Black Bloc supporters have towards the media, especially the mainstream channels, it is really hard for society at large to obtain access to the ideologies and reasoning that guide their actions on the streets. The key, and most provocative, element that causes a big fuss in public opinion is the use of violence as a legitimate tool of protest.
[…] Perhaps most importantly, the rise of the Black Bloc forces us to confront the question of violence in a broader, more structural sense. Why do we pay such tremendous attention to some broken windows, while no one is talking about the 50.000 annual homicides, or the equal amount of women who are raped every year in Brazil? Does the theatrical violence of the Black Bloc truly deserve more attention than the tragedies of everyday life in the favelas? One explanation is that the performative violence of the Black Bloc has brought the battle to the doorstep of those who are pulling the strings, whereas the very real violence against the poor and marginalized occurs at the fringes of society, safely hidden away from the public gaze in areas where the cameras of the mainstream media rarely venture.
Whether one agrees with Black Bloc tactics or not, we have to admit that they successfully draw attention to the very real indignation that slumbers below the surface of Brazilian society. We can debate how successful the use of performative violence can be in achieving one’s long-term goals of radical social transformation, but we cannot deny a person’s right to resist in whatever way they see fit. When violence is the only face of the state that people experience, no wonder it’s through violence that they resist…