From Chronicle – by Kevin Fagan and Michael Bodley
As Kathy Lipscomb watched TV newscasts of “black bloc” anarchists smashing windows at a UC Berkeley protest, the former organizer of Occupy demonstrations was obsessed by two thoughts.
The first, she said, was: “Oh no, not again.” The second: “We can’t let them help ruin things this time.”
Those sentiments echoed across the Bay Area as leaders of the current wave of protests against President Trump took heed of Wednesday’s campus violence, Trump’s subsequent threat to cut funding to UC Berkeley, and what all that portends for their movement.
Their biggest fear is a repeat of what happened to Occupy earlier this decade, when black bloc violence chased away nonviolent, mainstream protesters — and helped lead to Occupy’s collapse about five years ago.
“That stuff that happened at UC Berkeley with the black bloc was just nuts, doesn’t help,” said longtime protester Buck Bagot, who helped organize the Occupy movement in San Francisco and has been mobilizing demonstrations against Trump. “People need to make sure this incredibly negative, destructive element isn’t there in what we do this time.”
Its adherents saw Occupy as a wake-up call against income inequality. But many of them say Occupy fell short of being more than that, partly because violent anarchists came to be the bandanna-obscured face of the movement to the broader public.
The day after Trump’s inauguration, the new president’s opponents staged peaceful Women’s Marches in cities across the country, many drawing tens of thousands of people. It was what Bagot and others envision as the building block of a sustained resistance to Trump on such issues as the rights of women, immigrants and poor people.
Black bloc protesters, however, have grabbed headlines at two protests. The first was on inauguration day, when a small cadre smashed windows and clashed with police in Washington.
The second was Wednesday night at UC Berkeley, where hundreds of demonstrators had gathered to protest the scheduled appearance of right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Dozens of black-clad anarchists marched into the middle of the peaceful rally, pulled rocks and bottle rockets from their backpacks, and flung them at police. They broke windows at the student union, then roamed around downtown, smashing glass doors and windows and scrawling graffiti on buildings.
It was hardly a surprise they got all the attention, including from Trump, who tweeted Friday that “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” He had earlier threatened to cut off federal funding to UC Berkeley — which responded that it had nothing to do with the violence.
It was all reminiscent of the charges that came to be leveled at Occupy. And just as they did during Occupy, the people whose actions prompted the reactions promised to keep at it.
As he hunkered down beneath a homemade shield to ward off rubber pellets being fired by police, one anarchist at the Berkeley protest, who declined to give his name, defended the tactics of his “resistance.” They’re permissible in the face of fascism, he said.
“Peaceful protests don’t work anymore,” said the man. “This is war.”
Companions unfurled a large banner that read, “Become ungovernable.”
Robin Averbeck, a community college professor, was at the Berkeley protest. She wore no hood over her head or bandanna on her face, but said she had been part of a crowd that overwhelmed security at Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance at UC Davis on Jan. 13, forcing its cancellation.
It’s crucial, she said, for protesters to use a “diversity of tactics” in “fighting fascism.”
The black bloc is not an organization. For the past 20 years it’s been called a “tactic” by anarchist extremists, and now it’s a broad term that encompasses people who believe that destruction is the best way to force home the point of protest against right-wing or even conventional politics.
Their tactics are pure confrontation: Dress in black, wear a mask, bring a backpack with hammers, rocks or incendiary devices, then charge through the peaceful crowd to smash windows and get in the face of police.
Participants never give their names to reporters who try, usually unsuccessfully, to interview them. During the Occupy protests, they often ran away or blended back into a crowd as quickly as possible to avoid arrest.
Their presence at UC Berkeley made for a nasty case of deja vu for the people who were committed to Occupy.
That movement faded to a whisper for several reasons, including its commitment to having no leaders and its disorganized cacophony of causes. But the destruction wrought by black bloc anarchists scared away nonviolent protesters and focused public attention on what amounted to a tiny sliver of protesters. And often, though they attacked banks and other big-corporation businesses the demonstrations were aimed at, black bloc vandals also damaged small shops whose owners agreed with the philosophy Occupy.
Some who tried to bring constructive change through Occupy remain rattled to this day.
“It got really nasty,” said one attorney who helped assemble Occupy in Oakland and didn’t want his name published for fear of reprisal. “My goal of Occupy was to raise awareness of our economic crisis of inequality, but it became clear to me that some people had other goals of violence. It was scary. A lot of my friends and other people dropped out because they were afraid.”
Lipscomb noted that black bloc was a small part of Wednesday’s crowd, adding, “I never like the press focusing on the violence, because that’s not the point of the protest.”
During the current movement, she said, “We are going to just have to ask them to leave. Take off your mask. We may need security of our own.”
Bagot has already recruited security volunteers for his protests against economic inequality in San Francisco, but the concern is also being felt by anti-Trump organizers in the suburbs.
Ellis Goldberg left the Occupy movement in disgust over the violence to organize the followup 99 Percent demonstrations. He helped plan a Women’s March in Walnut Creek on Jan. 21 and said he made sure to arrange for volunteer security, “because we want to show we are doing something positive and we’re not just a bunch of hooligans.”
The march drew several thousand people, and there was no vandalism.
“We have to remember what we are about this time as we oppose what Trump is doing,” Goldberg said. “We’re not just the fringe people, but the mainstream and everyone — soccer moms, workers of all kinds, people who have never done protest before.
“Those people Wednesday with black masks on? It’s crazy. Breaking windows and fighting with police is not what we’re about.”
Longtime East Bay activist Dan Martin, whose son attends UC Berkeley, said he didn’t go to Wednesday night’s protest and urged his son to stay away, too, fearing the event would turn ugly.
Martin said the Bay Area is in for “four years of protests,” and that there are right and wrong ways to conduct them. “I hope (police) come up with some successful tactics of how to deal with it,” he said. “It looks like it’s totally out of control.”
Martin said he had a “rougher background” than his family, and that he wouldn’t let anarchists keep him away from any and all protests. But he added, “I don’t expect my wife and kids to go out and get their heads beat in.”
Bagot said he’s confident that “something long-lasting will come of things this time.” But, he said, “That won’t happen if we let the craziest, most macho people mess it up like they did with Occupy.”