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.
Black Bloc “casseurs” in Paris today. They once again infiltrated a demo and left cars burned and banks ransacked. Riot police fire tear gas… This has been going on for a few years now… https://t.co/8ydOa13dgF
— Ben McPartland (@McPBen) December 5, 2020
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.
— 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.”
17:43 Un black bloc tente de détruire la vitrine d’un Monoprix boulevard de l’hôpital en y perdant sa chaussure. Il a un marteau dans sa main droite #FêteDuTravail #Paris #1erMai2019 #GiletsJaunes pic.twitter.com/0N0KE1pc0T
— Rémy Bournoville????????? ?13:30 (@remybournoville) May 3, 2019
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.
Black bloc extremists smash up a grocery store using weapons at the riot in Paris. They assault journalists for filming. pic.twitter.com/cPCZ83M9di
— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) December 5, 2020
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.”
Une agence de la Banque Populaire a été prise pour cible avant d’être pillée. Des mortiers d’artifice ont été allumés à l’intérieur. #MarcheDesLibertés #Paris #5decembre #manifestation #StopLoiSécuritéGlobale pic.twitter.com/85njHH3Th3
— Yazid Bouziar (@ybouziar) December 5, 2020
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’.
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.
— Amar Taoualit (@TaoualitAmar) December 5, 2019
“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.”