Press understanding of the black bloc

On Saturday, over 500,000 people took part in the March for the Alternative. The Guardian live-blogged it (first part, second part) and for the majority, it was a peaceful and diverse march.

At some point, some protesters seem to have headed to Oxford Street to engage in some direct action, namely occupying Fortnum & Masons (and were duly kettled upon leaving, having been told they’d be free to leave the area), and in a late evening a large group gathered at Trafalgar Square, apparently to rest, catch up, swap news and so on. At this point something happened, and the police responded by kettling them. People’s experiences could be very different depending on where they were and when – one person was baton charged by the police, Laurie Penny was caught in the Trafalgar Square kettle, this young blogger found himself protecting a girl whose arm was broken by the police in the Trafalgar Square kettle and Katie writes about the march and Trafalgar Square and the aftermath as a St John’s Ambulance first aider.

The reaction from the conservative press was predictable but again, people were anxious to distance themselves from those not participating in the march and engaging in different forms of direct action.

Johann Hari:

Shame on the media for focusing on a few idiots from yesterday not the inspiring 500,000, and shame on the idiots for giving them the excuse (source)

They were Black Block, who are entirely different people (and twats) (source)

Charlie Brooker:

Confusing these twats with the hundreds of thousands of actual protesters = mistaking football hooligans for footballers. (source)

La Sophielle has some interesting stuff to say on the distinction between “good” protesters and “bad” protesters:

All those news outlets with their talk of “splinter groups”, “mobs”, “maelstroms of violence”, “violent minorities” and “masked thugs” who “hijack” things – and don’t forget the bafflingly recurrent remark that those responsible “used Twitter to coordinate actions and cause trouble” – all these news outlets actually don’t care to differentiate between various expressions of political resistance, whatever they may say to the contrary. Protestors come in ‘nice’ or ‘black’ – full stop. I don’t resent this because I resent UK Uncut being “smeared” or lumped in with the black bloc. I resent this because it means that inane dichotomies (legitimate/illegitimate, nice/nasty, peaceful/violent) are shored up in the name of reporting, which in fact serve nothing at all except sensation. (source)

Aside from the debate about acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest which is probably as old as protest itself, I find it really interesting how the term “black bloc” is used. I understand it as a tactic (as this FAQ explains): a black bloc is a temporary gathering of people with different ideologies and aims working together for the duration of a march etc. Wearing similar clothes promotes solidarity, is highly visible and hinders identification, particularly by Forward Intelligence Teams. What it is not, however, is an organisation. To my knowledge, there is no black bloc membership list. There is no black bloc committee. It forms on the ground, and dissolves afterwards. The individuals involved might have connections to each other, but the black bloc itself is not the organisation that they belong to.

As a linguist, what I find interesting are the different ways the black bloc is discussed in this current round of articles. Not so much the evaluative stance, but the concept of the black bloc itself. This term is not being disputed in the press – instead, it seems to be misunderstood and the misunderstanding apparently goes unchallenged. I suspect there’s a power dynamic in that those most likely to participate in a black bloc and understand it are not likely to have a powerful voice in the press; the people writing about the black bloc in the newspapers are unlikely to be the ones with direct experience of it. And so “Black Bloc(k)” seems to become an identity rather than a tactic.

It makes me wonder how prevalent this is, both diachronically and across domains. Is this a fairly standard feature of mainstream press discourse about the black bloc? Is it something more recent – was the black bloc discussed differently in the 1990s/early 2000s/mid-2000s to now? Is the black bloc understood differently when taking part in different kinds of protest e.g. anti-war, environmental, anti-cuts (even if these issues are often closely connected)? Has the term become more widespread, or used more frequently?

This is the kind of research that lends itself to corpus research methodologies – focusing on a limited number of terms where a) the term is crucial to identifying the group being discussed and b) the term itself is what’s interesting. There may well be incidences of “protesters dressed in black” and so on, but I’m not convinced that identifies the protesters explicitly enough to know that it’s a black bloc being discussed. Because the black bloc itself is a somewhat nebulous concept – its power lies in its lack of organisation and definition – it becomes a site for projection. Do you want the black bloc to be full of violent hooligans, justifiably angry disenfranchised working class kids, rentamob thugs? Again, this seems more about identity than discussing the black bloc as a tactic.

If I didn’t have a conference paper to write I’d be creating a custom corpus with WebBootCaT, but the paper must take precedence. The custom corpus will have to wait a couple of weeks.

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