Notes from an activist: Running with the Black Bloc

On a day of chaos and confrontation between riot police and protesters in Miami, stereotypes are broken and solidarity is forged.

Published November 21, 2003 4:43PM (EST)

It's 4:45 a.m. and time to get up, impossible as that seems. I've had a whopping six hours of sleep in the past two nights. We meet outside our hotel, distribute snacks and medical supplies (Maalox for tear gas, a first aid kit), and split up into cars to drive over to the Convergence Center for our scheduled 5:45 cluster gathering. It is not yet dawn, and Miami is numinously beautiful against the night sky: the emerald city, the breathing incarnation of our months of planning.

At the Convergence Center, we circle up, introduce ourselves with a game, and review plans. There are at least three helicopters overhead, flashing powerful lights down onto us, whining like gargantuan mosquitoes -- over the past days, this whine has ingrained itself into my skull -- and we have to yell to hear each other. We break apart to head down to Government Center, our 7 a.m. downtown mass action convergence spot. I stay behind to finish up some media "wrangling" -- placing our ironically "embedded" reporters with affinity groups.

Code Orange has left to begin our puppet parade; I hop into a car with some friendly North Carolinians, and they drop me off a few blocks away from what looks like the parade. I run to catch up. And when I get there, I am a blip of color among a sea of black. I've unwittingly joined up with the Black Bloc. I can't help grinning to myself. I am virtually fundamentalist in my embrace of nonviolence, and here I am with the Black Bloc, infamous for property destruction and for their obstreperously militant tactics. Whoops.

There are cops everywhere, sirens screaming, and someone somewhere in front gives the order to run. Suddenly everyone is running, hundreds of us, hurtling through the streets in chaos. Panic fills my chest; it is impossible to see very far in front or behind, and I'm rapidly growing tired. On my left, someone scrawls the anarchy sign onto a window in black spray paint. A cheer rises from the crowd. We continue sprinting haphazardly through the streets, and finally come to a standstill. Why have we stopped? What's happening? After milling about in confusion for awhile, I grow impatient. I push through to the center of the crowd, where affinity group representatives have gathered in an ad-hoc spokescouncil. We have stopped because we are blocked off by police.

One spokesperson offers to liaise with the police. "Can someone liaise with me?" he asks. No one volunteers. "I will," I offer. I've liaised before. "But only if people feel comfortable. I don't belong to this bloc and do not represent any affinity groups here." Heads nod. Nimo, my counterpart, shakes my hand as we approach the lines of police -- there are two of them: in front, the city cops on bikes; behind them, the riot police, heavily armed. And around us, an eager trail of press. Nimo smiles as we head up. He can't be more than twenty, delicate-limbed and fine-featured. "Good to meet you." He pulls his black mask back up over his mouth.

The captain is relatively amiable and open to negotiating. Thus ensues a lengthy process of negotiations; if everyone puts away their sticks and spray paint cans, they'll escort us to Government Center. We head back to the Bloc, and split up to spread the message. I yell it out in phrases, the group yelling back in repetitions. Sticks and cans vanish into black backpacks. It is hard to tell who is who; the black clothing, masks, and beanies lend near-total anonymity. But most of the faces, I note, are quite young. And contrary to my expectations, the Bloc is relatively gender-balanced.

Slowly we head out. I stay in the front, where the captain can approach me if any problems arise. There are some kids around me heckling the police. Although it's not my role here, I can't resist informing them that they're just pissing them off, and will be sure to reap the rewards should anything go wrong. To my surprise, they listen to me.

When we get close to Government Center, the captain tells us that there has been confrontation, and he can't let us move further. We simultaneously learn that most groups have left Government Center and are approaching the fence. We spend the next hour or so in negotiations, and eventually the police let us disperse. I am thanked by several members of the Black Bloc. We hug. I don't agree with their tactics; I'm a firm believer in means holding congruent with ends, and I want to build peace as well as justice. But nonetheless, it's been a pleasure, and I'm happy to have been relieved of some stereotypes. I move on, anxious to locate Code Orange.

Ah! Finally I locate the huge painted sun-puppet -- that's us. It's a joyful if belated reunion, and we advance, puppets and flags in place, to join the massive AFL-CIO march. Energy is high, and it's a relief to be in the midst of a permitted march, with the cops hanging back. Later in the day, there is more confrontation -- the police have conveniently labeled the direct action contingency as the "bad protesters," and grow increasingly forceful in their treatment of us. Tracy from Code Orange gets a faceful of teargas. I run into my friend Carwil, and he has a lump the size of a Ping-Pong ball on his forehead from a rubber bullet. When we head back to the Convergence Center at dusk, there are cops everywhere. We dump the giant puppets with a friendly resident, apologizing for the chaos we are bringing to their neighborhood, and move rapidly towards public transit -- we have gotten word that the Convergence Center isn't safe. Josh from Code Orange pauses outside a shop window to catch a glimpse of television; it is footage from the helicopters above us, and we watch as they film protestors running ant-like through the streets. I glance up to where they careen above us. It is all bizarrely apocalyptic, and I'm beginning to feel like a hunted animal.

We get to the station, which is overflowing with activists. We locate the right bus and pile in, relieved. When we return to our hotel we read of the "FTAA Lite" that has been agreed to by the delegates. This is an excellent development. It will certainly mitigate some of the more egregious parts of the agreement. Our mood is jubilant. At dinner, I finally begin to relax, the adrenaline seeping slowly out of my blood. What a relief to simply sit in a restaurant, safe, unhounded.

Who knows what effect we have had? Certainly the mainstream media will continue to portray us as clueless, dissatisfied radicals looking to make trouble. But altogether there have been thousands here, protesting American-led policies in the very belly of the beast. And it is the spectrum of protesting tactics that comprises the whole; the margins that allow for the middle. Only on the margins can we lay the foundations for true alternatives, can we move sufficiently far from the mainstream to create other ways. The environment and the peoples of this earth will not be saved from destruction by slightly different policies; there must be other structures built, kinder paths explored. This may be a young movement, but it is directly democratic, entirely cooperative, and it is growing. We toast each other and cheer. What a day.

By Marisa Handler

Marisa Handler is a writer and activist.

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