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Black Bloc Group Leads Militant Protests In San Francisco Bay Area


Earlier this month, a protest at the University of California at Berkeley turned violent.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting, unintelligible).

MCEVERS: Hundreds of people had been peacefully protesting against a scheduled speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, but then about a hundred violent activists wearing masks and black clothes showed up. They set fires and broke windows all with the intent of getting the speech canceled. They succeeded. This group and tactic is called the Black Bloc. Paige St. John wrote about the Black Bloc for the LA Times. And she says the group at Berkeley was very methodical.

PAIGE ST JOHN: They began with a blockade on a street that they set fire to to stop traffic from coming into the area. Then they marched as a unit of about 150 people to the student union building where police officers were inside. And at about 6:00 p.m., which is television broadcast time it's been noted, they began attacking and assaulting the building. By 6:15 p.m. to 6:20 p.m., the event was canceled.

MCEVERS: You know, we saw these Black Bloc-style protests on Inauguration Day, of course. You saw people setting stuff on fire, breaking windows. Two hundred people were arrested. But there was a lot of talk at the time that it was all just a little too perfect, you know, the new president has just painted a picture of a grim America in his inauguration speech, and then the TV cuts to a burning limousine with an anarchist symbol on it. People have suggested - right? - that there - these could have been plants like instigators. I mean, do you think that is possible?

ST JOHN: I don't give a lot of credibility to the conspiracy theory or that degree of paranoia about it.


ST JOHN: Only because I've spoken to enough people who are motivated for their own personal political means. Their efforts are generally to shut down an event or to intimidate people from speaking or making appearances. They're not geared as heavily toward the media.

MCEVERS: How do the nonviolent protesters feel about these folks showing up to protests?

ST JOHN: It's a very mixed reaction. There's been a lot of published reaction decrying the violence of the Black Bloc tactics. But when the guys and women in black showed up at Berkeley, a cheer went up in the crowd. And I have spoken to other protest leaders who herald the Black Bloc and say it's very effective and they were welcomed at that event. There was no other way that they thought it would shut down the speech.

MCEVERS: I mean, what do researchers say about this - right? - about overall - over the long term the effectiveness of violent versus nonviolent protest?

ST JOHN: There has been research that this backfires, that this actually makes a movement look bad or, you know, cast a pall upon the larger body of the demonstration.

MCEVERS: Or brings about more violence in the form of a crackdown from the government, as we saw in the Arab Spring.

ST JOHN: Exactly. It begets that. It also brings out others on the other side who are equally violent. And you saw that in Sacramento this June when a white nationalist rally brought out the Black Bloc. It also brought out neo-Nazis. And then in the conflict we have five people stabbed. But members of the Black Bloc - and this is one commonality that I heard as well - many of them spoke about hearing from their parents and grandparents and family history about oppression.

One woman's grandparents, you know, still talk a lot about the Holocaust. And there's a thought that they echoed about what they would have done in those times during the rise of the Nazis in Germany or oppression of African-Americans in the '60s. And so I think that they're living those historic moments in their own actions today.

MCEVERS: Paige St. John is an investigative reporter with the LA Times. Thank you very much.

ST JOHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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