During last week's meeting of the G20 in Hamburg massive, organised protests spilled over into relatively severe violence over night, as shops were smashed and looted, cop cars and domestic vehicles set on fire, and running clashes took place between the police and the protestors.
According to reports, these riots may have been fairly spontaneous, a reaction to the police's heavy-handed tactics and an expression of sheer frustration that peaceful protests were harried and snubbed. The more reflective media reactions - especially from liberal papers outside of Germany - has involved some questioning of Merkel's decision to host the G20 in the famously radical city. It was almost as if she was asking for a showdown, the Guardian said. But within Germany these riots have been met with bafflement, melancholy and rage. It's been a while since Germany saw political violence on anything like this scale (Blocupy's anti-ECB protests in Frankfurt a couple of years ago representing a distant second). Germany is supposed to be placid, largely comfortable with Merkel's neoliberal rule and the economic ruination of the policies she represents. This was nothing as compared with Genoa or Seattle, but the toll on the city is evident and no doubt traumatic for residents. The morning after the clashes saw the same peppy mass clean up mobilisations that Boris Johnson - broom in hand - hijacked in London after the riots in 2011.
Like those riots, there is a convenient scapegoat: the narcissistic urban hipster and anarcho-poseurs of the so-called Black Bloc. One image in particular - of a black-clad, bearded anarchist-bro shooting a selfie amid the smouldering ruins of other people's stuff - went viral. Whether the photo is real or not is beside the point: it says more about the consumer of such images than it does about the supposed culprit. Rather like the "sick", "feral" youth who looted in Britain in 2011, it reproduces people's prejudices for their own enjoyment. It allows people to both dread and mock the nihilistic, self-absorbed youth for whom destruction of property is just an opportunity for self-promotion on social media.
The Black Bloc is a convenient scapegoat for all of this. They fit a useful archetype: that of the pompous, pseudo-intellectual dude-bro who will pontificate on the abolition of private property whilst having equally strong preferences about the micro-foam on his organic flat white. It is a myth, of course, but like all myths it has an element of truth to it. What needs pointing out is the absurdity of the belief that these young men's narcissism is what causes riots.
A word then in the Black Bloc's defence: they don't generally come to riot. If you've had proper fascists bearing down on you - not your Milos or some other pale alt-lighters but proper NF thugs charging at you - and the Black Bloc are the only guys who manage to intervene between you and them, you'll be happy they exist. They're not exclusively - perhaps not even majority - white and male. They are not a group as such, but rather black bloc is a style and practice of protest. It is dedicated, believe it or not, to community outreach. Win friends in the communities. Encourage big turnouts. Make the fascists feel small. I've been to Black Bloc training sessions and seen for myself the mix - yes, of egotism at times, but also heroic self-sacrifice and dedication. I don't agree with their politics but I'm almost always glad they're around. They'll defend other protesters from the police and the far-right alike.
You can readily question the politics of the Black Bloc - encased as it is in layers of autonomista anti-statism and horizontalism, generally opposed to any form of conventional political activity and believing the best form of struggle is always direct action against the vastly superior force of the police. Moreover, its endorsement of violence against private property ignores the fact that some private property belongs to people who should be on their side. That smashing up ordinary people's cars doesn't help to build a broad movement to oppose capitalism. It just makes them look like noisy pricks. Whatever you think of the system of private property, smashing up someone's car is not how you abolish it.
But the riots of last week cannot be reduced to the Black Bloc and nor should even they be caricatured simply as narcissistic millennials. The increasing militarisation of protest has led to regular upsurges in violence, as protesters attempting anything more than a passive A-to-B singalong get hounded by legions of armed officers with water cannon.
People who had endorsed black bloc tactics were central to planning and initiating the peaceful project to occupy Zuccotti Park in New York and turn it into a festival of direct democracy during the era of Occupy Wall Street. But Occupy was violently suppressed and shut down for the crime of trying to make unjustly-privatised space available for peaceful, political deliberation. The lesson is obvious and oft repeated: power cedes nothing without a demand.
There is likely to be a lot more ugliness before the world gets any better. This is neither to endorse the violence or even to argue for a view of it as particularly useful politically. Rather, it is simply to argue that where a militarised state defends a hollowed out democracy, the confrontations with those who want change will inevitably be ugly. The organisational question is how to channel that energy into lasting institutions and real gains.