Even in a political era where outrage has brought millions of people out on the streets, the leftists who engage in "black bloc" tactics—which can range from property damage to physically confronting right-wing protesters and police—are outliers. When you choose to "bloc up" and put on the signature black clothes and face coverings, it changes your life. Not only are you risking violence from far-right activists equally willing to mix it up in the streets, but you often live with a constant anxiety of doxxing and wondering if friends, family, and employers would understand if they knew the extent of your activities.
I reached out to a few people heavily involved in antifa actions to try and better understand the toll their involvement takes on members who are willing to engage in black bloc tactics. I ended up speaking with several people—all under conditions of anonymity—from all over the country via the phone and messaging apps about their biggest fears, the possible consequences of their actions, and whether those consequences ever cause them to question their role in the movement.
"You definitely have two separate parts of your life, that's why it's so important to have comrades who are going through this with you and fighting next to you, so you have someone to share the experiences with," Violet, a Jewish trans woman in Philadelphia, told me over the phone. "That's one of the advantages of 'blocing up' too, it helps you hopefully stay anonymous."
While Violet admitted that "threats of incarceration by the state and Nazi violence are incredibly frightening," she also told me that while "it would be impossible during the tough times not to ever wonder if it's all worth it, but when I think of the acts (white supremacists) commit, I see how dangerous their movement is and I don't question it. I have to be out there."
Violet and others I spoke with all reiterated that they see the violence they commit as essential self-defense of their community. "Even though it's in self-defense, there are a lot of people who don't agree with using violence against Nazis, so there's no guarantee that anyone—even people on the left—will agree with our tactics," Violent said. "Although I have tons of friends in the movement, there's no way of knowing who would support me if my actions were made public, and that can be scary."
I asked her how she feels about this lack of support and she paused for a breath before answering. "If there's anything that's truly isolating it's seeing those who supposedly agree with us and want Nazis stopped chastising us because of our tactics," she told me, with a tinge of irritation in her voice. "Nazism is a violent ideology. Fascism is a violent ideology. At some point, everyone agrees with violence. They agree with police violence, they certainly agree with soldiers' violence against Nazis—why do they not agree with our violence that's being used to stop the same movement? You can't say, 'Now violence is OK' once they're establishing ghettos! That can be incredibly isolating and frightening to know we don't always have their support."
Evelyn, a white working-class homeowner who works in social services and lives in a in a city on the West Coast, told me over the phone that she has seen firsthand the risks involved in black bloc tactics. "I have had friends jumped, shot, stabbed, homes attacked, stalked, and doxxed," she said. "It made me fight harder and makes it clear that this is a serious fight we can't lose. There is too much on the line."
As Violet did, Evelyn emphasized that black bloc violence was far from the only violence going on: People of colour and those in marginalized communities have been dealing with this level of systemic violence for a long time, she told me. "White folks have the responsibility to exploit their relative safety," she added. "We should be risking the most, should be educating other white people, and should be standing on the front lines fighting back."
"I was involved in anti-racist action in the pre-internet era when anonymity wasn't really an option. I've had fascists attack my house, my car, and show up to my work," Patrick, a multiple-decade veteran of the anti-racism and antifa movements on the West Coast, told me over the phone. "I'm way less public about the work I do now that there's extra scrutiny… When people have found out, it's not the visceral reaction that you might expect, they more worry for my safety because 'antifuh' has been in the headlines a lot recently."
Patrick has been involved in the cause long enough to know that far-right attacks on left-wing activists have at times been horrific. "An ARA (Anti-Racist Action) contact named Lin Newborn was murdered by Nazis in 1998, my friend Luke Querner was shot by Nazis and is now paraplegic," he said. "Another friend who wouldn't want me using his name was stabbed in the back and chest, and then had both of his wrists cut by Nazi boneheads and was left for dead, but luckily survived."
Patrick said those stories, along with instances of white supremacists showing up at his friend's parents' houses and threatening them, and of allies being stabbed in the face, make the fact he's had bottles broken over his head and bricks thrown through his home windows seem like nothing. Just like the others, he said that hearing of the attacks against his comrades and being attacked himself only deepens his commitment to the cause.
Patrick's friend Allison, a trans woman and a combat veteran who told me proudly that her grandfather fought Nazis in World War II , also feels she has no choice but to continue the fight, no matter the personal cost. "I do sometimes feel isolated from my less politically active friends as well as those more committed to nonviolent forms of protest," she told me over the phone. "As someone who has fought real battles with real bullets and explosions, and as someone who has held soldiers and civilians alike as they breathed their last, I understand what's at stake."
"When my friends fail to recognize or refuse to understand the stakes of this life-and-death struggle, I do tend to feel isolated from them."
But it's not the white supremacists who frighten Allison the most, it's the cops. "If I were doxxed, I am concerned that I would be targeted by law enforcement," she told me. "I have little fear that a run-of-the-mill white supremacist or neo-Nazi could catch me flat-footed, but the increasingly corrupt police force pose a much greater threat to my life and freedom."
A deeply entrenched distrust of law enforcement is common to those in antifa circles. Patrick told me to google "Portland Nazi cop," referring to Captain Mark Kruger, a police officer famous among local activists for placing a tribute to fallen Nazi soldiers in a public park and using excessive force against peaceful protesters. (Kruger, currently the head of the Portland Police Department's Drug and Vice Enforcement division, was one of several police officials recently filmed at their homes by "cop watcher" activists, who were charged with misdemeanors.)
Allison admitted that when she takes stock of the situation and sees a deck heavily stacked against her movement, she wishes her friends were willing to make the same sacrifices she is: "When my friends fail to recognize or refuse to understand the stakes of this life-and-death struggle, I do tend to feel isolated from them. I have difficulty understanding what it's like not to be fearful while I watch the government and the public deny my civil rights and openly discuss making me a second-class citizen via legislation."
When I asked if she ever feels too worn out or anxious to continue, she replied, "It has worn on my mental and emotional well-being from time to time, being in this constant crisis management headspace, but I have managed and will continue to do so."
None of the people I spoke to had any plans to hang up their masks. But they admitted the stresses wore on them—and Allison pointed out that their far-right opponents didn't seem to feel threatened by the authorities to the same degree.
"With so much of our daily lives, movements, activities and beliefs being monitored, collected, and bought and sold by government agencies and corporate interests, activists on the wrong side of a totalitarian regime can ill-afford the brazen torchlit displays of openly-armed militarized marches that our opposition enjoys," she told me.
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