Is Black Bloc a Racist Tactic in the Trump Era: Why White Activists Should Stop Wearing Masks at Protests

By Nico Quintana, transgender, QPOC, Latinx activist

Photo by Nico Quintana

White people at protests with masks and sticks- whose side are you on?

Since the inauguration of President Trump, more and more progressive, white activists are wearing masks at protests and engaging in black bloc tactics, which has left me asking, why? I want to know why so many white activists are not showing their faces at protests and why they think black bloc tactics are appropriate to support the current political movements. Is it for protection or security? Is it to guard against tear gas or pepper spray? Is it to preserve anonymity? Whatever the reason, the masks are sending a message, and it may not be the message white activists intend to convey to the communities being targeted by the Trump administration.

This article focuses on why white activists in the US should think critically about using black bloc tactics and wearing masks in the US. This article is not saying that people of color and movements of color are not using or should not use black bloc tactics. Rather it is saying that white activists should be accountable to movements of color and other marginalized communities and think critically about how their political actions impact targeted communities.

What is a black bloc?

Black bloc is a direct action tactic primarily used by movements to resist and/or engage against violent police or opposition forces.[I] There are many examples of black bloc tactics by revolutionary movements utilizing masks as a strategic tactic of resistance in communities of color and white communities across the world.[i]

In her January Nation Magazine piece, Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched — You Can Thank the black bloc, Natasha Lennard stated “the black bloc is not a group but an anarchist tactic — marching as a confrontational united force, uniformed in black and anonymized for security. Once deployed, the tactic has an alchemic quality, turning into a temporary object — the black bloc.”[ii] Additionally, the article Black Bloc’ protests return for Trump era, leaving flames, broken windows from D.C. to Berkeley, by Derek Hawkins helped explain why people might use black bloc as a strategy citing an anarchist credo. The credo explained “by putting on our masks we reveal our unity; and by raising our voices in the street together, we speak our anger at the facelessness of power.

Why white activists should stop wearing masks?

While I can understand that black bloc is a tactic that is sometimes needed and even helpful in protests to protect and defend against imminent threats of violence, I disagree that “power is faceless” and that white people wearing masks “brings unity”. Power in the United States is rooted in privilege and by wearing masks, white protesters are potentially failing to acknowledge their privilege as white people in this society. Moreover, by wearing masks in a black bloc in the Trump era, white activists are also failing to comprehend the impact their actions might have on communities of color, immigrant communities, Muslim communities and other targeted communities in the U.S. I do not believe the Trump era is the appropriate time for white-directed/ white-decided black bloc strategies. Nor do I believe the Trump era, with the exception of religious reasons, is appropriate for white activists to be masked at protests. I will tell you why.

The legacy of white supremacy and the need for honest and transparent solidarity.

On the night of President Trump’s inauguration, I was leaving the Kathleen Cleaver event at the University of Washington’s Ethnic Cultural Center at the Seattle Campus. I was on my way to a Milo Yiannopoulos protest to see if I could support the legal observer team, when I ran into a large group of white people with masks and sticks thundering up 40th Street. As a transgender, latinx activist, the sight of the oncoming throng of white people in masks, many with shaved heads and sticks, made my heart stop. Were they a white power group coming to support Milo or were they an anti-racist, black bloc heading to protest Milo? I could not tell. I could not see the signs in the dark. The only images I could see were white faces covered with masks. I later learned that the people coming toward me were the black bloc, yet I was left feeling unsettled and asking the question- why masks?

One week after the inauguration, I was at a rally for immigrant justice protesting the Trump immigration ban executive order, when the masks appeared again. Of the activists present, about one-third were white, and the majority of the white activities were masked. Most had their faces covered for the entire protest even during speeches from community activists. There was no imminent threat of pepper spray or tear gas by police. I did not see any activists of color wearing masks. Moreover, white activists in masks were taking names for their next meeting and people seemed hesitant signing because it was not clear who the white activists were and if they were actually allies. While I strongly support many different kinds of progressive organizing tactics and strategies, once again I was left with an ominous feeling from the masks. Which makes me again ask the question to my white progressive sisters, bothers and non-binary siblings, why the masks?

Why black bloc might be a racist strategy in the Trump era.

It can be argued that black bloc has not historically been a strategy to support marginalized and oppressed people by white allies, and I am very skeptical that it ever could be; unless the strategy was specifically requested by targeted communities as a tactic.[iii] In Deric Hawkins’ article, he cited history of black bloc tactics by Daniel Dylan Young which suggests that the black bloc tactic first seen in white communities in Germany in the late 1970s in response to state violence. In the US, it is believed that the tactic was first most visible in the US by white activists during the 1999 WTO protests and has been seen in protests in the US since then. [iv] Daniel Dylan Young explained that by wearing masks in black clothes, activists could “more effectively fend off police attacks, without being singled out as individuals for arrest and harassment later on.”[v] The problem that I see with the black bloc tactic for the current Trump era is that the white activists participating in black bloc appear to have little connection to and solidarity experience with marginalized and targeted communities. Additionally, by wearing masks I believe these white activists are portraying a failure to understand how white privilege operates in the US and the role white people should play in combating white privilege, white supremacy and violence against targeted communities. White people masking their faces at protests conveys that they don’t want to be targeted or harassed by police, forgetting who is and historically has been targeted and harassed by police and hate groups for generations — communities of color, immigrant communities, Muslim communities, transgender communities and other marginalized communities. The police, hate groups and the state are targeting marginalized communities regardless if they protest or not and regardless if they are masked at protests or not. Moreover, given the legacy of racism and oppression in the US and the fact the Trump administration is targeting specific marginalized communities, I believe black bloc tactics might be inappropriate unless the strategy is chosen by targeted communities and white activists take specific direction from targeted communities.

Due to these reasons, I think white activists should consider not instigating black bloc tactics and not wear masks when participating in protests in solidarity with targeted communities.

Intent v. impact: consider what wearing a mask may actually be conveying.

Here are several more arguments to consider why white progressive activists in the US should not wear masks when protesting and organizing.

1) The legacy of white people in masks is one of oppression and violence against communities of color in the United States.

When I see white people in masks at protests, I am reminded of extremist white supremacy groups, police with riot gear and the symbolic mask of white privilege that is accustomed to anonymity and reduced accountability. White activist should consider what movements they are mirroring when they wear masks at protests, including movements such as the KKK.

2) Wearing a mask may prevent building trust, showing solidarity and fostering community with targeted communities.

In the dawn of the Trump era, it is more important than ever for white people, especially white activists to learn how to be in solidarity with movements and communities, be accountable for their actions, and not contribute to state violence and discrimination. Marginalized communities are facing extreme levels of oppression by the federal government from the banning of refugees, to the raiding of immigrant communities, to continued police violence. In whatever capacity individuals are able to resist- many brave people from marginalized communities are putting themselves forward to protest — without masks. White people wearing masks at protests may send the message that they are afraid, ashamed or aren’t interested in fully showing up in community in an accountable way. It may send a message that white people will show up but only as an anonymous person, while thousands of people of color are putting their bodies and their identities on the line for justice. White people wearing masks at protests may appear to be yet another example of white individuals not fully being in solidarity and not willing to be truly present and accountable.

Moreover, wearing a mask may convey that the person is not actually willing to show up in solidarity when the time is needed to be in community with people who are being targeted by the government. How many examples in history need to be cited showing times white communities have not shown their face and put their names and privileges on the line in defense of communities of color and other targeted communities — too many to cite. The recent examples include but are not limited to: Jim Crow laws, Korematsu v. United States, severe racial inequities in the prison system, hundreds of black lives murdered by police, discrimination against Muslim communities, and the detention of thousands of immigrant families.[vi]

Wearing masks may symbolically convey that, “I will show up but only if I can’t be recognized.” If you can’t be recognized, how can people hold you accountable for your actions or ask you to show up in earnest? People with privilege have access to institutions and privileges that other people do not have, by wearing a mask consider the message conveyed regarding how the person is willing to support targeted communities. Are they signaling they support movements by and for targeted communities, or are they saying they only will show up if they wont get targeted? Are they saying through their masks- “we wont be in solidarity with you if we have to put our privileges in jeopardy?”

3) A mask is not protection against persecution- institutional privilege is.

If you are wearing a mask for protection from toxic threats- I recommend having a mask on hand and only wearing it when toxins are used. If you are wearing a mask for protection from being recognized or identified by the state or by police, I recommend you stay home.

In our current political climate, it makes sense for people to be afraid of retaliation for protesting and it is unknown what surveillance and anti-organizing tactics the Trump administration will engage in. However, I believe that wearing masks at protests likely wont protect people from state violence unless the people wearing the makes are white. White, non-immigrant communities are not the population being targeted, raided, detained, brutalized, murdered and disappeared by the state, hate groups or by local police. This is true currently and historically. White people are not the target of institutional oppression or systemic state violence- and by wearing a mask at a protest they not only fail to show up in solidarity, but have failed to see how they are contributing to racism, oppression and injustice. Yes, some white activists have been shut down and targeted for activism, but not nearly in the same frequency or severity as communities of color and other marginalized communities. From the black panther party, to Standing Rock, to the Wounded Knee Massacre, communities of color and movements of color — not white communities — are the ones consistently targeted by extreme state violence when they organize and resist.

In conclusion, if you are white, covering your face for anything other than religious purposes or for immediate protection from tear gas or pepper spray may send a message that you are in fact NOT in solidarity with communities targeted by racism, anti-immigrant prejudice, islamophobia and transphobia. Please do not be afraid to fully show up in solidarity and support communities fighting for equity and justice. Please take off the masks.

*This article is in progress. If you have feedback, I look forward to including it.

[I] See Derek Hawkins, Washington Post, Black bloc’ protests return for Trump era, leaving flames, broken windows from D.C. to Berkeley, (2017). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/02/black-bloc-protests-return-for-trump-era-leaving-flames-broken-windows-from-dc-to-berkeley/?utm_term=.f4beecd62a10.

[i] Examples include Zapatista and movements in Chile, Columbia, Mexico and many other movements. (Citation is progress).

[ii] Natasha Lennard, The Nation Magazine, Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched — You Can Thank the Black bloc, (2017). https://www.thenation.com/article/if-you-appreciated-seeing-neo-nazi-richard-spencer-get-punched-thank-the-black-bloc/

[iii] See Devon Douglas-Bowers, Occupy.com, Unmasking The Black Bloc: Who They Are, What They Do, How They Work (2014). http://www.occupy.com/article/unmasking-black-bloc-who-they-are-what-they-do-how-they-work#sthash.S92z47fH.dpbs.

[iv] Derek Hawkins, Washington Post, Black bloc’ protests return for Trump era, leaving flames, broken windows from D.C. to Berkeley, (2017). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/02/black-bloc-protests-return-for-trump-era-leaving-flames-broken-windows-from-dc-to-berkeley/?utm_term=.f4beecd62a10.

[v] Derek Hawkins, Washington Post, Black bloc’ protests return for Trump era, leaving flames, broken windows from D.C. to Berkeley, (2017). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/02/black-bloc-protests-return-for-trump-era-leaving-flames-broken-windows-from-dc-to-berkeley/?utm_term=.f4beecd62a10.

[vi] Julia Craven, Huffington Post, More Than 250 Black People Were Killed By Police In 2016 [Updated], (2016). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/black-people-killed-by-police-america_us_577da633e4b0c590f7e7fb17.