by Sasha Berkman
Friday January 20th, 2017: even the Philadelphia sky seemed to understand the pending calamity being christened in Washington, as unbroken grey clouds wept gray rain over the city. On the streets, Inauguration Day 2017 signified not only the beginning of the Trump era in American politics, but also the renewal of a commitment by all people of progressive values in the US to resistance. “RESIST” was the battle cry — calls to refuse the normalization of Neo-Fascism, calls for ungovernability. Massive protests spilled into the streets to greet a president only 27% of eligible voters had elected (a minority of both those eligible to vote and those who cast their vote on November 8th. Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump.).
As noon passed and the inauguration was consecrated, students across Philadelphia walked out of class at Penn, Temple, and Drexel mobilized by local Socialist and grassroots organizations in protest of Trump’s vision of America. They were rallying against the corporate coup signaled by Trump’s cabinet picks (including such sociopathic luminaries as former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, former Goldman Sachs CIO Steven Mnuchin for Secretary of the Treasury [read: Fox in the Hen House], and billionaires Betsy Devos for Secretary of Education and Wilbur Ross for Secretary of Commerce). The Temple University walk-out page organized by Socialist Alternative announced, “…[we] will send a clear message to Trump, the billionaire class…we reject their agenda of bigotry, hate, and division; and we reject their corporate policies to to gut our social services and education.”. As well as voicing demands for immigrant rights, stopping the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL), and ending discrimination against women and the LGBTQ community.
By 4:00pm a large rally made up of the “People’s Inauguration Coalition” had convened at Thomas Paine Plaza; coalition members included Philly Socialists, PHL Solidarity Forum, Socialist Alternative, PA Adapt, among others. A nearby rally lead by Philly Coalition for REAL Justice and the Black and Brown Workers Collective merged with the socialist rally and speakers made appeals to the crowd to center the struggles for social justice for minority communities in the struggle against capitalism. After some confusion and a few false starts the streets were finally taken and hundreds of marchers spilled through Center City to chants of, “NO TRUMP, NO KKK, NO FASCIST USA”, and, “WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!”. As the march snaked through Center City chants of “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE, FUCK THE POLICE” also rang out, giving the march a somewhat more militant edge.
That evening, as the sun fell over the city, anti-capitalists took to South Street in black bloc formation as part of the “No More Presidents” demonstration. According to a report the OCF coffee shop (belonging to infamous gentrifier Ori Feibush) was smashed, banks were tagged, and several windows shattered. After making hasty barriers in the street the members of the bloc were able to evade police and leave safely. According to the reportback on the Philly Antifa blog, “This shit is officially still possible…[we] can come together in direct action, contempt against the business of gentrification, the moneyed masters funding attacks on indigenous peoples, and white nationalism.”
I got the opportunity to sit down with a Philly based comrade who had made it to the tempestuous events in D.C. to get an on-the-ground perspective on the anti-capitalist bloc that mobilized there. Sitting at the El Bar they recounted the events as they happened. The first bloc mobilized in McPherson square at around 9am with about 50 members, “There was a lot of anticipation then, when we rolled out everyone was real nervous, the anonymity adding to that feeling.” After they stretched their muscles through the DC streets for about an hour, making up their way as they went, the bloc circled back to McPherson square. The second bloc was joined by members of various ANTIFA groups (antifascists) and some IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union) members. As they made their way, “People started throwing trash cans, then smashing [bank] windows, we ducked into a park, a cop car was smashed along the way.” The police responded in kind as reports later indicated the police attempted to kettle and contain the resistant mass, they managed to get some in a haphazard net that indifferently caught press and legal observers as well. But not all! “We had these thick hinged signs, 4-man signs, seemed like they were made to block rubber bullets, we formed a sorta phalanx,” they hold up their arm, clenched fist in front of their face and mimed banging on the back of the sign to create noise. “The cops were all yelling ‘STOP’ ‘STOP’ and we moved forward and then just smashed through.” This success allowed a significant portion of the bloc to escape the kettle.
I ask them for their reflections on the day, they pause pointedly for a moment, clearly the bitter debate regarding the bloc, even among the Left, has impacted them. “The time was right for this ya know? It wasn’t just a bunch of angry white guys, and this reflects generally the shift in the [punk] subculture, the DIY scene is resurgent, we’re kicking out that macho-hardcore-shit. There were women in the bloc, queer punks, more people of color…there are a lot more voices represented than assumed. It’s totally mischaracterized. And no one sees what goes on behind the scenes! All the ANTIFA work and organizing these people do.”
The Bloc is the human spirit at its best
I ask them about what aspect in particular has been mischaracterized, “They’re all facing felonies, there’s no romance in that. You know? This is what we’ve been striving for! To actually empower these people to fight back,” the people so often the victim of political violence,”…to use justified political violence to stand up for themselves. Black Bloc shows their ideals are worth fighting for, can be fought for, and it’s a way for us to break through this generation of non-joiners.”
The starting and stopping explanations spidered out until they finally stopped for a moment, thought, and said, “We’re not people looking for the cause, the cause found us.”
The pieces then fell into place, the Black Bloc is not defiance or protest, not simply a call to action through political violence. It is those things, but also it is an existential bellow against an unjust, indifferent slaughterhouse. The bureaucratic slaughterhouse that houses 1% of its population in dungeons, starves its own children, mutilates countrysides in Vietnam and Nicaragua and Iraq and Somalia and on and on. Even if the Black Bloc amounts to only a mosquito bite on the implacable behemoth, so is the course of moral blooming. Even in the face of suppression and annihilation the human spirit manages to explode out in defiance of indignity and indifference. The Bloc is the human spirit at its best.