Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc

Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc

Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc

A dispatch from inside the J20 protests.


The transcendental experience of watching Roger Federer play tennis, David Foster Wallace wrote, was one of “kinetic beauty.” Federer’s balletic precision and mastering of time, on the very edge of what seems possible for a body to achieve, was a form of bodily genius. What Foster Wallace saw in a Federer Moment, I see in a video of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face.

You may have seen it, it’s a meme now, set to backing tracks of Bruce Springsteen, New Order, even a song from Hamilton. The punch, landed by a masked protester on Inauguration Day, lends itself perfectly to a beat. Spencer, who states that America belongs to white men, was in the midst of telling an Australian TV crew in DC that he was not a neo-Nazi, while pointing to his neo-Nazi Pepe the Frog lapel pin. A black-clad figure then jumps into frame, deus ex machina, with a perfectly placed right hook to Spencer’s face. The alt-right poster boy stumbles away, and his anonymous attacker bounds out of sight in an instant. I don’t know who threw the punch, but I know by his unofficial uniform that this was a member of our black bloc that day. And anyone enjoying the Nazi-bashing clip (and many are) should know that they’re watching anti-fascist bloc tactics par excellence—pure kinetic beauty. If you want to thank Spencer’s puncher, thank the black bloc.

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. On Friday, the bloc I joined in DC numbered well over 500, the largest of its kind since the antiwar protests over a decade prior. As I wrote in advance of the inauguration, if we recognize fascism in Trump’s ascendance, our response must be anti-fascist in nature. The history of anti-fascist action is not one of polite protest, nor failed appeals to reasoned debate with racists, but direct, aggressive confrontation. While perhaps best associated in the United States with the anti-globalization movement’s major summit protests nearly two decades ago, the black bloc is part of the longstanding visual language of international anti-fascism, or antifa. For example, bloc tactics have been used by European anti-fascists marching against neo-Nazis since the 1990s in Germany. The symbolic value of a large black-bloc presence at Trump’s inauguration resided in drawing a connection between anti-Trumpism and anti-fascism.

The “anti-capitalist, anti-fascist bloc,” Friday’s black-bloc march, was just one among a number of direct actions called by organizers of the Disrupt J20 Inauguration Day protests. Unlike Saturday’s vast Women’s March, Disrupt J20 aimed to directly impede, delay, and confront the inaugural proceedings. This message was delivered with human blockades, smashed corporate windows, trash-can fires, a burning limousine, “Make America Great Again” caps reduced to ashes, and a blow for Richard Spencer. The police responded with fountains of pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, and the mass arrest of over 200 people, most of whom now face felony riot charges. Along with the Women’s March’s joyful scenes of togetherness, the disruptions of J20 should be celebrated as an opening salvo of resistance in the era of Trump.

The black bloc I joined met at Logan Circle, some two miles north of the inauguration parade route. We peered through bandanas to find friends. We gathered in bloc formation behind wood-enforced banners, filled the street, and began to march. The bloc takes care to stay together, move together, and blend together. Within minutes, bottle rockets were shooting skyward and bricks were flying through bank windows. You don’t know who does what in a bloc, you don’t look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty. If that sounds to you like a precondition for mob violence, you’re right. But this is only a problem if you think there are no righteous mobs, or that windows feel pain, or that counter-violence (like punching Richard Spencer) is never valid.

We were heading south when riot cops cut us off just a few blocks from the unimpressive inauguration crowds. We ran, altogether, for some short minutes, which felt long. The Metropolitan Police Department doused us with pepper spray and dispensed flash-bang and smoke grenades, and finally trapped a large section of the bloc against a wall. These members of the black bloc were kettled there for over four hours, forced at various times to form human cubicles around those detainees who could no longer hold their bladders. The bloc never found full force en masse again, but clashes with cops, mild altercations with rowdy Trump supporters, and attacks on property continued throughout the afternoon and evening in fits and starts. At some point, someone punched Spencer. While the over 200 arrestees were held for 24 hours, jail support volunteers waited for them patiently while the Women’s March filled DC streets and then dispersed. The J20 detainees have been released, some with felony rioting charges to be tried in DC Superior Court next month—a harsh prosecutorial reaction that seasoned DC activists had not expected.

Not everyone can participate in a black bloc. Those with a vulnerable immigration status, or arrest records, or good reasons to fear police repression because of the color of their skin, often don’t participate in activities where the risk of arrest is high. Friday’s bloc was by no means all white, but it was predominantly white. If bearers of white privilege can do one thing, it is put ourselves on the line and take risks where others can’t. This was just one tactic. And numerous white participants I knew from Friday place racial justice front and center of their activist work. Disrupt J20 actions also included a series of temporary blockades at inauguration security check points, each representing different points of struggle, from the movement for black lives, to activists declaring “the future is feminist,” to Standing Rock and Indigenous rights, to queer resistance and more. A number of Trump supporters walk sheepishly from a line of blockading protesters shouting, “This checkpoint is closed.” These were small acts, but disobedient ones and the call to be “ungovernable,” which echoed through the Women’s March, will not be answered with obedient behavior.

To talk with any romance for the black bloc risks falling into the worst tropes of bombastic revolutionary writing. We don’t don black masks and become instant revolutionary subjects. We don’t necessarily achieve more with property damage than a larger, more subdued rally achieves. In every case, the standard of achievement depends on the aims of the action, and all of us are far from creating the rupture we want to see in the world. One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall. Both gain potency only if they are perceived as a threat by those in and around power. And neither action will appear threatening unless followed up again and again with unrelenting force, in a multitude of directions. You don’t have to choose between pink hat and black mask; each of us can wear both. You don’t have to fight neo-Nazis in the street, but you should support those who do.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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