The University of California at Berkeley probably will not be the last American college to experience mayhem at the hands of "black bloc" militants.
In the weeks since President Trump took office, such activists have mounted destructive protests not just on Berkeley’s campus but in the streets of Portland, Ore., and Washington D.C. Although the target of their Berkeley action, the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, has been sidelined as a result of controversy over his remarks about pederasty, other similarly incendiary "alt-right" leaders, such as the white supremacist Richard B. Spencer, remain on the college speaking circuit.
The "black bloc" label, attached to those who broke windows and set fires at Berkeley, refers not to a specific organization but to a specific tactic that involves wearing black clothing to blend in with other activists, shielding one’s identity behind bandannas or masks, and causing disruption to get a point across.
Lacy MacAuley, a member of the D.C. Antifascist Coalition, has been a public face for such militants. In January, for example, she was a spokeswoman for DisruptJ20, the group that organized Inauguration Day protests, without permits, at which black-bloc activist destroyed property in downtown Washington and skirmished with the police. On a national level, she has provided media representation for anarchist and leftist activists for about 12 years.
The Chronicle last week asked Ms. MacAuley about this month’s chaos at Berkeley and the likelihood that other campuses will see similar activity. Following is an edited and condensed transcript of that interview.
Q. When protesters this month smashed windows and started fires at Berkeley, the university blamed such actions on "black bloc" members who had "invaded" the campus. Do you have any reason to believe that students were among the people who caused destruction there? If not, how would they have been drawn there?
A. The black-clad anarchists who were present at UC-Berkeley were a blend of students and nonstudents. The group was there in response to someone who was a vitriolic fascist, Milo Yiannopoulos. There didn’t have to be a huge system of organization under that action. There was some organization, but I really think that most people were responding to the obvious signs, in front of everyone right now, that the fascists are starting to really gain a foothold and that represents a danger to all of us. That is why we responded in force.
Q. Tell me about the black bloc. Does it have any sort of leadership structure?
A. The black bloc is certainly not under some sort of hierarchy or leadership structure, as a rule. Most black blocs are really just people who are temporarily masking themselves because they fear retribution — either now or at some point in the future — due to their fighting injustices.
The political philosophy of many, but not all, of the people who participate in the black bloc is the political philosophy of anarchism. That is why people associate anarchism with disorder or violence. That is really far from the truth of what an everyday anarchist actually practices and believes.
Anarchism is based on mutual consent, and the so-called violent aspect of black blocs and anarchism really needs to be understood. I mean, can you really commit an act of so-called violence against a window, or is an act of violence something that you commit against a person? What most people in the black bloc would say is that it is not violence to break a window.
Q. How much of a presence are militant anarchists on or near college campuses? Are there specific places where we are likely to see them become active in the coming years?
A. The level of militancy will go up while we see our government, at this moment, actively impinging upon the rights of everyday people. We have already seen the U.S. government make reality policies like the Muslim ban, a "military operation" that enforces immigration law, and violation of trans youths’ rights. To a lot of people, the only logical response is to make a strong stand against that.
Q. Back in the Vietnam War era, colleges themselves became the targets of militants. Are there specific actions by colleges that are likely to prompt actions against them?
A. Colleges that really protect platforms for individuals who are already rich, white males — who already have their voices amplified and valued much more than other people’s voices — are going to see, probably, much more resistance.
We are not protesting because we don’t respect free speech. We’re protesting precisely because we have already heard these people. We have already listened, and we believe them, and we believe that they pose a threat to our right to exist. That is why we don’t view what they are doing as a simple act of free speech. We view it as mobilizing for further violating our rights, and therefore we have to resist.
Q. A Tennessee lawmaker has cited the recent unrest at Berkeley in proposing legislation that would require public universities to discipline any student who tries to shout down a speaker. Do you see such measures as likely to be much of a deterrent?
A. It likely would have a chilling effect on protest at a time when we in our country absolutely need to be protesting. At a time that is so crucial to rising up, that would be the wrong action. It is valuable to consider that all of our systems, even in academia, absolutely privilege the speech of rich, white males and others who are somewhere on that ladder of privilege.
Q. If you are unhappy with the Trump administration or the current Congress, why not join, say, the College Democrats, and try to put new people in office?
A. The perspective of most of us who are anarchists, and who are participants in the black bloc, is that we don’t see the two-party system as a viable way to conduct society. We don’t see it as just and fair and valuing and respecting people’s lives. So the best way is to actually inspire people to rise up, to resist, and to change the way that our system is actually structured.
Q. You have tweeted about being barraged with anonymous harassment and threats as a result of your political activities. Are college students who publicly espouse views and tactics similar to yours going to be safe?
A. We need to realize that, right now, that is going to happen to people who have the hope and the will to stand up and resist. Should you let it dissuade you from taking actions you need to take to protect what you love? No. Absolutely not.
Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.