Black bloc protesters have complicated motives

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      Neither thugs nor criminals lurk behind the masks of black bloc protesters, a renowned police psychologist suggests.

      Rather, what Mike Webster sees are “very thoughtful people”, an assessment that former Vancouver police inspector Dave Jones strongly disagrees with, likening them instead to thrill seekers.

      “The vast majority of people in that crowd are not bad people,” Webster told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, referring to the black-clad activists who smashed windows and torched police cars in downtown Toronto on June 26 during a protest against the G8 and G20 summits. “They’ve got the same kind of values that most of the rest of us have. If they didn’t, they’d be in jail, locked up in jail for murder.”

      A B.C.–based crisis-management expert who has consulted with the RCMP, the FBI, and many other police forces inside and outside of Canada, Webster went as far as arguing that black bloc activists aren’t much different from “well-socialized young individuals” who go off to fight a war believing it’s an honourable thing to do.

      Webster’s more than 30 years of experience includes serving as a consultant with law-enforcement agencies during high-profile events like the Waco, Texas, showdown in 1993, the 1995 standoff with First Nations people at Gustafsen Lake, and the 2002 G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alberta.

      Webster said that one of the most important things to remember about crowd psychology is that most human beings develop a set of values that is generally consistent with that of the larger society.

      However, he maintained that these morals “don’t run automatically all the time”, and that “human beings have mechanisms of moral disengagement that they use to turn off their morals and their ethics in certain situations.”

      The psychologist suggested this isn’t different from soldiers going into combat. “If I can find a moral justification for my behaviour now, I can turn something that was previously illegal into something that is honourable,” he said. “The military does this all the time. They take well-socialized young individuals, take them to war, and they can kill the enemy with very little compunction.”

      Referring to the thinking of protesters who engage in black bloc tactics, Webster said, “What they’ve done is they’ve instilled a moral justification. ”˜What I’m doing is no longer bad. It’s good and I do this under a moral imperative now.’ So there’s one thing that I’m sure was going on in some of those heads.”

      Another thing that goes on in the minds of these activists is what Webster describes as “attribution”.

      “I say you made me do it,” Webster explained. “I’ve got a legitimate complaint here. There’s a segment of our society that’s being shortchanged in such and such a manner. And nobody’s willing to pay attention to them. So you’re making me do this.”

      The phenomenon of “behavioural contagion” also rises when people gather in crowds, he said. According to him, this increases the potential for people to engage in acts they wouldn’t normally carry out, such as breaking store windows in the case of the black bloc rioters or stealing during mass lootings.

      “We de-individuate,” Webster said. “That is, we have a lowered self-awareness. We get lost in this crowd, all this noise, all this activity, all this yelling, all this smoke, all this adrenaline, all this danger. We kind of lose our self-identity.”

      A retired 30-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department, Jones has his share of crowd-control experience. In 1998, he was the commanding officer of the antiriot squad that clashed with activists protesting the actions of then-prime minister Jean Chrétien in what became known as the “Riot at the Hyatt”.

      For Jones, Black Bloc protesters are people who do “dirty work” for fun on behalf of their “more sophisticated” leaders.

      “I think what’s going on is that there’s a lot of people now that treat these events as destination adventure holidays,” Jones told the Straight in a phone interview.

      But he noted that events like the June 26 Black Bloc rampage in Toronto, the 1999 Battle of Seattle during a World Trade Organization conference, and the 2001 protests at the third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City raise a dilemma for governments.

      “Do you simply say, ”˜Okay, we surrender. We can’t have these things in major cities because of what are essentially a couple of hundred people’?” Jones asked. “Or do you say, ”˜We’ll just go ahead.’?”

      Jones said he has heard many people suggest holding conferences like that of the G20 leaders onboard aircraft carriers. He prefers out-of-the-way locations like Kananaskis. Regarding the latter location, Jones noted that security costs for the 2002 G8 summit were between $500 million and $1 billion, the larger figure being about the same amount spent on security in Toronto.

      “It doesn’t matter where you do it or how,” Jones said. “There’s going to be security costs.”



      Pascal Martineau

      Jun 29, 2010 at 4:45pm

      I'm curious about the psychology of agent provocateurs...


      Jun 29, 2010 at 5:16pm

      I spent hours on several occasions protesting alongside anarchists, and discussing their ideas with them. Big deal! They are not a threat to any citizens. Only the police are. A few anarchists or agent provocateurs might commit vandalism. That is a property crime being commited as a form of civil disobedience that should elicit the appropriate response by police - arrest and booking. Not random and unwarranted brutality against anyone. And certainly not random mass arrests, harassment, arbitrary searches, and mistreating prisoners. Abandoning centuries of hard won democratic traditions is a ridiculous response to a few people breaking windows or setting a police car on fire.

      Vandalism happens after concerts and sports events too, and is handled routinely all the time without suspension of civil liberties. If people can't see that, then we need to introduce civics courses at every level in our educational curriculums.

      The police in Toronto stood aside for hours and watched as the handful of Black Bloc activists were permitted to do their vandalism as a form of social protest. I think the anarchists were allowed, even encouraged perhaps, to do it on purpose to provide a rationale for the new multibillion dollar a year security for public events industry that suits the agenda of a variety of state and institutional players.

      Regarding the motive of the anarchists, they think that society would be better off if the government, corporations, and other leaders behaved more consistently with their rhetoric, and more considerately and responsibly, rather than looting the country and other countries at the cost of whoever stands in their way, or is vulnerable to exploitation. And certainly politicians and corporate heads show scant regard for social wellbeing, democracy or the environment.

      From the perspective of this rudimentary but rather essentialist political analysis, the primary function of the police is to protect the privilege of the rich to loot and pillage, deceive and manipulate, and not to uphold the constitution and the law, or to provide security to the citizens beyond what minimum is required to sustain the looting, applied selectively.

      The fake war on drugs, and the fake "War on Terror" are two examples of elaborate shams in which politicians, media, police, judges, intelligence, military and prisons all play a major role, shams that serve no better functions than bolstering the police, military, intelligence and prison complexes, whilst eroding the rights, liberties, and security of the populace. I could go on and on, but I think you get my drift, which I believe somewhat represents the perspective of the anarchists.

      For more indepth understanding of anarchist philosophy, there are countless books, websites, and videos you can look up. I know that the name anarchist is unfortunate, for it suggests that anarchists want anarchy, when in fact they want real and natural order, stemming from a profound commitment at the core of society to respect others and cooperate to co-create peace, freedom and security without need for an elaborate police state, spy agency and military.

      I think the anarchists believe that by passing ever more draconian, restrictive laws and by constructing ever larger and stronger surveillance, enforcement, and punishment mechanisms, we are heading in the wrong direction, and actually failing to cultivate a responsible, considerate, and healthy society.

      Since the media routinely ignores peaceful protests that occur daily, even of massive proportions, certain anarchists believe that the only way to register their severe disapproval at state and corporate crime is by vandalising strategic corporate targets. I know that this seems to backfire on them and their cause in many ways, but these people have thought through all their seeming options, and consider this to be their moral and social duty.


      Jun 29, 2010 at 5:39pm

      Waco, Gustafson, the Riot at the Hyatt. Their resumes would leave a little bit to be desired, no? I doubt either of them are uncomfortable with a billion dollar bill for security.

      They're just eager for their cut.


      Jun 29, 2010 at 6:36pm

      Have you ever asked yourself Strategis, if the Black Bloc steals the focus from the peaceful protestors?

      Apart from their motivations - and I would daresay that both Webster and Jones are right in their way - is the question of whether the Black Bloc is EFFECTIVE as a tactic.

      I don't thinks so. There's a number of reason why - but I'll just say you effectively dehumanize youself when you.cover your face with a mask and wear black. The stated reason for this is to make it more difficult for police to identify and catch you. Well, yes. It also makes it more difficult for the public at large to identify with you and assign positive motivations to your actions.

      For the past 30+ years this tactic has been in use, the numbers in the Black Bloc have remained more or less the same. Is that a sign of a successful strategy?


      Jun 29, 2010 at 9:07pm

      The question of how effective the Black Bloc strategy is, is not what I was addressing above. I was just trying to elucidate their thinking and motives as I understand them, and comparing them to some extent with the bizarre response of the government and police (not interfering with them in their vandalism). CSIS and the RCMP have been infiltrating and spying on this group for many years, and know them extremely well. They know their thinking, their motives, their strategies, and their plans. Armchair commentators often characterise the Black Bloc as mindless vandals, terrorists, violent threats to public safety, etc. and I don't think that this is actually the case. They are politically engaged people with a sophisticated analysis of society, from the perspective of the young, disenfranchised, fearless, passionate and disillusioned.

      Each person has their own perspective on justice, politics, duty, and social responsibility, and the actions which stem from those beliefs are extremely varied. I'm not an anarchist, so I don't share many of their beliefs, and so I naturally think that my analysis is superior, and my actions are more enlightened. But I will never be able to sway everyone to my point of view, no matter how hard I try.

      There will always be people with different perspectives who believe that a different strategy than mine is best. This includes, in the spectrum of political groups in Canada (and many other countries), the anarchist segment of society, who are likely to be with us forever. They have existed for many years, and this perspective has a strong appeal to a certain percentage of society worldwide.

      I think the salient point is that the police, media and government shouldn't be allowed to get away with mischaracterising the Black Bloc as terrorists whose existence justifies the kind of absurd spending, draconian policies, and shocking actions which we saw in Toronto, and in Vancouver during the Olympics. If the Black Bloc were terrorists they would probably be on the Terrorist List and be facing charges. They aren't. They are men and women of conscience who are very upset with the anti-human violence and injustice in the world, and are trying to call attention to it through strategic anti-corporate and anti-police property vandalism.

      If the corporate media and government didn't ignore their concerns, and those of a large number of other Canadians, then they would have no need to don their black uniforms and hit the streets in order to register their feelings about the state of the world. And if the police did their job and apprehended people in a timely and professional manner who they knew full well were about to break some windows, then there would be nothing much to debate, and instead we might be debating and discussing the G20 Conference, and the concerns of the various groups of protestors.

      I think the police allowed the anarchists to do their vandalism on purpose to create a flimsy pretext for draconian security policies which seriously undermine the democratic rights of all Canadians.


      Jun 30, 2010 at 7:22am

      Just exactly who or what is the "black bloc?" Is this a group of a few hundred who travel from city to city, or is there a local group in each city? Who pays their expenses? Do they have day jobs?
      Rod Smelser


      Jun 30, 2010 at 8:30am

      In the last paragraph of your first comment, Strategis, you wrote "Since the media routinely ignores peaceful protests that occur daily, even of massive proportions..."

      I offered you a reason why. Google it yourself: before June 26 there were lots of stories in the national media about the effectiveness of the G20, the security budget, the "fake lake", etc. As soon as the Black Bloc showed up, it became all about them. Stephen Harper was probably overjoyed.

      The same focus-stealing happened at the Vancouver Olympics.

      I would also question whether it's just the "government and media" who are characterizing their actions as "terrorist". I would think you find the vast majority of ordinary citizens do too. I know amongst my peers (the overwhelming majority of whom are sympathetic, very sympathetic to the other protesters) it is. You can try and parse all you like that they are only attacking property, but at the end of the day that's still an attempt at intimidation via physical force. Note, I say this because they say that's what the Black Bloc say themselves is one of the purposes: they want businesses to weigh whether it's worth participating in things like the Olympics or Starbucks setting up shop in Canada if they are going to get a brick through the window. Their theory, not mine.

      In the last paragraph of your second comment you state "I think the police allowed the anarchists to do their vandalism on purpose"

      I think you have your answer why the police keep them around rather than treat them like serious terrorists. If you don't want this kabuki dance to continue then you need to stop playing the game that plays to the advantages of the State.


      Jun 30, 2010 at 1:21pm

      Did you have to dry clean your hoody afterwards strategis?


      Jun 30, 2010 at 2:18pm

      The fact that they are complete morons is a better explanation for their behavior.


      Jun 30, 2010 at 3:39pm

      I agree with Mike Webster. The black blahs are a bunch of thrill seekers. Like any group of lazy punks. These people are also cowards. And they consistently attract all the attention, so are they really serving any purpose??? I've read countless stories from Toronto the past few days, and not a one mentioned what the protesters are protesting about. But they all mention a bunch of thugs smashing windows and burning police cars. So really, I guess their tactics are a total failure. All the black blahs do on a consistent basis is make it very clear to the public that no matter who is in power is, the group in power is better than the black blahs. And don't bother trying to have a clear dialogue with Strategis, he's been brainwashed.