Around 2 p.m. on the Day the American Republic For Sure Fell, I was stuck in traffic a few blocks from the White House on K Street, trying to get to another of many protest sites. "BOOMMM!!!" cracked a sound that I could clearly hear despite my car windows being rolled up tightly and the radio blaring on some alternative/pop rock station my teenagers had set and I never bothered to change because I don't much care what's playing these days since I just want noise to keep myself from thinking too much about our current predicament.
Screams filled the air. A wave of people carrying anti-Trump signs suddenly appeared and rushed down K Street past me. Some people grabbed their cell phones or cameras and started filming down the closest side street to me. Then another loud boom, which turned out to be "flash-bang" grenades that police reportedly threw into a crowd of defiant protesters dominated by the havoc-wreaking black bloc, shook the nearby buildings.
I saw flashes of light and more people running. I saw riot police and troops in fatigues running to the scene. I was stuck there heading into this apocalyptic nightmare, seemingly with no way out. I was glad my kids hadn't come with me to protest Donald Trump. I was wondering if one of those flash grenades or something else would soon be hurled onto my windshield.
Welcome to Day One, Trump's America. Welcome to the End of the World as We Know It.
Black bloc members and others run after some say police threw a 'flash-bang' grenade into the crowd near K and 13th streets on Jan. 20, 2017, during the inauguration of Donald Trump.
(Image by Jack Thor) Permission Details DMCA
Thanks to Trump and the black bloc, a group of professed anarchists who do their thing so well you almost have to grudgingly admire it even if they ruin it for most of the rest of us, Washington, D.C., largely resembled Belfast during the worst of The Troubles on inauguration day. The bloc developed in the early 1980s in Europe during protests against nuclear power, the Cold War, and other issues. I attended a few demonstrations in the mid-1980s in Europe that featured the black-clad force who wore scarves, ski masks, helmets, and other protective gear. I remember most in the anti-nuclear/peace movement decrying them, believing that they were paid by opponents and even the government to make their cause look bad in the eyes of John Q. Public. Some supported them, saying they took on the increasingly draconian crackdown tactics of police and politicians in a way most didn't have the guts to do. They became a sort of folklore, Jesse Jamesesque, Robin Hood-like figures. As violent protests raged throughout the 1980s in Europe and officials responded by banning all public demonstrations, they gained more support.
Then Reagan and Gorbachev signed some treaties. Pro-freedom demonstrations broke out across Eastern Europe, including some really violent ones in Romania. The Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union dismantled. The black bloc lost its influence for while. But they returned in World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle and other cities starting in the late 1990s. While they appeared in a few demonstrations in this country starting at the Pentagon in 1988, they seemed to have taken a footing again since Nov. 8, 2016.
Right after the Republicans stole the White House through the Electoral College, Russian hacking, James Comey, and voter suppression programs such as Crosscheck, protesters hit the street. Black-clad youth smashed windows and upended metal newspaper boxes, particularly in Portland, Ore. Pete Simpson, a spokesman for the Portland police, told The Washington Post that the black bloc anarchists's "tactic is go out and destroy property." Peaceful anti-Trump demonstrators tried to stop them during protests there, but they were "not having any luck," he said.
Ditto in D.C. on January 20, 2017. Some of us tried to stop these people from smashing car windows, hurling rocks at police, and punching and throwing chairs at Trump supporters. But there were too many of them, and many seemed as well-trained as ninjas. They were on a mission, whether it was heart-felt or just as provocateur-for-hire.
Biker for Trump member Robert Hrifko got caught in the middle after he said he tackled a black bloc member upon watching him hurl an aluminum chair at a motorcycle officer. Another black bloc guy hit Hrifko with a rock. "These are not snowflakes," Hrifko told The Post. "These are anarchists set to destroy our government as we know it." Some say Trump and aides like Bannon want to destroy the government as well.
I didn't see who threw the first flash grenade but heard four or five go off. The Post says "numerous reporters saw officers use such grenades," while others saw black bloc members hurling some.
Was it a coincidence that the black bloc on Friday chose just outside The Washington Post offices to attack police, leading to the grenades and at least one fire? The bloc's goal appears to be headlines, to help paint protesters as violent. In many unthinking minds, including Trump's, they succeeded. Police such as Simpson recognize that most demonstrators don't support the tactics of the bloc. So does Kory Flowers, a police detective in Greensboro, N.C., who wrote a good article on the bloc and what police should watch for during a demonstration. Those of us in the know don't blame police for their tactics such as flash grenades; we ultimately blame leaders like Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan for not doing more to address the problems that give rise to movements like the black bloc. Police are just carrying out higher orders like most of the rest of us.
Bloc members themselves point to deep problems in economic systems that keep most people barely surviving as a key factor for their actions. It would be wrong to dismiss the bloc as anarchist kids out for a joy ride. A 2014 Occupy article noted that one protester who joined the bloc wrote that most members she met had jobs such as teachers, labor organizers, and nonprofit employees. An author on the bloc wrote that many were involved in the social sciences, and their actions were "grounded in serious political thinking."
Some reports even say there are undercover police officers involved, with the government's goal to have a good excuse to impose Martial Law-like crackdowns. Some on the right say the bloc receives funds from liberal sources, while those on the left counter that money comes from conservative sources, such as financiers close to Trump. No one has figured out where the bloc gets much of its funds since it is not the kind of group that files financial reports or even has a general spokesperson. But let's just say this kind of violence does provide Trump a convenient reason to cite if he wants to, say, make all public demonstrations in D.C. illegal. Many might scoff at that scenario, but remember, many scoffed a year ago that Trump had a shot to become president.
After taking some photos from my trapped vantage point, I exited the black bloc scene by doing an illegal u-turn when it was clear there was no way to move forward. I ended up back at McPherson Square, the home base of Disrupt J20. That group organized civil disobedience actions that blocked several access gates and other areas. Speakers blasted Trump and other conservatives, though one on Standing Rock noted that the Obama Administration did not support that cause as well. There were as many as 10,000 peaceful protesters, although a few did things that were criticized such as throw water on inaugural ball attendees. The relatively few really destructive ones attracted the big headlines.
So, what do we do to keep future protests from being infiltrated by those who want to wreak some havoc and get us all blamed? I'm not sure there is much you can do about keeping black bloc members out. They don't exactly tell organizers if they will show up.