Why The Black Bloc Works as a Protest Fashion Tactic

A black bloc protester stand with back to camera
A protest in Portland, Oregon, August 2020 (CC BY 2.0) by dsgetch

As chants demanding justice boom among a sea of people and bobbing protests signs, police sirens screech into the streets with thwacks of riot batons cracking against the pavement. Protestors begin to run in panic. But then, a swarm of black-clothed activists ascend into the crowd. These vigilantes spray paint onto ATM banks, throw trash cans in front of police squadrons, and punt smoky tear gas bombs into the air like cloudy shooting stars. You may think they’re “punks” or “rioters” who came to be violent for violence’s sake, but their sole purpose is to protect protesters and disrupt the system. They are the Black Bloc.

In the midst of ongoing global protests, I’ll look into a less talked about fashion tactic in a protester’s arsenal: the black bloc. Invented in the 1980s West Germany during the Autonomist movement, an anti-authoritarian leftist movement from Italy, the black bloc is a tactic where a group of activists or protesters wear nondescript black garb. This unofficial uniform is worn to confuse police and opposing parties. Groups of people wearing the same black outfit prevent individuals from being identified, arrested, or harmed. Looking at images of face-to-face police and black bloc activists is like viewing an inverse mirrored reflection. The black bloc reveals how clothing can work very differently to signal one’s values and motives.

The History of the Black Bloc

Black bloc protesters in Seattle.
WTO Protest in Seattle, WA, 2014, Wiki Commons

According to the History of the Black Bloc, by grassroots media collective Sub.media, the black bloc is not a group or movement, but a global tactic to secure objectives like protecting historic landmarks, forests, or helping protesters to safety. It’s important to note that the black bloc refers to violent and non-violent methods; for example, desecrating corporate buildings or blocking police from arresting or beating protestors. However, my focus is primarily on its sartorial power.

The black bloc creates a strong visual effect and is most effective when people stick together. Coming together transforms protesters into a black homogeneous entity of chaos – like a swarm of bees. It prevents individuals from being singled out or smaller groups from being kettled, separated and surrounded by the police. It creates a diversion and chaos within chaos. Within the black bloc, smaller groups have different roles, from protecting others, staying updated with comrades at home, following the news and social media, or detecting undercover cops trying to provoke mob mentality.

Notably, the tactic was utilized in the 2020 protests by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States, as well as in the Hong Kong protests in 2018. Fighting against the Chinese government enacting extradition, students and young people in Hong Kong used the black bloc technique to prevent the government from identifying them. Black t-shirts became so synonymous with the movement that according to Uniqlo, sales of black t-shirts increased significantly and couriers were banned from importing black clothing into the country during this time. In a different context, the U.S. BLM protestors in 2020 used the tactic of wearing black clothing and face masks – as a COVID-19 measure and to prevent police from tracking protesters through social media or facial recognition. 

According to Francis Dupuis Deri, socio-political professor and author of Who’s Afraid of the Black Bloc?, the first protesters to use the tactic in 1980s Berlin wore black leather jackets, motorcycle helmets, and ski masks. Today protesters will typically wear a hoodie, t-shirt, goggles, face mask or ski mask, black pants, sneakers, and maybe a backpack. They cover their face and body to conceal their identity and to protect themselves from pepper spray, brute force, or other crowd-dispersing methods employed by police or opposing parties.

Why Black?

But why the color black? Activists could wear grey or camouflage clothing if the aim was to blend in. Or, like the 2018 yellow vest protests in France, marchers could don remnants of a non-descript everyday uniform. Although all of these options are viable, there are several reasons why black is the color of choice. Black clothing is accessible and affordable regardless of class, age, or location. Many clothing styles come in black, so they can easily integrate into anyone’s wardrobe in or outside of a picket line. Lastly, and interestingly, black also blends in with black police uniforms.

When thinking about a protest environment, there will be people running around at some point making it harder to decipher who is who. If the black bloc were instead the denim bloc and wore jeans, it might be easier to single them out in a crowd. Wearing black amongst police uniforms can temporarily pause police as they decipher if you are one of them or “the enemy.”

This 2003 study suggests that black signifies a multitude of meanings based on political, religious or social context. Wearing black can project different emotions or perceptions of the wearer ranging from mourning, death, power, propriety, dignity, or strength. Physically, black is used to minimize the body, which can be interpreted as a way to minimize a person’s presence, thus blending in with the crowd. Historically, black has also connoted intelligence or seriousness and is now synonymous with nonconformist subcultures such as goths, beatniks, and bikers. Black can represent fear and darkness, as well as the erasure of identity. 

As the black bloc is a tactic used globally for different causes in different cultures, the color takes on different meanings in specific situations. For example, while the Black bloc originated in Germany in 1980, this phenomenon has precedent in the early 20th century, when German and Italian fascists adopted the color as part of their uniforms and persona. With this in mind, the Autonomists of the ’80s can be interpreted as subverting earlier fascist associations.

According to fashion psychologist Anabel Maldonado, black is seen as armor, but only to those diagnosed with neurotic tendencies (i.e. anxiety, melancholy, and worry). This finding would make sense for those who engage in black bloc attire, as they are individuals who enter highly stressful environments and care deeply about causes and protecting people. So for those wearing black, they might feel like they’re wearing armor. However for those seeing them, they may not perceive them as “armored” but respond more with fear. Seeing a dark clothed figure doesn’t immediately bring to mind the image of “the good guy.”

Social Psychology and the “Dark Hero” Complex

mural depicting black bloc protesters in Hong Kong.
A mural depicting Black Bloc protesters as heroes in Hong Kong, Wiki Commons 2019

The black bloc believes in justice by any means and their aim is to protect others, so their appearance can evoke or emulate a vigilante or “dark hero” complex. According to Linn Haggqvist, vigilantism is when an ordinary citizen takes the law into their own hands without depending on the help of the judicial system. A 2013 LiveJournal entry stated that the dark hero complex is when someone does a good deed through illegal means, like Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor.

An example of both of these concepts happened in 2017 when Antifa activists in black bloc attire protected Charlottesville church members and people of color from nazis. Scholar and activist Cornel West told Democracy Now!: “We would have been crushed like cockroaches were it not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists.” Dark heroes are either hated or unknown and serve justice by any means necessary. They are not expecting a reward or recognition and do not gain anything personally from these acts of heroism.

On the other hand, the black bloc attire can bring out behaviors of violence and aggression due to environment and context. According to a 2017 VICE video about black bloc anarchists, one activist who claims “to hate violence” says they do engage in violent behavior at the protests when necessary. This uniform may help bring out this type of behavior due to what psychologists call “enclothed cognition” and “organizational dress.”

Enclothed cognition, by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky in 2012, states that clothes that have specific connotations embedded in them can influence one’s mindset. For example, if someone is told a white coat is a doctor’s coat, they will feel more competent when wearing it. Further, according to the 1993 study about organizational dress, wearers start to evoke the culture of the organization when wearing its organizational dress. Although the black bloc is not an organization but a movement, these theories can support the idea that a collective “uniform” can influence your mindset and behavior. The black bloc doesn’t have a uniform per se, as nothing is issued to them by a regulating institution. It’s just a color and general aesthetic, which is part of their impact as “people power” rather than state power.

Subverting Police by Reflecting Their Image

Ironically, police in riot uniform are also often in full black attire and mirror the black bloc aesthetic. However, police and protesters are coming from a different standpoint. An article by Adam Galinsky, known for his study on enclothed cognition, stated that policemen in black militarized uniform become psychologically triggered to be on the offense and more prone to attack. This also aligns with organizational dress theory, as police adopt a shared mindset through shared clothing.

Both policemen and the black bloc activists may look similar, but are evoking different behaviors. Compared to the black bloc who use this tactic as a form of protection and anonymity, police evoke authoritarianism and force. From a visual standpoint, what both parties share is that one individual may not be intimidating. However, a group of one hundred individuals who look the same creates an intimidating entity. Anonymity and suppressing individuality is one of the most fundamental tactics of military and police culture. But the police and military use it to justify state-sanctioned violence. Black bloc is a way of reclaiming that power on behalf of those usually targeted by the police. 

According to Nicole Ziege, in her article, The Importance of Clothing in 1960s Protest Movements, clothing in protests create cohesion and symbolic forms of expressing mourning for the fallen, as well as a rebellion against society. Using clothing to make your cause distinct has created memorable protest movements in the 20th century in the United States. Although the black bloc is documented to have appeared in the 1980s, there are recordings of it earlier. Black, as a protest color, has been seen on high school students in the 1960s mourning fallen soldiers of the Vietnam war and was used as the color of choice for the Black Panther Party in 1966. These activist movements and organizations co-opting military aesthetics for anti-military purposes spotlight the injustices produced by police and authoritarian regimes. 

The black bloc aesthetic, whether used intentionally or not, has been a thread through many protests and is still used today. The unofficial uniform of head-to-toe black creates a mask during the digital age, where facial recognition and tracking are part of our daily lives. The black bloc tactic keeps us safe when we’re not on the front lines at protests. The dark and anonymous attire signifies that when the unheard and disenfranchised come together, it is very hard to ignore their shared standpoint and mission.

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Camay Abraham is a journalist and researcher focusing on fashion, fashion psychology, culture, and tech. She has written for publications such as i-D, Dazed and The Fashion and Race Database. While pursuing journalism she has also submitted her master's dissertation for academic publication and has presented her research about cultural appropriation and fashion to conferences in London and Antwerp.