by Scott Thompson

What do riot police and Black Bloc have in common? I’m not talking about the obvious answers. Some people might say they have violence in common, but this isn’t an essay about “diversity of tactics.” I’ve never seen a Black Bloc unleash violence on anything like the scale seen in Chicago from the riot police. Some might say that both of them have a tendency to dehumanize each other, but that’s not what I mean either.

What the riot police and Black Bloc have in common is that they dehumanize themselves, by dressing in head-to-toe uniforms that obscure individual identities and render them anonymous and menacing. I don’t mean they make themselves less than human, and I don’t believe they see each other as less than human either. Quite the opposite.

By transforming themselves into these anonymous and ominous-looking figures, they stop looking like individual people and start to look more like faceless, archetypal forces—more than human, not less. And I think that’s how they see each other.

To the riot police, Black Bloc is much more than just a particularly rowdy bunch of protesters. From their point of view, Black Bloc is a force of raw, archetypal Chaos, an evil that must be stopped. To the Black Bloc, the riot police are not just a heavily armored phalanx of police officers. From their point of view, the riot police are the personification of an increasingly fascistic and repressive State—also an evil that must be stopped.

Instead of police and protesters confronting each other across the usual gulf of misunderstanding and suspicion, we suddenly have something much more dangerous: an all-out battle royale between two incompatible mythic forces, drawn toward each other like two magnets. A policeman and a protester might agree or disagree, but Good and Evil will always fight. A beat cop and an activist might have some things in common and other points where they could never understand each other, but there can be no possibility of understanding between Chaos and Order, nor between Freedom and Tyranny. There can only be epic struggle.

I’m not condemning anyone for masking-up at a protest action. There are some very practical reasons for doing so, especially in the current climate of increasing repression. But the anonymity comes with a risk. By embracing these anonymous images of power and menace, both Black Bloc and the riot police run the risk of losing their individual identity and integrity as human beings, becoming mere conduits for the archetypes they’ve chosen to manifest. It can be almost like possession.

You can see it in the way some Black Bloc protesters move when the mask is on—with a self-conscious swagger, an aura of menace. That’s the feeling of power, in this case the power conveyed by anonymity and the implication of potential danger. But power corrupts.

Most of the riot police probably don’t hit people on the head with sticks on a daily basis. Of course, the seductive power of licensed violence will corrupt some or even many of those it touches—like the grinning sadist shown beating protesters in one video from Chicago. Still, if you asked most of the police if it’s right or wrong to beat an unarmed person on the head with a stick in any other context, most of them would probably say it was wrong. But individual human beings are morally accountable for their actions—archetypal forces are not. And when the cop puts on his riot gear and goes out there to wage a heroic struggle against what he sees as the Army of Chaos, he’s not an individual human being any more, he’s a Defender of Order.

None of this excuses the crimes of violence committed by the riot police in defense of the status quo. The repression is real, the violence is real, and the blood is real. The self-image as an archetypal force of Good defending society against a faceless Evil is just an illusion. In the end, we may temporarily convince ourselves that we aren’t accountable for the things we do, but it’s a lie and we know it.

I don’t call myself a good person, and I’m suspicious of anyone who does. I’ve done right things and wrong things in my life. I try to help when I can, but I’ve also done harm. That’s a normal human life. I know it’s sometimes safer to wear a mask, but this is why I don’t wear one. I’m just one individual human being, and I’m accountable for my actions. I intend to stay that way.