During last Friday’s “Anticut” protest against threatened cuts to the Oakland Public Library system, a protest tactic familiar across Europe made its Bay Area debut: the book bloc. Six people wielding the “books” marched at the head of the demonstration, occasionally forming a barrier to the Oakland Police officers who arrested 16 of the protesters that afternoon.
While it is somewhat fitting that demonstrators decrying cuts to a library system would march with signs painted like book covers, the titles chosen and the way the signs were used are reflective of the radical politics represented by the “Anticut” actions. The book bloc’s appearance in California also demonstrates linkages between local and International protest movements.
Among the titles in Oakland were the autobiography of black nationalist Assata Shakur, who fled to Cuba after being convicted for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper; The Story of Ferdinand, a Frano-era pacifist children’s book banned in many Fascist countries during the 1930s; French philosopher Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a critique of the authenticity of contemporary social life; and Nanni Balestrini’s The Unseen, an account of Anarchist movements in 1970s Italy.
Book blocs first appeared in England and Italy last winter. Their name is a riff on the “black bloc” protest tactic often attributed to Anarchists. While black blocs are often associated with property destruction, proponents say they reduce the ability of police to identify marchers because everyone is dressed similarly in black and obscures their faces.
Book blocs have already been the subject of lectures in the United Kingdom, but they are the product of Italian student demonstrations in November 2010 against drastic budget cuts to the country’s public university system. During those demonstrations, protestors used the books as a defensive measure to confront riot police, as seen in the following footage from actions in Rome last Fall.
Last year’s student demonstrations in London took a notoriously violent turn (Prince Charles and his consort Camilla Bowles had their car surrounded by a crowd screaming “off with their heads”). Again, book blocs were at the heart of several confrontations between police and the crowd.
The Wu Ming Foundation, an anonymous group of radical authors, issued a communique elaborating the purpose of the book bloc after its first appearance in November 2010:
Students and teachers on the war path. Riots and demonstrations all over the country. High schools and universities occupied by the students. Violent clashes with the police in front of the Senate. Berlusconi’s education reform is encountering blatant opposition, and the fact that the government is in crisis makes the movement raise its multifarious head even more. This afternoon, in Rome, students confronted the cops while carrying shields with book titles on them. The meaning was: it is culture itself that’s resisting the cuts; books themselves are fighting the police. It was in this incendiary midst that our novel Q showed up, and in good company to boot: Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Plato’s The Republic, A Thousand Plateaux… These pictures appeared on the websites of the most important daily papers. It goes without saying that, whatever will happen, we’re proud of what our novel is doing in the streets. Omnia sunt communia!
Here is a “genealogy” of the book block, for those seeking further reading (N.B. some of the articles reference here are in Italian).