Brazil's Black Bloc Activists: Criminals Or People Power?

The protests that swept through Brazil last summer raised the profile of the Black Bloc — masked anarchists who use violence to get their anti-capitalist message across. The secretive members explain that their tactics are intended to shake up a corrupt and complacent government. But many regular protesters feel that the Black Bloc has hijacked their movement and that they do more harm than good.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The massive protests that took place in Brazil over the summer may be over. But smaller, near-daily demonstrations are ongoing and getting more violent. From Sao Paulo, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the shadowy anarchist group that's now playing a key role in the protest. It's called the Black Bloc.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The Black Bloc member won't tell us his name or anything about himself. To disguise his identity, he's wearing a black hoodie, a ski mask, and a bandana covering the lower half of his face. His eyes are even hidden by sunglasses. It's a dramatic outfit but a necessary one, he explains. The security forces view the Black Bloc as a criminal organization that destroys property and fights with the police. He also asked to have his voice disguised.

But he says far from being the perpetrators of violence, the Black Bloc is there to defend. He says the Black Bloc is necessary in Brazil because it's the way that the people found to fight back physically, to fight back the police. Police beat people up, he says. Police kill people. Police torture people nowadays in Brazil, he tells me.

Over the summer, massive protests broke out in Brazil; sparked by a bloody police crackdown on peaceful protesters looking to lower the cost of public transport. This Black Bloc member, and others NPR interviewed, say they were inspired to join the anarchist group, after seeing what happened on the streets.

This isn't a new group. It was born in Germany in the 1970s, and its form of violent protest has been used all over the world since then, most recently in Egypt. But here in Brazil, the Black Bloc has grown exponentially, and it's become one of the major components of the protest movement here. The Black Bloc member says the group is fighting for a transformation in Brazilian society. And that appeals to many people fed up with what's happening here.

Rafael Alcadipani is a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation - in Sao Paulo - who studies the Black Bloc. He says the group is decentralized with no leadership and only a few unifying principles. But he says its tactics have won many young Brazilians over.

RAFAEL ALCADIPANI: Brazil is a very violent society, OK. So the language of violence is common in Brazilian society. And what's the novelty here is that they're using violence to demonstrate. They are offering an identity to some young people who have been disregarded by the government.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a recent protest in Sao Paulo, the Black Bloc was, indeed, out in force. As frequently happens these days, the demonstrations devolved into violence, with masked anarchists battling with police and breaking into banks and stores.One of the members of the Bloc, a 19-year-old law student, explains why the banks are a particular target.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Banks are one of the main evils of society. They are leeches exploiting workers. For the bank, what matters most is the interest. It doesn't matter if people can't support their families. The banks are exploiters of society, and we are here to oppose them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But many regular protesters say the actions of the Bloc overshadow their aims. This protest was over education, says 24-year-old Juniane Fourno.

JUNIANE FOURNO: (Through translator) It would be easier to gain public support by being able to talk to the governor. But instead, there are clashes. And all the media will say is that the Black Blocs broke everything, and no one will discuss our legitimate complaints.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across town, the Black Bloc member we interviewed privately says the media is deliberately distorting what they do, in an attempt to drive a wedge between the protesters. But he also adds, protesters who don't like the Bloc's tactics should just stay home. He says some people actually are afraid of violence. They're afraid of being arrested; they are afraid of being there. But we don't need people with fear. If you are scared, stay at home, you know, he says - because, he says, the Black Bloc is going to continue taking to the streets.

He says the Black Bloc is the one telling the states, you don't have the monopoly of force anymore, because the people have the power. You can have the guns, but we have the power, he says.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro NPR News, Sao Paulo.

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