The anarchists responsible for much of the violence during Tuesday's May Day protests employed a popular tactic called "black bloc," in which they disguised themselves and made it difficult for law enforcement to arrest specific individuals.

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Dressed in black, their faces covered, they struck quickly and then seemingly disappeared.

The anarchists responsible for much of the violence during Tuesday’s May Day protests employed a popular tactic called “black bloc,” in which they disguise themselves and make it difficult for law enforcement to arrest specific individuals.

At its simplest, the tactic involves everyone in a group dressing in similar black clothing, covering their faces and moving as a “bloc” — supposedly to demonstrate solidarity for a cause — from which individuals peel off to commit acts of vandalism and then blend back into the group.

On Tuesday, a bloc of about 75 black-clad protesters used long poles, hammers and other objects to smash windows on vehicles and at some downtown Seattle businesses, including NikeTown, then shed the black clothes to merge back into the crowd of nonviolent protesters. As a result, few of those captured on camera vandalizing storefronts were arrested.

The practice was employed during Seattle’s 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, in which bands of black-clad vandals smashed windows, set Dumpster fires, tossed garbage cans and flattened tires of police cars.

Black-bloc tactics in Oakland, Calif., last fall included window smashing, prompting some to say their actions were undermining the Occupy movement protests.

Seattle police were aware ahead of time that Tuesday’s May Day protests could be marred by violence, police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said. Intelligence detectives learned of the anarchists’ plans by reviewing websites maintained by anarchist organizations.

There were clinics on the use of wrist rockets — a type of powerful slingshot — and one about “pigs on horseback” and another called simply “Paint,” which Whitcomb said he “did not take to mean finger painting.”

“It was there for anyone to see,” he said. “They were advertising training seminars and these sorts of tactics in the weeks leading up to the march.”

Mayor Mike McGinn’s office last week issued a statement warning of signs that “other people” may show up “with the intention of using the public demonstrations as an opportunity to commit violence, damage property and disrupt peaceful free-speech activity.”

John Sellers, board president of the Ruckus Society, which helped organize the 1999 WTO protests, said the black-bloc vandals then were well-organized. “They had a plan, and I was nauseated by how little Seattle police did to arrest these people,” Sellers recalled.

Sellers said he did not attend this year’s May Day protests but was dismayed by media reports of the black-bloc vandalism.

“I feel sad because the Occupy movement has been working so hard on a re-emergence this spring and how many people is this going to scare away?” Sellers said. “How many grandmothers and grandfathers, and soccer moms, and immigrants, working people? How many are going to be scared to come out to march because they are seeing this kind of destruction?”

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706


Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.