I first came across protestors dubbed "Black Bloc" in San Francisco during an anti-war protest in 2003. It was rush hour and I was standing in a downtown intersection that about 30 young people in black had blocked, yelling, "Who's streets? Our streets!" News reports focused on arrests, broken windows, and anarchy symbols they spray-painted on Starbucks.
Years later, during protests in Oakland, Calif., in 2009 against the police killing of Oscar Grant, I watched again as black-clad, mostly white young people ran through downtown, spray-painting and smashing windows. This time, local businesses were also hit. Organizers, residents, officials and business owners criticized them for incitement and chaos.
Today, on the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, the "Black Bloc" tactic of protest is on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt - on the front lines of clashes with security forces, stirring up debate among activists amid clouds of tear gas and a frenzy of tweets.
In their first released video statement - filmed in a manner similar to hacktivist Anonymous' video manifestos - Black Bloc Egypt members vowed to fight the Muslim Brotherhood of which President Mohamed Morsi is a member.
Wearing all black, the members march on the video statement, holding the Egyptian flag. Other videos released prior to the anniversary show members burning police vehicles with molotovs.
Producer and writer @adamakary has been speaking to Black Bloc Egypt/Black Blocairo members on the ground. Some of his tweets shed light on various members' motivations, which echo what many young Egyptian men on the front lines have told me over the past two years:
"Understanding #BlackBloc is very simple. They're the product of decades of oppression. Disadvantaged youth are fed up." @adamakary tweeted.
And - "After sitting down with some black bloc members this morning, I can tell you things will not be pretty tonight, they're [sic] aim is anarchy," he tweeted.
The "Black Bloc" tactic of protest is said to have German origins, beginning in Europe in the 1980's during protests against squatter evictions, nuclear power and restrictions on abortion. The tactic made its most dramatic media debut in the U.S. during protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999.
In Egypt, protests include more deadly confrontations than seen in the U.S. Already there are reports of at least nine deaths including teenagers in the Suez region. Since the start of the uprising, clashes with security forces have been bloody, with high levels of tear gas, ammunition and projectiles used, along with molotovs. Young men have been the leading opposition force on the front lines, many of them members of "Ultras" groups - highly organized "anti-cop" futbol fans who since 2011 have collectively mobilized during clashes.
Filming some Ultras for a documentary called, "Boys of the Bullet," I've often heard the phrase "not afraid to die." That is a sentiment now echoed by Black Bloc Egypt: "Talking to a few members of #BlackBloc now - they're ready to fight and they're not afraid to die #egypt #jan25" @adamakary tweeted.
But while the arrival of Ultras to the front lines of protest elicits cheers, not everyone is a fan of Black Bloc Egypt. Journalist Patrick Galey has compiled a diversity of views shared on Twitter in this visual post on his blog titled, "Who are Black Bloc?"
@TheBigPharaoh tweeted early morning Jan. 26 the Muslim Brotherhood's opinion of the Black Bloc Egypt: "MB official website claims Black Bloc is a "Christian militia". Why? Because Christians are "the other". Hang anything on "the other"!"
President Morsi did not address the Black Bloc by name when mentioning the clashes during an early morning address to the nation on Twitter, stating: "Egypt's [security] apparatuses will chase the criminals and bring them to justice."
Statements from Black Bloc Egypt are posted in Arabic on one of their official Facebook pages, which gained more than 2,000 followers on the Jan. 25 anniversary, with now more than 14,300 likes. It warns in its "About" section: "Get ready for hell. Chaos against injustice."
The Black Blocairo Facebook page posted photos of members preparing molotovs for clashes with security forces. I've tweeted some of these photos. And another Black Blocairo page states in the description: "We Are Egyptian Black Bloc. We Are Legion. We Do Not Forgive. We Do Not Forget. Expect US."
The tactic is being both praised and criticized by well-known Egyptian tweeps, including Gigi Ibrahim, who tweeted: "This black bloc is just trouble even if they have good revolutionary intentions but it definitely will be used against the revolution."
Based on videos being shared online, it appears much of the tactics being used by Black Bloc Egypt mirror those long employed by opposition on the streets of Egypt - the difference now is that some have a name, philosophy and collective identity to peg to their efforts. In the coming days or weeks, Black Bloc Egypt may perhaps gain the support among some that other collective protest movements in Egypt have - like the Mosireen Collective of citizen media producers; NoMilTrials movement against military trials for civilians; Askar Kazeboon movement to confront government propaganda; or Mad Graffiti Week street art movement to disseminate revolution demands and honor those killed.
Or, because of its anarchist nature and deliberately confrontational protest tactics, Black Bloc Egypt will remain its own amorphous force.
Incidentally, the "Black Bloc" movement is now in Syria as well.