Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Strasbourg protests: down the memory hole?

Guest post by Futurecast:

For reasons that perhaps are not entirely inexplicable, the demonstration against NATO last Saturday has been all but ignored by the bourgeois press. Over 30,000 activists demonstrating on the city of Strasbourg has been reduced to the activities of tens of Black Block supporters. Unfortunately it has also somewhat slipped through the lefty-media as well, (barring Socialist Worker). This is a shame as throughout the weekend there were clearly considerable steps forward to building international solidarity with other anti-capitalist/socialist organisations throughout Europe, but there were a lot of hard lessons learnt as well.

One of the particularly exciting events that I was not able to attend was the international rally held the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party/Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) on the the 3rd of April. While I’m sure everyone is currently in the know by now, the NPA is the new united left party in French that socialists throughout Europe have been dampening their underwear with in excitement. While there were whispers of the rally not having enough time for discussion everyone who was there seems to have found it impressive indeed, hopefully more coverage will soon be on its way.

Stop the War Coalition sent three coaches (two from London, one from Manchester) to Strasbourg on the 3rd of April, many of those going were young and some of them politicized from the recent wave of University occupations. Arriving there was incredibly difficult as effectively the entirety of Strasbourg’s outer roads were blockaded by police - which made getting a coach load of demonstrators to the peace camp fairly difficult to say the least.

The Peace Campsite was in many ways similar to Climate Camps in Britain of recent years, it was a central rallying point for all those taking part in the protests where food, information, and electricity were available and where you could attempt sleep to the pleasurable sounds of multiple surveillance helicopters circling the site 24 hours a day (often doing so particularly low and loudly at night) and black drone helicopters circling at night also. The key difference with Climate Camp was who was manning the blockades, in our case it was hardened Black Blockers. As we walked down the barricaded street leading up to the campsite for the first time a STWC organiser told us ‘not to be concerned with the looks of things as it was all a bit theatrical.’ But walking through thick fog, down a clearly residential, yet very deserted-looking and very ransacked road guarded by an army of anarchist-ninjas, it just looked to like they’d taken the fucking street and buried the residents in their patios.

On Saturday STWC and the NPA marched together toward the front of the demonstration often sharing the same chants together in each others languages :

Hell Yes We Can - Stop the War!

Oo Ah - Internationale Solidarité!

Soon the demonstration began to swell with numbers as we reached the outer parts of Strasbourg. As the surveillance helicopter followed us some of the anarchists engaged in bizarre and complex methods to remove CCTV cameras from there poles and at this moment at least we all felt pretty united.

The protest reached a bridge where for reasons unbeknownst to any of us the police had blockaded the way forward. Such a thing was expected, but much later along the route than this. Soon enough tear gas canisters were fired into the air. Although some were fired directly into the crowd at very high speeds (something which I’ve been told breaks human rights law) narrowly missing people’s heads and faces. Supposedly at least one activist took one to the head. Despite many activists experiencing the CS in STWC our block held together stoically and extraordinarily well, refusing to run in the face of the gas or sometimes to fall back at all. My first experience of CS was on this demonstration, the first round was something like having citrus jabbed in your eye, which is pretty bearable. But the second time felt like being kicked repeatedly in the lungs and breathing had suddenly been assassinated by a coup d'√©tat of deep and painful coughing (solidarity to the faceless protestors who gave me water and eye droplets while I spluttered by way to the ground.)

Eventually the protest broke through the police lines and pushed up the bridge. There is some debate within the STWC as to why this happened, some believe it was the actions of the Black Block, e.g. setting up fire blockades and throwing projectiles at the police. But in a discussion later it was agreed by the majority that what the police didn’t want was a melee clash with far larger number of protesters than policemen, which is precisely why they kept firing tear gas from such a distance.

The demonstration continued, the Black Block celebrated by burning garden allotments, smashing a petrol station, a post office and bus stops - all ‘collateral damage’ I’m assured. The demonstration continued to a huge gravel plain where the demo became its largest with tens of thousands assembled representing the IFA anarchists, the Black Block, Maoists, NPA, PCF (French Communist Party), Kurdish independence supporters, the SWP, STWC, SEK (Greek Socialist Worker’s Party) and their respective STWC, Linkswende, as well as very solid peace/pacifist pressure groups and so on. From here began the rally and all speakers that spoke from the platform unilaterally condemned the role NATO has played throughout the world as well as the actions of the police on the demonstration. Andrew Murray delivered an excellent speech by being the only speaker to actually sound suitably pissed off about his topic.

The representatives of ‘Blockade NATO’ announced they had delayed the summit by one hour with civil disobedience which met huge cheers. Yet that same day Sky News weeped tragic-bile one moment on how they prevented Michelle Obama from visiting a cancer hospital at and at another time how the protesters have made no impact at all:

“Clive, it seems as if this has had no actual disruption to the summit and effectively NO IMPACT WHATSOEVER?”

“Well you’re right Jane, it does seem that despite all this interference there has been NO IMPACT WHATSOEVER. Back to you.”

The rally ended with Bianca Jagger. Someone who clearly has done herself considerably proud with her defense of human rights and solid opposition to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Just before she began to speak we were informed that the dark clouds continually growing in the background (but being pretty much ignored) where in fact large buildings in massive flames, i.e. hotels and houses. At around this point continual rounds of tear gas were shot into the sky. While none of it reached the rally’s location it was considerably close and the nearby helicopter was circling extremely low. The fact that this somewhat distracted people from her speech made Ms Jagger become rather flippant, moaning like a school teacher: “I can tell you’re not listening..!” and eventually she threw a strop leaving the stage altogether. The selfish bastards.

The demonstration continued for many more hours in the blistering heat, but the police had totally blocked off the way forward with multiple vehicles on the bridge we were hoping to turn down. Instead we were lead onto an island by the demo organisers. Eventually after waiting a long time for the authorities to put out a fire so the demonstration could move on in the opposite direction from the bridge, clashes between the anarchists and the police begun once again and endless rounds of tear gas were fired into the sky. By now the demonstration had become so disorientated that it more or less collapsed, yet activists marched back to the camp site with their heads held high, still chanting and protesting, the IST’s block was out in full force and vigor which for many was a huge morale boost. Later that night there was a deep and detailed discussion with various comrades on the lessons of the demonstration, mostly focussing on the tactics of the Black Block, the state and how to fight repression by drawing in the masses and not isolating them with individual acts of extreme direct action.

On Friday and Sunday there was a rival anti-Nato peace conference which was good on left unity, with a broad turnout of different organisations, but when I was there it certainly suffered from a relatively low attendance. Some of the most valuable contributions I heard came from John Rees who said that he didn’t realise that the Hotel Ibis was one of the top ten imperial sites in the world, or that burning homes in working class areas of Strasbourg helps fight imperialism in anyway whatsoever. Further debate was had in a British caucus on the lessons and mistakes of the protest by the organisers, as well as improvements to be made for STWC’s actions also. The level of debate was strong and reflects a growing sense of democracy, accountability and internal challenging that is excellent to see alongside the movements of the left.

While the demonstration was entirely chaotically organised, heavily policed (there were more police in Strasbourg than there are troops being sent to Afghanistan on the back of the summit), misdirected by the poverty of politics of some protestors, ignored and attacked by much of the media, it won many key victories. It helped us further bridge international solidarity with our comrades across the various borders, it reminded the ruling class that their current projects of imperialism will be protested in huge numbers even when they police their summits to a ridiculous level, or hold them in cities with fairly small populations and even when they block the roads relentlessly (preventing an additional 7000 German comrades getting across the border).

On our way out of the campsite the police politely searched all of our belongings, asking us to empty everything we had into the street, confiscating Socialist Worker papers, flags, leaflets, books, clothing or anything remotely political. When questioned several times they said they had ‘a permit’ and it was ‘orders’. Clearly an odd few of them sensed a sort of guilt and awkwardness about this, yet little effort was made by them to do anything against their orders. Regardless if we can make the Gendarmerie feel unsure and awkward about the status quo and their rulers, then surely another world is possible.

ps: in related news, the Met are in trouble. And their case against supposed anticapitalist 'terrorists' in Plymouth has fallen to pieces.