This year’s NATO conference celebrated its 60th birthday and was protected by strict border controls and a huge police presence, nevertheless a widespread mobilisation against it managed to get thousands on the streets marching, fighting, and causing disruption in Strasbourg, France and in the German towns near the French border. There were multiple days of demonstrations and clashes with the police, including a 1000 strong demonstration in solidarity with the repression at the G20 in London, at which barracks and a police station were attacked.
The main day of action was Saturday, 4th April, which saw thousands of people in smaller blockades and on a big march in Strasbourg, as well thousands more prevented from crossing into France held at the German border.
One of the outcomes of the NATO summit was the decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. This mobilisation showed again that where there is war and exploitation, there will be resistance.
Spring Break ‘09
This is an account of the April 2009 Anti-NATO mobilisation in Strasbourg by four anti-war activists from Sussex University in Brighton. We went to the summit directly after the G20 Meltdown demonstration in London, so were only in Strasbourg for the last two days of the protest, from the night of the 3rd to the 5th of April. What follows is our account of those days.
Strasbourg Tourist Information on fire
The ghost of Lenin
We arrived at the Victoria embankment in London at 5.30 in the morning, not having slept at all the previous night. We had been keeping guard in Ramparts, a squatted social centre in Whitechapel that had been an impromptu convergence space for the G20 Meltdown protests. The place had already been raided with several arrests made, as had all other squats the police knew were connected to the “violent anarchists” the media had been carping on about for the previous few weeks. It was a strange atmosphere: Our friends had been arrested, many violently assaulted, and yet here we were on our way to another summit mobilisation that promised to be even more intense.
In a semi-ironic mood we had dubbed this protest binge “spring break”
In a semi-ironic mood we had dubbed this protest binge “spring break” - it being after all our spring term holiday from university. We even used it as our call sign during the Strasbourg demo, something I would later come to regret.
We had arranged to take a bus to Strasbourg with the Stop the War Coalition, an organisation dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Most of us self identified as anarchists, and we had had some less than friendly interactions with the Stop the War/SWP group at our university recently. As soon as we had taken our seats, desperate for a few hours sleep in that uncomfortable position, three Scottish socialists began talking about Lenin’s infallibility, Stalin’s misunderstood charm and Dundee’s prized position in the history of international class struggle. We put up with it for about five hours before I had to tell them to shut up.
When we finally got near to Strasbourg we found that the police had blocked almost every entrance to the city. The bus had to keep finding more and more peripheral towns to try and sneak through to get in but each time we were faced with another road block. Finally after a delay of almost three hours we arrived at the barricades on the road to the protest camp.
Anarchy in the EU
There were several people, mostly men, standing around wearing black masks. Broken glass, bits of wood, metal, bricks and any other random pieces of scrap material were strewn across the street for at least a hundred meters. When we eventually reached the field that the camp was in I was relieved to see that one of the first tents we came to had the letters IFA FDA written on the top. This was the tent of the German section of the International of Anarchist Federations, the British section of which I am a member of. It was the first time I had the opportunity to gain from being part of such an organisation and I was not disappointed, as we were allowed to sleep in their tent without any questions. We then set off to look around the camp on a mission for food and information.
We found out that the next morning there was a plan to blockade the roads that the politicians would use to get to the NATO summit, for which people were meeting at 3 in the morning. Given that it was already nearly midnight by that point, and that we hadn’t slept properly in days we decided to give that a miss. There was also apparently an “anti-capitalist” bloc, meeting up to go on the march together. At first we resolved to join it, not knowing then exactly what it signified. For surely we were all anti-capitalist? In the context of that camp the label was as meaningless as the “change” advocated by both candidates at the last US presidential elections.
Later, after we had found some food at an amazing volunteer-run vegan cafeteria, we met some German anarchists who clarified things a bit more for us. They told us that the anti-capitalist bloc was in fact an alliance of State-Socialist groups, even including Stalinists with which they refused to march. A separate anarchist bloc had been arranged and we decided to go with that instead.
It was a good welcome to the camp, sitting around a fire with these friendly strangers listening to them talk excitedly about factory occupations and workers co-operatives, with an optimism rarely seen in the UK. One of them told me he was looking forward to the mass unemployment that the global recession would bring, as it would mean that more people would be freed to build alternatives to capitalism, a good example of the radical disparity between German and British political attitudes.
A stroll through the suburbs
In the morning we woke up just in time to eat something more at the cafeteria before rushing down the street to catch up with the anarchist bloc.
It was about an hour’s walk between the camp and the starting place of the march, but this small walk from A to B was more energetic and radical than most full-scale demonstrations are in Britain. For a start there were about a thousand anarchists from different countries all marching together and chanting in each others languages (my favourite was “Li! Li! Libertad! Anarchia! Total!”). For another we were walking in the middle of main roads in a quiet suburb of the city. But the strangest thing of all was that there were absolutely no police anywhere in sight! From my experience in Britain a demonstration of twenty people is enough to demand a police presence of double that number complete with photographers and vans waiting to take people away, and a red and black flag is enough to warrant the use of anti-terrorist legislation. But here were hundreds of anarchists on their way to a militant demonstration being left completely alone. It would not be the first time that day that we noticed extreme differences between the attitudes of French and British police.
At the bridge that would take us to where the march was officially supposed to start, thousands of people had congregated and were not moving, for the police were on it. We could see jets of water from police water-cannons streaming up over the heads of the people way in front of us and could hear now and then the loud booming sound of teargas canisters and rubber bullets being fired.
We didn’t know what to do at this point. None of use had ever experienced any of these kinds of police tactics before, so we tried to stay back far from where the confrontation was. I could only imagine what it was like at the front. The anarchist bloc disintegrated with people moving off in all different directions. All the shops around were closed, but a pub was sneaking people in to allow them to buy cigarettes and fill up water bottles. While we were in there we saw a live TV broadcast from inside the summit itself with Nicolas Sarkozy saying something that the other people watching with us didn’t sound too impressed about. It was quite eerie to see the very people we were demonstrating against just getting on with things as usual while here people were being gassed to keep them safe.
After around half and hour or more there was eventually some movement. Some of the blocs formed again behind their different party flags, but we just tried to stick with people who were masked-up. There was an awful lot of them, many carrying sticks or trolleys full of rocks. As we walked across the bridge we saw the wreckage of whatever battle had been fought there to force the police to let us cross. There were bonfires still ablaze and the smell of teargas was heavy in the air. But it was an incredible feeling. For me it was perhaps the one moment in the day untainted by factional politics. We were all there, all from wildly different backgrounds, but all for the same reason. The police had tried to stop us but now we were on the move. And it was still a brilliantly sunny morning.
Arson vs rhetoric
This feeling of unity was short-lived though. At the other side of the bridge we came to some Harris-fencing that people were trying to tear down. Thinking that perhaps the police were blocking a road further ahead we joined in and moved along with everyone else into a huge tarmacked open space. Then I saw something that made my heart sink – a stage had been set up, with a sound-system and bunch of trestle tables with various political parties’ colours on them. I could barely believe it after all we had gone through to get there, now that the march was finally united and moving somewhere, the Socialists were going to stop and have a rally.
All around people were selling overpriced water, tee-shirts and food (though crisps were the only vegan thing we could find), while people made the same god-awful boring cliché-filled speeches in about ten different languages. Only one non-Socialist speech was made, a French woman reporting to the crowd that the action that morning had managed to blockade the meeting for over an hour. There was no applause from the mostly middle aged, Trotskyist and pacifist crowd. And as if just to completely cement the atmosphere of being at some horrific Socialist rock-festival, they actually finished the rally off with a performance from some talentless Belgian band playing unbelievably cheesy lifeless commercial rock.
Needless to say we didn’t stick around for much of this, and nor did most of the other anarchists and militant activists. Hundreds of them went up a pathway to the side of the stage that led up to a small bit of grassland near another bridge that was also the border with Germany. Hundreds of German riot police were standing on the bridge, all crowded together up to a fairly arbitrary point that I supposed someone had decided was the actual border. Next to the bridge was a building that was being pelted with rocks from all sides, with people inside it smashing things and the beginnings of a fire smouldering in one of the rooms. We heard the German police talking through a megaphone causing some German-speaking activists near us to burst out laughing. “They’re saying that if we go over there we have to take off our masks because it’s illegal to wear masks in Germany” they told us. “There’s a fucking building on fire over here and that’s all they can say”. We saw some French activists symbolically laying down in front of the German cops to stop them from advancing, but to be honest they didn’t really look like they were going to anyway.
The rally went on for so long that we actually went back there and out again before it was over, by which time the building, which it turned out was a border control station, was completely aflame. There was something incredibly hypnotic about it. We just kept saying really stupid things to each other along the theme of “Wow. Could that thing be any more on fire?” I guess you had to be there to find it funny.
Down the road in the opposite direction from the bridge to Germany we could see more smoke coming from a different building. We walked over to look at it but saw a line of riot police. They didn’t seem to be doing anything but as we got nearer we heard them scream and saw them rush forward, all in an instant. Shots were fired and we all ran away as quick as we could in a panicked rush. When we found each other again we found that one of us had been hit by a rubber bullet. She had a massive bruise on the back of her leg but said she was ok to carry on. From that point on things seemed a lot more serious.
The power of music
We went back in the direction of the rally, past a line of masked up militants who were squaring up in preparation for the police to charge them. Since we didn’t have gas masks and they did, and we were pretty shaken anyway, we kept on going. The rally had finally finished and people were now walking back. When we were about halfway across the tarmac the police started firing teargas again. We had to scramble up a hill with hundreds of others that turned out to have railway tracks at the top of it.
At the top two of us realised we’d lost the other and had to resort to shouting “Spring Break” as loud as we could while all around us people were scrambling up and down the hill away from the police. It felt pretty ridiculous to say the least.
When we found her again at the bottom we moved off down a street filled with police vans and cars which people proceeded to try to smash and scratch the windows of with whatever they could find around them. Again, this kind of casual violence between protesters and police was something we were completely unused to, and can’t help but make you feel that British activists are just a bit too tame. Not that mindless violence is good, but it does cheer you up when the police have been attacking you to see people retaliate.
Further down the road we found a large lorry that had been filled with amps, speakers and pretty stoned looking people that was blasting out drum-and-bass to the whole crowd. All of a sudden the sense of peril was gone again and we felt once more like empowered protesters in a crowd of thousands and unable to be stopped. We stuck with the music van for most of the next hour or so, finding that the constant chants of “Ah! Anti! Anticapitalista!” from the various blocs marching ahead were getting a bit old. At one point the police started spraying people with their water-cannons, having gotten them round a different route that intersected us. The whole time we had very little idea where we were in the city, where we were going or what the police were doing. So we just stuck with the music van. An old guy with dreads started to play some kind of crazy electric sitar over the top of heavy industrial beats while randomly shouting out Jimmi Hendrix lyrics, and people were hanging out of the truck handing out water and eye-drops for teargas. Lots of people started smoking joints, but no one would give us any, even for money. So much for solidarity.
The non-violence debate gets ugly
Eventually the whole marched was stopped again, we assumed by the police. But after twenty or thirty minutes had passed and nothing had happened we went to the front and saw something I would never have expected.
For sure people were being held back, just not by the police. Instead a line of pacifists, all dressed in colourful clothes with rainbow flags had formed a human shield across the whole street, facing the crowd. On the other side of the line was a pick-up truck belonging to the French Communist Party with an old man in a baseball cap giving orders through a sound system. One of the protesters in the line told us by way of explanation that there was a fire up ahead and the police didn’t want us to go down that road.
I was shocked. Yes of course there was a building on fire up there. It had been lit by people on the same fucking march! Now these people were actually stopping the whole march just because the police wanted them to? It was the furthest thing from a respect for a diversity of tactics I’d ever seen.
Obviously the French Communist Party had some kind of policy of co-operation with the police, as do many Socialist groups. They are perfectly entitled to their beliefs regarding the legitimacy of such tactics but they knew full-well that they were marching with many other people with different beliefs and who wished to engage in more direct confrontation. Instead of finding some sort of compromise, like putting people with different comfort zones at different parts of the march, they were actually forcing their own beliefs on the entire demonstration.
Understandably a lot of the more militant demonstrators were not happy about this. But I cannot say that they were without blame either. After some raised voices, that were not helped by the language barrier, we saw an actual physical fight break out, with masked protesters trying to force their way through the line of rainbow coloured pacifists, slapping one of them in the face. It was incredibly surreal. This kind of situation is the last thing anyone wants to see happen, with protesters fighting each other, ironically over the very issue of whether or not to fight. I can’t help but feel though that with more forward planning and communication between different groups it could have been avoided. The same is true of the rally. If we all hadn’t have stopped we would have had enough numbers to keep on going, and quite possibly the people who set fire to the buildings would have still been able to do so, and then have had a crowd they could disappear back into. Then we wouldn’t have had to stop for so long, giving the police time to consolidate their position and forcing us to walk in a massive circle back to where we’d just been. I may be jaded but I really can’t help but feel that the more image conscious groups – the official political parties etc – put the whole success of the march in jeopardy, especially considering what happened next.
State violence gets uglier
Somehow in all the confusion, perhaps because we’d temporarily removed our black hoods etc and we look quite hippyish underneath, we found ourselves on the other side of the pacifist human shield. We walked to the railway bridge to see what was going on and saw a line of not very many police that a crowd of hundreds of forceful protesters could have made their way through.
It turned out that we had walked in a massive circle and were now facing the street we’d been trying to look down before one of us had been shot. The railway bridge was the same one we had scrambled up before to get away from the police, just a bit further along.
When the Communist party guy finally ordered the pacifist bloc to dissolve some people climbed up the slope to the tracks and the police starting firing on them. We rushed back to the safety of the crowd, and saw hundreds of militants climbing up to fight the police, throwing stones. At first it seemed they were winning, and we were about to go up and join them. But suddenly the mood changed and they came streaming down again, teargas canisters sailing through the air after them.
Because of the antics of the Communist party, all the most extreme pacifist groups were now at the front, intermingled with the militants and with all the other groups like the SWP who I would say are somewhere in the middle. But teargas does not respect these political boundaries. For about ten minutes there was just utter panic everywhere you could go. We would see canisters land near us but have no time to run away because there were just too many other people in the way. All the time we were gripping each other to make sure we didn’t get separated. It was definitely the most scared I’ve ever been on a demo.
Inevitably we finally got some teargas down our lungs. The burning sensation in my eyes was just about bearable and I could keep moving forward. But when I eventually had to breathe in through my mouth it was just intolerable. When we finally got to a bit of an island of calm we squeezed lemon juice into our masks and tried to breathe into the actual lemon itself. Nothing has ever felt so relieving. We also still had the eye-drops from the van and we forced each other’s eyes open to squirt them in. Near us at that point I saw someone lying on the ground with people crowded around shouting for the medics.
The rest of the demo was just confusion and dispersal. There didn’t seem to be any exit route except the way we had just come, or up down the railway track somewhere. We milled around on the tracks for a while, trying to encourage people to come with us, but eventually most people trudged off back down the road.
We found ourselves in a group of about ten, and walked over to the other side of the railway track. From there we managed to sneak through some side streets till we got to the area where the buildings were on fire. A café had opened up and we decided that there was no way in hell we were going to be able to find the rest of the demo again so had a beer and some chips to calm ourselves down that we had to run away without paying for because we were so short on Euros.
Police were blocking all visible routes and we were worried that they would arrest us if they thought we were part of the demonstration (which we obviously were). Buildings were still on fire and it seemed like the police were stopping the fire brigade from putting them out for some reason. This was despite the fact that the whole excuse for the Communist party stopping us was to give them time to put the fires out.
Eventually we found a way we could sneak past the police without drawing attention to ourselves and we had to walk across the same tarmac that the rally had been in for the third time that day. Depressingly, despite this being the most militant demonstration I’d ever been on, we’d stayed in pretty much the same area the whole time, not once managing to move into the city itself.
Ending on a high note
The walk back to the camp was extremely long and we were already very tired. We walked past the wreckage of looted petrol stations and police blockades of every road leading to the city centre. I couldn’t help but feel an overall frustration that they’d won. They’d stopped us from getting anywhere near the city, let alone the NATO summit, so all the chants and banners seemed so much hot air and dried paint.
What’s the one thing that can cheer you up in moments like this?
An unexpected bus full of clowns of course! And that’s exactly what we got.
We had seen the clowns earlier by the truck with the sound system, and now here they were driving back to the camp and giving lifts to everyone they saw along the way. Fucking genius! They even gave us some apples.
We spent the rest of that day on a quest for alcohol and cigarettes and telling our friend who’d stayed at the camp due to illness all that had happened. He told us he had seen the smoke clouds all the way from there. He had been out in the suburbs near the camp for a while that day and seemed overwhelmed by the amount of support the local people seemed to have for the protests. He said that people from housing blocks nearby had applauded people on the streets who’d looked like protesters, even when they’d been doing nothing.
This I suppose has to be put into its wider context. France had just seen a nationwide strike of over three million people and President Sarkozy has always been deeply unpopular in the country. NATO’s war in Afghanistan is the only war France is currently engaged in and it’s a complete disaster. This plus the fact that there’s just generally more of a culture of radical protest I suppose makes antiwar protesters popular amongst a lot of the population. When we were leaving we saw people sweeping up all the broken glass and other stuff that had been used to barricade the roads to cause the minimum amount of disruption to the local community. It was really heart-warming to see this kind of connection between demonstrators and the rest of the population, given that in Britain so many people have this kind of Protesters=Scum attitude.
On the last night we did a shift manning the barricades. Our only responsibility was to send a message back to the camp if the police showed up, but they never did. It was a really nice atmosphere with a campfire and a guitar and people passing around joints. We were trying to keep everything calm and quiet for the sake of the neighbours, which failed a few times when some idiots on mopeds arrived, but it wasn’t a big deal at all.
The next day we spent just hanging around at the camp trying to network with other activists and give out flyers for an anti-militarist conference we’re organising in Brighton on the 2nd and 3rd of May. The camp was really impressively organised, with several volunteer cafes, a medical tent, a legal information point, a general info point, toilets, and even an internet café. Many political parties and other groups like the Anarchist Federation and Antifa had set up their own little tents. There was an educational farm in the field next to the camp that had clearly given them permission to be there that was selling beer and food as well.
We had been planning to attend an anti-war conference that was being held somewhere outside the camp, but the police were completely blocking the whole place so we decided not to go. When it was finally time for us to catch the coach back to Britain with the Stop the War Coalition they stopped and searched every single one of us quite extensively, confiscating all political material they could find. People had their banners, flags and leaflets all taken from them. I had never seen this kind of overt political censorship before. It made me feel as if we were in some kind of totalitarian state, and caused a lot of the socialists to start making comparisons with 1984, though that’s going a bit far. I also heard some people comparing the use of teargas with Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza, which shows how conceited some people can be.
We had wisely decided to get really drunk and stoned beforehand to use up all our weed and alcohol before they could take it off us, so I was in a quite passive mood when they were searching me. There were undercover cops mingling with the crowds waiting to be searched, and me and one of the others were picked out first for staring at them a bit too much. The walkie-talkies were a bit of a giveaway.
But eventually after about an hour we were back on the bus, arguing about hierarchy with the Trotskyists again, everything back to normal. The image of the train tracks with clouds of teargas streaming through the air is going to haunt me for many years to come. But I later found out that the burning building by the bridge to Germany was a border control agency, and the image of it completely enveloped in flames with “NO BORDERS!” graffiti all around is not something I’m going to forget in a hurry either.
Photos by Fil Kaler and Seba