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NATO, Strasbourg and the Black Block

NATO creates threats wherever it goes. That is its business. Whether in Afghanistan or in Strasbourg, the foreign military presence provokes violent rebellion, especially from young men who feel challenged. Their violent rebellion is cited to justify an increase in repressive violence. And so it goes…

This cycle of violence was played out last Saturday, April 4, in Strasbourg, where thousands of police and a small number of Black Block street fighters stole the show from what should have been the launching of a new European mass movement against NATO war policy. The peace demonstration was squashed and disintegrated by armed police as black-hooded youths threw stones and set fires.

In this cycle of provocation, there is no doubt who started it: NATO. The lavish celebration of NATO’s 60th anniversary, held in the Rhineland cities of Strasbourg, Kehl and Baden Baden over the weekend, was an insult to the citizens. After all, if President Obama and the other leaders of the self-proclaimed free world of democracies are so popular, why must their host cities be turned into heavily armed fortresses to receive them? If Europeans welcome NATO protection, why must they be held at gunpoint miles away from their benefactors? But of course NATO is not a defense force. From the bombing of Serbia ten years ago to Afghanistan today, NATO has been progressively transformed into a foreign expeditionary force. The draconian security measures clamped onto three peaceful, conservative European cities, which confined people to their homes, resembled a foreign occupation. Despite the momentary popularity of Obama, the NATO summit illustrated the drastic and growing gap between ordinary people and their leaders. A great salesman, Obama tried to persuade Europeans that they are even more endangered by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than Americans, and should pay their tribute in tax money and soldiers to eradicate this threat off somewhere in distant Afghanistan, or is it Pakistan, or who know where? European media largely evaded this embarrassingly absurd notion by concentrating on what Michelle Obama was wearing. But tens of thousands of European citizens made their way to Strasbourg hoping to register their disagreement. They had arguments they wanted to make heard. They ended up being tear-gassed, herded into pens and terrified. Many of them will probably never venture into a mass demonstration again.

Responsibility for a Fiasco

The responsibility for this fiasco is threefold. The most responsible are, of course, the security forces which are getting nastier and nastier all over Europe in their treatment of demonstrations. With helicopters hovering noisily overhead, phalanxes of helmeted police “kettled” people into small, separated spaces, sometimes surrounded by metal fencing from which escape is impossible. It amounts to treating people like cattle destined for the slaughter-house. Groups that had planned to get together were unable to find each other. Well over ten thousand police employed an arsenal of up-to-date anti-personnel weapons against a similar number of defenseless demonstrators, firing tear-gas canisters, rubber bullets and stun guns to break up the rally and then to disperse people who were already dispersed and had no idea where they could go. The chaos was total.
All that was deliberate.

But a share of responsibility belongs to the organizers, if that is the proper term for an event so dismally lacking in organization. The April 4 anti-NATO demonstration was called by a collective of French activist groups, none of which had the authority to impose a coherent plan. By dint of seniority, the relatively conservative Mouvement de la Paix seems to have exercised the greatest authority, notably by supporting the disastrous decision to accept the French government’s choice of site for the rally. Instead of being allowed to meet in a city square and march through the streets of Strasbourg with their banners, slogans and bits of street theater, the peace demonstrators were exiled to a peripheral island between the Rhine and a large shipping canal, with only two bridges as access. Anyone looking at a map could see that this site was unacceptable for several reasons. It was hard to reach – about eight kilometers from the railroad station – especially on a day when all public transportation was shut down and the city center was off limits. The terrain was rough and confusing. It was out of sight of any public the demonstrators might want to communicate with – in short, no “communication” with fellow citizens was possible. And worst of all, it was an obvious trap, a perfect place for police to practice their kettling techniques. Yet the organizers accepted this unacceptable site, and then failed to organize any protection service of its own.
Still, the Prefecture (regional authority) had made certain promises in return for agreement to this unfavorable site. These promises were flagrantly violated. Streets and bridges that were supposed to be open were periodically blocked by police. Curiously, several thousand peaceful demonstrators were blocked on the German side of the Rhine, and never joined the rally, whereas German Black Blockers were active on the scene. In general, the police treated peaceful demonstrators as the enemy in a civil war, while doing nothing to protect people or property from the violent minority.

The rally itself, held in an indentation on this island, was distracted by the unnerving spectacle of a nearby hotel going up in flames. Helicopters drowned out speakers and music. The subsequent march was never able to take place. Totally disoriented demonstrators were left to their own devices, in a strange and hostile environment, as they tried to flee from tear gas through a maze of police traps.

The Black Block

The peace demonstrators were totally upstaged by the Black Block, described in France as “casseurs”, smashers. Unlike the non-violent protesters, they appear on video film to be having a great time, battling with police. Chances are that they may be looking back on their exploits with pride and satisfaction.

The Strasbourg disaster makes it clear that the anti-NATO movement, to survive, must deal with three problems: its own flagrant organizational weaknesses, police repression and the Black Block.

A question that goes the rounds is this: are the Black Block smashers police provocateurs? Unable to investigate this matter seriously, my own intuitive answer would be: subjectively no, objectively yes. Certainly they can’t all be police wearing black hoods. Most of them surely believe they are “fighting against capitalism”, as they proclaim. But objectively, they do the job of justifying the very police repression they combat so enthusiastically.
To err is human.  Bad intentions flourish, but error is even more common. An advanced, civilized peace movement should be able to try to apply the alternative to war – reasonable argument – in all circumstances. We should argue with people who are mistaken about NATO, to explain what is wrong with it. And we should argue with people in the Black Block, to explain what is wrong with their form of protest.

How to enter such a dialogue is not obvious. Assuming that not all of the Black Block people are police provocateurs, if I could, I would ask the presumably sincere ones to consider the following:

Black Block fighters should question their own motives. Let’s face it, throughout history, young men have enjoyed banding together to fight their enemy. Testosterone and adrenalin are not political arguments. But they are great stimulants to hurling projectiles at the armed foe. Lightly armed street fighters easily feel victorious and superior confronting masses of highly armed policemen, who look cowardly in comparison. They win the macho contest, but what good does it do except to their own egos?

Black Block fighters should question the effect they have on ordinary citizens, who may be undecided politically. NATO is a protection racket. It lives off people’s sense of insecurity. Black Block actions feed that sense of insecurity.

Black Block fighters should think about the devastating effect they have on other forms of public protest. Along with police, they are driving peaceful protesters off the streets.

Black Block fighters should reflect on how readily they are exploited by their enemy. For one thing, whether they want to admit it or not, they are almost certainly infiltrated by police agents. And they should ask themselves why some of them were allowed to smash the windows of the Ibis hotel on the Rhine island in Strasbourg, then set fire to it in a leisurely manner, while no police intervened. Moreover, the impressive fire was allowed to burn for over an hour before the fire department arrived on the scene. Didn’t the spectacle of this fire serve perfectly both to frighten and disperse the peace demonstrators and above all to fill television screens with evidence that “demonstrators are destructive”? The authorities cited the fire as proof that the heavy police presence was necessary to protect civilization from its enemies. And why set fire to an Ibis hotel? There are eight Ibis hotels in Strasbourg, and this one was perhaps the poorest. And what semi-professional means were required to set such a spectacular blaze? And why set fire to the nearby pharmacy, which was a public service to sick people in that small and relatively run-down neighborhood. What possible political message did this convey?

In short, Black Block militants, whatever their age, should grow up and realize that to combat unjust powers must be done first of all with thoughts, reasoning, facts and arguments. Playing with violence is playing their game, on the one terrain where they have all the assets. Intifada may be the only recourse for Palestinians, but in Europe there are still other ways of expressing political opposition. These other ways must be invented, explored and developed.

The year 2008 was a watershed, with two major events that changed people’s vision of the world: the financial collapse and the Israeli assault on Gaza. The repercussions, the change in vision, are ongoing. They are preparing the ground for popular opposition to the financial and military powers ruling the West and attempting, through NATO and other institutions, to extend their rule to the entire globe. There are signs that those in power are among the first to recognize this and are perfecting their repression technologies as a preventive strike against the mass protest to come. It is urgent to provide political alternatives in terms of programs and leadership. If mass demonstrations are vulnerable to police repression and spoiling actions by smashers, other more varied and flexible means must be invented to communicate with citizens and broaden a coherent movement to combat militarization and build an economy centered on people’s genuine needs. In any case, any future mass demonstration against NATO must be organized with its own protection service, wearing arm-bands and following clear instructions. Demonstrators must be protected. There can be no mixing with the “Black Block” or other groups looking for the same sort of trouble the police are looking for.

This was the urgent lesson of the Strasbourg fiasco.

Special thanks to Karen Sharpe, who experienced it all.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Monthly Review Press). She can be reached at diana.josto@yahoo.fr

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