Nonviolent action against NATO in Lisbon

A report and evaluation of the anti NATO activities in Lisbon

- Andreas Speck, War Resisters' International

On Saturday, 20 November 2010, some 80 activists from a range of countries blockaded one of the access roads to the NATO summit in Lisbon, to protest against NATO and NATO's war in Afghanistan. Police intervened quickly, and about 45 activists were arrested, but released on the same day late in the evening and during the night.

The action was one of many actions against the NATO summit in Lisbon, but was the focus of War Resisters' International's activities for the summit. This article looks at how the action was organised against many obstacles, and argues for more nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience against NATO.

The long and difficult road to Lisbon

When Lisbon was announced as the location for the 2010 NATO summit at the Strasbourg summit in April 2009, this choice posed some problem for nonviolent direct action, but also for the international anti-NATO movement in general. No Portuguese group had previously been involved in the anti-NATO network as represented by the International Coordination Committee No to War – No to NATO (ICC), and also War Resisters' International did not have any active contact in Portugal1.

However, in May 2009 WRI established first contacts (with the help of its Spanish affiliate alternativa antimilitarista-moc), and activists from two Portuguese collectives – Luta Social2 and GAIA – set out to form a new group against NATO, the Plataforma Anti-Guerra, Anti-Nato (PAGAN)3, which was officially founded on 30 September 2009. WRI decided to invite a representative of PAGAN to its own meeting and the ICC conference in Berlin in mid-October 2009, which was the beginning of a fruitful cooperation. A first meeting of the ICC in Portugal, hosted by PAGAN, took place in Lisbon in mid-December 2009.

Although the decisions of the ICC meeting in Lisbon very much followed the model established for Strasbourg – activities would include a counter-summit, a demonstration, a camp, and actions of civil disobedience – this sometimes felt more like a wish list, and it was clear that a lot of work would be needed to make it happen.

One of the problems which could never be solved was the relationship with the Communist Party controlled Conselho Português para a Paz e Cooperação - Portuguese Council for Peace and Cooperation (CPPC)4. PAGAN invited CPPC to the December meeting of the ICC in Lisbon, but without success. Several members of the ICC also met with representatives of CPPC before and during the time of the ICC meeting in Lisbon, but without being able to come to any concrete agreement on cooperation.

From the perspective of nonviolent direct action, nothing concrete was discussed or decided in Lisbon in December 2009, besides an expression of interest to organise some form of action of civil disobedience.

Within the European Antimilitarist Network5 (which does not really have a name) a decision had been taken at the meeting in October 2009 in Berlin to focus on a nonviolent action against NATO in Lisbon, if such an action would be feasible. It was clear that this would require some base in Portugal, as a lot of the logistics had to be organised in Portugal, but also for political reasons: if only activists from outside Portugal would take direct action, this would feel awkward, almost like some form of “peace imperialism”. Thus, it was felt that it was crucial to work with Portuguese activists on a nonviolent action.

Attempts to get Portuguese activists to join a European action at AWE Aldermaston in Britain in February 2010 failed, and a next meeting of the network took place in July 2010 in the Spanish village of Jarandilla, not too far from Portugal, and with strong participation from PAGAN. At the meeting there was a long and difficult discussion on what to do in Lisbon in November 2010, but without really satisfying conclusions. Ideas such as a banner drop were discussed, but no concrete plans were made on how to make an action happen. Most of the more Northern European groups within the network felt that there was not enough basis for a larger scale mobilisation for Portugal, and decided to support an action in Portugal, but not to mobilise for Portugal. An alternative action was supposed to be organised for another place shortly before the NATO summit, but failed to materialise for a variety of reasons.

For October 2010, the ICC and PAGAN had organised an Action Conference, in parallel to an anti-NATO conference organised by the educational organisation Cooperativa Culturas do Trabalho e do Socialismo (Cultra)6, which is related to the Bloco de Ezquerda7, one of the left parties in Portugal. Shortly before the conference, the CPPC-led coalition Paz sim! NATO não! (Peace, Yes! NATO, No!)8 released a statement, condemning PAGAN and accusing them “to instrumentalize the demonstration” and of “a troubling absence of political responsibility … [which] can only be interpreted as a regrettable attempt to jeopardize the nature, goals and characteristics of the demonstration that has been convened by the «Peace, Yes!; NATO, No!» Campaign9.

This statement marked an escalation of the conflict between PAGAN and the ICC on one side, and the CPPC organised Paz sim! NATO não! coalition. It was not a coincidence that the statement was released just two days before the Action Conference and a meeting of the ICC in Lisbon. Attempts by former WRI Council member and former MEP Tobias Pflüger, who had worked closely with the Portuguese Communist Party during his time in the European Parliament, also failed.

Nevertheless, the discussion during the Action Conference were constructive, and activists from Vredesactie/Bombspotting and WRI also did a nonviolence training in parallel to the Cultra event, which linked in with the discussion on a nonviolent direct action during the NATO summit at the Action Conference. Finally, a decision was made that the action would be a blockade of one of the access roads to the summit, but that there would not be a public mobilisation for the action. The need for some sort of “action camp” was also stressed again, and some activists linked to the network of Rhythms of Resistance10 in Portugal took on the task of trying to find a suitable place.

In the weeks that followed PAGAN was repeatedly accused of preparing for violent action in the Portuguese media, and at least one of the articles also mentioned War Resisters' International and Bombspotting together with the 'Black Block'11.


The week before the summit

Less than two weeks before the summit finally a suitable “action camp” was organised – a warehouse in the Poço do Bispo neighbourhood of Lisbon. Also, nearby a place for a nonviolence training had been organised – thus some of the required infrastructure to prepare for an action was finally in place.

From Monday on international activists began to arrive in Lisbon, to avoid the re-imposition of border controls due to the suspension of the Schengen agreement from Tuesday, 16 November on. A lot of work still needed doing: more scouting, to decide on a place for the action, and to work out a scenario, which would include how to get there. A training and a training agenda had to be organised, including a public show training for Thursday, which was meant to counter the accusations of preparing for violence in a visible and convincing way. And – people also started to do small actions, including clowning and samba.

I myself arrived on Wednesday evening, sneaking through in spite of border controls. Already on the coach from Madrid to Lisbon I received the news that Lucas Wirl, an organiser of the ICC, had been denied entry to Portugal, and was being deported back from Lisbon to Berlin. Later that evening, more news about people being denied entry arrived: a coach of 35 activists of WRI's Finnish section Aseistakieltäytyjäliitto (Union of Conscientious Objectors)12, two activists from aa-moc in Spain, five French activists... the list grew longer by the hour, and the picture that emerged was that nonviolent activists were denied entry.

Worried about our friends, we continued the planning of the action. The public training on Praça do Rossio13 in the centre of Lisbon on Thursday afternoon received an unprecedented and very impressive media attention – the media probably outnumbered the people taking part in the public training. A few hours later, at 18.30pm, a “flash mob” in the form of a die-in took place at Rossio train station near by, although with a lot of media present.

One of the successes of these activities was that the tone in the Portuguese media changed. While there was still some talk about an imaginary 'Black Block', the emphasis shifted to civil disobedience, which – however – was not yet really understood14. Still – the message that we were seriously preparing for a nonviolent action of civil disobedience did come across, and in the future questions on violence focused on “how do you make sure that other people don't use violence?”

Another consequence of the media coverage after the actions of Thursday was a new statement from the Paz sim! NATO não! Coalition, even sharper in tone. It accused PAGAN, WRI, and the ICC of “a shameful and intentional attitude of pure political parasitism”, and again condemned civil disobedience: “[The Coalition] clarifies, once again, that it disagrees with, and distances itself from, the so-called «actions of civil disobedience» which seek nothing other than providing media time to initiatives, and above all, to organizations without any significant roots in Portuguese society, as is the case of PAGAN, or which, as is the case of the ICC, act in clear disrespect of the peace, social and popular movements of Portugal15. How sectarian can it get?

Friday was meant to be the day of training for the action, but a lot of things still had to be decided and prepared. The group working on the scenario for the action was working hard to work out a plan. The training took place in the afternoon – one Spanish speaking group, and two more or less international groups with Portuguese participation. In one of these groups suspicions about police infiltration came up, and it was decided not to go into details of the action scenario during the training. The training was followed by a legal briefing.

On Friday late at night, the affinity groups received their briefing on the action scenario, and final adjustments were made. It was also decided that groups should – where possible – stay elsewhere at night, or leave early in the morning and don't go directly to the place of the actions.

Last changes were made to the press release, and the SMS distribution list to invite selected press to a meeting point close to the action was finalised. Long after midnight, everything was finally ready for the action.


The action: NATO – Game over

We stayed the night over at the camp, but had decided to leave at 6:30am, to have breakfast in the centre of Lisbon somewhere. The action was supposed to start at 9am, with each affinity group making its own way to the agreed place.

The plan was to blockade Avenida de Padua, one of the access roads to the NATO summit, at the junction with Avenida Infante Dom Henrique16, very close to Cabo Ruivo metro station. At 8am an SMS was sent to the selected press, inviting them to the meeting point near by for 8:50am. We decided to go by metro, but had to get off in between and let several trains pass, as we were too early. Finally, we took a train and arrived at Cabo Ruivo station at 8:55am.

When we got out of the metro station, we saw only very few people at a bus stop near by. Walking down Avenida de Padua, a police car passed by. Shortly before 9am, people arrived from all directions and hiding places and got onto the junction. Quickly, bicycle locks were put into place to lock people together on their feet, and within a short time the road and part of Dom Henrique were blocked. At almost the same time, the first TV camera teams arrived. In the middle of the junction, the aa-moc activists dressed in suits poured red painted over themselves, and then lay down in the “blood”. We had made it, and had successfully established our blockade.

Within minutes, police arrived. Attempts of the police liaison team to establish contact and talk with the police were not very successful. Quickly, the police moved in to remove the partly locked-on protesters from the road, moving those locked-on together – a very dangerous operation, which could have resulted in broken legs. Other protesters were pushed to the side – there was no clear criteria who was to be arrested and who not from those who were not locked-on and blockading the road.

Police was also not very careful when removing the lock-ons or bicycle locks – if they had been trained, then certainly not to any health and safety standards. Luckily, in spite of the police's dangerous attempts to cut through locks, nobody got injured.

Within about one hour, the blockade was cleared, and 45 activists had been detained and transported to the police station. Nevertheless, everyone (who was not arrested) felt that the action had been a success.


After the action

Those not arrested decided to make their way as a group to the counter-summit, and to discuss there what to do next, and how we could support those that got arrested. Meanwhile, the legal team was in contact with a lawyer who was attempting to get access to those arrested.

After some discussion within the group at the counter-summit, we went together to Monsanto, where the police station is located, to wait for the release of those arrested. It was quite interesting, as you could see people being brought from the cell tract to another building for interrogation, and we cheered them on whenever that happened.

For a long time it wasn't clear whether people would be released on the same day, or would stay in detention until Monday, to be brought before the court. Only at 5pm in the afternoon the lawyer for the first time got access to the detained. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the police station was good, and people did not let themselves be intimidated by the police.

In the evening police started to release people, and every time people got out of the police station, there were welcomed with applause and loud cheering. Shortly after midnight, the last person left the police station, and we finally could go to sleep or party.

On Saturday afternoon, also the demonstration organised by the CPPC-led Paz sim! NATO não! campaign took place. Unfortunately, initial agreements about participation and speakers from the ICC did not hold (which had been clear at latest after the October declaration of the campaign), and even worse, the Paz sim! NATO não! campaign had announced publicly before that members of PAGAN would not be welcome at the demonstration. Reiner Braun, a member of the ICC who went to the demonstration, described this as follows: “The inglorious climax of their sectarian policy was the joint action with the police to exclude other left forces from the demonstration. Only thanks to the wise and always open conduct of the international anti-NATO-coalition an escalation of the situation could be avoided, so that public attention focused on the common rejection of NATO.17

According to the Paz sim! NATO não! campaign18, about 30,000 people took part in this anti-NATO demonstration.


Lessons learned

When we went to Portugal the first time, in December 2009, we probably underestimated the complexities of the political situation within the Portuguese left and anti-war movement. While we were aware that there was fierce competition between two left parties – the Communist Party, which also has a base in the Portuguese trade unions, and played an important role in the “revolution” of 1974, and the new Bloco de Ezquera, more an electoral party than a party with a strong local base in the communities – we probably did underestimate how much impact this would have on the joint organising of activities against the NATO summit.

Problematic was especially the role of the Communist Party, and its front organisation, the Conselho Português para a Paz e Cooperação (CPPC). Being used to a quasi hegemonic role within the Portuguese left, they were unable to adjust to the new times and to accept that with PAGAN there was an independent coalition against NATO, which they were unable to control.

I guess in such a complex situation, a bit more transparency also from our side about who is organising what might have helped to avoid some of the misperceptions and escalations. While neither the ICC nor anyone else ever tried to hide the fact that the demonstration was organised by the CPPC-led Paz sim! NATO não! campaign, we also did not make this very visible in our publicity – mostly to avoid to make the split within the movement publicly visible. Internally, but also, whenever asked, publicly, there was never a doubt that the ICC did not organise the demonstration, and it did not try to claim otherwise. Given the display of sectarianism we witnessed, it is however doubtful if this would have made a difference.

I want to focus my evaluation on the actions of civil disobedience, however, because these were the focus of WRI's activity in Lisbon.

First of all, it is probably right to say that everyone involved felt that the actions went well, and was successful. On several levels, we achieved our objectives:

  • we managed to blockade one of the access roads to the NATO summit for about one hour in total

  • we managed to get publicity for the action itself, but also for the reasons for action: NATO, the war in Afghanistan, etc

  • we managed to do an action in Portugal, with Portuguese participation, which can serve as a point of reference and as an inspiration for future nonviolent actions in Portugal.

However, while the outcome was good, there are some lessons to be learned regarding the process of preparation. All of the following needs to be viewed in the light of the short time frame (one months since the decision for a blockade was made in Lisbon in October 2010), and the problems of communication between activists based in different countries – most communication had to be by email, and not everyone was able to communicate securely via encrypted email. An additional complication was that only about one week before our arrival it became clear that there would be a 'camp'.

One of the main problems was that none of the core organising groups did spend much time before arriving in Lisbon on thinking about and discussing our own structure in the days of preparation. This was not discussed during the action conference in October 2010 in Lisbon (there was no time left), and that was the last face-to-face meeting before November.

In practice, that meant structures were improvised as we went along. While affinity groups were formed in the camp, there was no clear understanding about the relationship between the camp structures and the structures for the action, and the preparation of the action.

In the end, a scenario group was formed by the main organising groups (CAGA – formerly PAGAN Porto, WRI, Vredesactie, aa-moc), which did work on the scenario for the action, and in the end did brief affinity groups. However, there was never a spokescouncil of affinity groups, which would have given a mandate to the scenario group, nor was the scenario ever discussed in the spokescouncil and the affinity groups.

For me, this means that for future actions we should spend more time in advance on discussing not just the action, but also our own structures, so that we can make sure that they reflect our ideas of participatory planning and grassroots democracy. We know from our own past experience – for example in Strasbourg in 2009 – that we can organise large-scale nonviolent direct action in a participatory way, relying on tested concepts such as a spokescouncil. But this requires to spend time and energy on our structures, and not only on the action itself. Maybe in Lisbon it would have been too much to ask for, but it is an important aspect to keep in mind.


We need more nonviolent action

Not only Strasbourg 2009 and Lisbon 2010 show that the international anti-NATO movement needs more nonviolent action – and not only during a NATO summit. In terms of summit actions, in Strasbourg the only place without violent confrontations (in spite of violence from the police) were the actions of civil disobedience, and in Lisbon it were also the public training and the action of civil disobedience itself which diffused the accusations of violence, and also contributed a lot to the public impact the totality of the actions against NATO had (including the demonstration organised by the Paz sim! NATO não! campaign).

But nonviolent action should not be limited to protests against NATO summits. If the anti NATO movement wants to be a force to be taken serious, it needs to develop more protest practice in between summits, on a local, regional, national, and continental level. While summits are important points for a crystallisation of protests, where we all come together and do actions together – or at least coordinate our actions together – the strength of a movement lies in its day-to-day activities, which should range from information to nonviolent direct action.

Within the international anti-NATO movement, there are a range of organisations with a lot of experience in nonviolent action and civil disobedience, but also many organisation with no experience whatsoever, and even with reservations about the use of nonviolent action.

The action in Lisbon showed that it is possible to overcome many obstacles in the preparation of an action of civil disobedience if everyone involved is committed to it. I think we need more openness from those sceptical about nonviolent action for these forms of action, and more openness on the side of experienced NVDA activists in sharing their experience, but also in working with groups and organisation with little and no experience, but willing to learn.

As a movement, we can only grow from this exchange. I hope that in Dublin in April, at the anti-NATO conference, we can discuss as a movement about the role of nonviolent action within the anti-NATO movement, and how we can strengthen and expand nonviolent action.


Andreas Speck is on the staff of War Resisters' International, and a member of the International Coordination Committee No to War – No to NATO (ICC).


Notes

1Although WRI officially has an Associate in Portugal – the Associação Livre dos Objectores e Objectoras de Consciência (ALOOC), it has not been possible to re-establish contact, or to verify whether ALOOC actually still exists.

9Statement by the «Yes to Peace!; No to NATO!» Campaign, 13 October 2010, http://www.pazsimnatonao.org/en/2010/10/14/statement-by-the-%C2%AByes-to-peace-no-to-nato%C2%BB-campaign/

11Polícia receia desordeiros internacionais na Cimeira da NATO, SOL/Sapo.pt, 12 November 2010, http://sol.sapo.pt/inicio/Sociedade/Interior.aspx?content_id=4186

12See: Finnish Peace Activists Denied Entry to Portugal, 18 November 2010, http://wri-irg.org/node/11684

13See for the invitation: http://wri-irg.org/node/11680

14See for example: A crise também chegou ao black bloc e toda a desobediência será pacífica, El Publico, 19 November 2010, http://www.publico.pt/Mundo/a-crise-tambem-chegou-ao-black-bloc-e-toda-a-desobediencia-sera-pacifica_1467051

15Let the truth be known!, Statement by the “Peace Yes! NATO no!” Campaign, 18 November 2010, http://www.pazsimnatonao.org/en/2010/11/19/let-the-truth-be-known/

17Reiner Braun: Information on the new NATO Strategy and report on the actions of the peace movement on the occasion of the NATO summit in Lisbon on November 19th – 21st, 2010, 13 December 2010, via ICC email list.

18PSNN! Mais de 30000! Grande Manifestação “Paz Sim! NATO Não!”!, 20 November 2010, http://www.pazsimnatonao.org/2010/11/20/mais-de-30000-grande-manifestacao-paz-sim-nato-nao/