Brief Report from Angie Zelter, from Trident Ploughshares, about the NATO-ZU camp and blockade at Strasbourg
Our UK group travelled over to Strasbourg in a mini-bus getting to the camp on Tuesday 31st March in the evening. Once at the camp we were joined by a German friend who works for nuclear disarmament of the US nuclear base at Buchel. This made 9 of us in our affinity group that we named 'Odd Socks'. Most of us knew each other and some of us had worked together before. We were members of Trident Ploughshares, CND, GAAA and other peace organisations. We found it easy and fun to work together because we had been involved in peaceful nonviolent direct action before and shared a similar philosophy. Overall we enjoyed our trip to Strasbourg, learning a lot about ourselves and our movement and cementing our important pan-European relationships. But we were also upset and disappointed about the violence of the Black Block and lack of organisation in dealing with it.
We arrived at a wonderful site on farmland on the outskirts of Strasbourg, near to the farm and some neighbouring houses. There was a tar road running along one side of the camp and a rough track along the other, so there was access into the camp at its 4 corners. The main infrastructure had been set up well with large tents and with wide tracks of thick straw dividing up the various barrios. We made our way to the NATO-ZU barrio and soon began orienting ourselves and helping out. There were food tents, clowns, musicians and jugglers and lots of protesters already camping out. I met with some other nonviolence trainers and we finalised a training agenda and decided to do the first training the next day. I was also roped into the Action Council. Others in my affinity group helped out with improving the drainage of the bio-loos, familiarised themselves with the press-tent and first-aid facilities, and went to the first plenary meetings in the large tent on the other field.
NATO-ZU was organised by consensus using a spokes-council system, where each affinity group sends a spokesperson to make decisions. While anyone could join NATO-ZU (as long as they agreed with the nonviolence guidelines), they had to join an affinity group and work within our democratic structure, through which information was communicated to all the groups. However, camped in our barrio there were lots of people who did not join the structure and who did not agree with our definition of nonviolence. Thus from the very start the barrio system did not work well. Large tents that had been brought in specifically for the spokes-councils, meetings and nonviolence trainings for NATO-ZU people started to be used by other groups. And as the days went by the large fields became more and more crowded and everyone was mixed up together.
This made the overall organisation of the camp and our NATO-ZU block extremely difficult. A well organised barrio system with decentralised decision making but where representatives from the different barrios could have met together for overall camp discussions, might have meant that the problems that emerged could have been dealt with in a more democratic, accountable and open manner. As it was lots of people had no idea what was going on. Why for instance were there groups of black dressed individuals building blockades at the 4 corners of the campsite? I certainly had no clear idea.
Two of our group joined demonstrators on Wednesday who went into Strasbourg to demonstrate against NATO and they witnessed some of the demonstrators dressed in black, hooded and masked, smashing windows and rioting. It was quite a shock for them but they managed to steer clear of the trouble and got back to camp very late. As the black block came back into camp the police followed them. The helicopters started to drone very noisily overhead, we heard sound bombs and saw tear gas. Crowds of protesters gathered at the edge of the field where the 'action' was happening. The 'black block' started building barricades. Paranoia and hysteria started to change the previously calm atmosphere of the camp.
I personally don't run into hysterical, angry crowds and I asumed it would all quieten down eventually so I decided to continue my work with my own affinity group in our preparation for the Saturday NATO-ZU blockade, or in training other groups or in the Action Council meetings. Things did quieten down but as it started to get dark one of the NATO-ZU organisers asked for help in 'de-escalating' more violence that was erupting at one of the corners of the camp. We could not ignore it any longer. Probably we should have got involved long before.
As I walked across the field to the road I could see lots of people running around the camp dressed all in black with masks over their faces – mostly young men. Arriving at the corner of the camp I saw that this 'black block', mostly young Germans, had blockaded the road with straw bales, stones and wood, had collected lots of beer bottles to throw at the police, and were shouting about 'defending' the camp. I was concerned that the local people in houses nearby would be very upset and disturbed by the noise and activities. What were they defending us against I asked. The police are going to come in and we are going to fight them, I was told. How will that help protect us I asked? I started talking to as many of the angry young people as I could, explaining that I would not feel protected by them throwing bottles and missiles at the camp and that I thought the overall agreement for the camp was that no missiles would be thrown. Yes, but not when they are coming for us, we have to defend ourselves, we will fight, they said. I suggested quietly that maybe if the police came and we did not attack them but instead just sat in the road and were quiet this might calm the situation. They mockingly laughed at us. I am sure you can imagine the conversations. Many of the young protesters were probably rather disgusted that I sounded and looked rather like their mothers.........some of them had come for a good fight and did not want to be told it was not appreciated. They started to move away, going elsewhere. By this time most of my affinity group had come out to help and other activists of all ages from the nonviolent NATO-ZU grouping took it in turns to be at this corner, throughout the night. We took all the bottles away and rolled the straw bales off the road. The police did not come in.
This happened several times during Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, mostly in the evenings as it was getting dark and as people got drunk. On Thursday morning at around 3 or 4 a.m. news reached the camp of the death of someone at the G20 demonstrations in London. Hooded black-blockers were rushing around the camp screaming about the police assassinating a protester. There was a serious push to go into Strasbourg town centre to demonstrate against police brutality in solidarity. This did not make sense to many of us when the information was incomplete and we did not really know what had happened yet, and when everyone in Strasbourg was asleep – what good would a riot in Strasbourg do? How would that show our solidarity? Meanwhile, some of the hotheads had taken over one of the plenaries where several hundred people were gathered trying to find out what was happening. Some of us joined in to try and inject a little reason and coolness into the heated calls for instant action. We succeeded in getting enough of us into the plenary to calm the atmosphere. We were just as concerned about police violence but did not think it would do anyone any good to instigate more violence.
I seemed to spend a great deal of my time at the camp worrying about what our own fellow campers/demonstrators might get up to rather than concentrating on how we could usefully demonstrate and blockade NATO. The important issues of state terrorism, nuclear proliferation, international law, expansion of NATO, our tactics for a successful blockade, were all being sidelined.
I am not sure if there were agents provocateurs at work at the camp but whether there were or not it was clear that there were a large number of people who were easily persuaded to violence, who were there for a fight with the police. I felt tired and dispirited and resentful of the black block. If we could not even work together with fellow protesters, how did we think we could solve the problems of violence in the bigger world? Nevertheless, I felt heartened by how our NATO-ZU block was working and how we managed to join with others to calm the overall atmosphere of the camp down on several occasions, providing a structure and translators and insisting that everyone had a voice.
NATO-ZU managed to organise our several hundred protesters for the blockade on Saturday morning despite all the distractions, although we would have been able to train more groups and get more blockades set up if we had not had to deal with the black block. Our nonviolence trainings (some of which were filmed by the German and French press), affinity group spokes-councils, our democratic structure worked very well. Most of us were off the site by late Friday afternoon, with places to sleep in Strasbourg or outside.
My affinity group had a little trouble, Friday afternoon, as the black block had decided to set up a burning barricade and managed to burn out several vehicles in the road. By the time we wanted to use it, it was trapped between the police lines and the black block, near to the barricade and had had its side window and a rear indicator light smashed in. We eventually got it out, cleaned it up and taped in some plastic and drove well out of Strasbourg and found a camp-site for the night. Getting up at 4.30 a.m. on Saturday morning we found our way into Strasbourg and then walked to our blockading point.
It had been agreed some time previous to the camp that 4 different blocks of people would blockade in 4 different areas and that each block would respect these areas and not come into another block's area. This was respected. This was a way for different groups, with different ways of working/different philosophies, to unite in this joint blockade. We, the NATO-ZU block, had been given the north side of the 'closed area' (the area of the conference which the police controlled and that everyone – even locals – were denied access to). All our affinity groups converged at our blockading point - a 4-lane road, one of north Strasbourg's main access routes at 7a.m. We had made it.
It was a great occasion. We shared food and bought drinks at a nearby cafe to keep everyone going and watched as coaches and cars had to be re-directed away. It was a time of quiet pleasure as we connected with our fellow blockaders. A coach load of Kurdish people from Germany had come to join in the demonstration against NATO and not been able to find their way, being stopped by police, and ended up at our blockade. Our spokes-council dealt with this well, saying they were welcome to stay as long as they would sit down when the police approached and agree to our nonviolence rules. They agreed but after an hour or so decided to walk on and try to get to the demonstration that was due to start at 12 noon.
We held our blockade nonviolently for 5 hours, until 12 noon. We gave press interviews about why NATO should be disbanded and showed our banners with their messages. The riot police and police vans kept their distance and were not provoked into violence. Our spokes-council system at the blockade worked well and we decided as a group to try to join the demonstration against NATO that was just about due to start as the NATO meeting was now well under way and we had done the most we could to block it and show our opposition. We celebrated together with a huge smiling circle over the 4-lane highway, feeling our strength and enjoying our success in holding a completely nonviolent blockade of one of the routes into the NATO conference. We had done what we had come to do.
We then walked several hours to join another blockading group trying to get to the march. We were met by Rampenplan (a great Dutch activist cooking group)with some much needed lunch. As we tried together to get to the Europa Bridge, we could see huge columns of smoke arising in the distance from where we could hear the sound bombs going off. It was not long before the riot police stormed past us in several waves, using tear gas, to take hold of the bridge. We had to move out of the tear gas and riot police charges several times and then regroup with our affinity members and with the larger group. Throughout, although some people were separated for a time, we kept calm, were treated for the gas and recovered, and continued to hold our spokes-councils until we all decided it would be easier to work separately in our smaller affinity groups. It was obvious by this time that the demonstrators from the German side would not be allowed to join with us and that the police were stopping the various strands of protesters from joining together. Some groups had had enough and wanted to get back to the camp.
My group went off to a cafe and I made my way down the road to the French side of the river, where there were loads of local people gathered to watch the scene that could have been from a film set. The riot police in black were lining the whole bridge with long lines of police vans trailing behind. Water cannon, tear gas and sound bombs were being thrown at similarly black dressed, but masked protesters who were making forays against the police lines and throwing stones and missiles. The vast majority of protesters, in coloured clothes with banners and flags, were by the riverside on the German side looking at it all.
The whole experience has made me wary of ever being in the same camp as members of the black block. We were left with our hired van smashed up by them and they all disappeared very quickly after Saturday's events, not staying to help with the cleaning and taking down of the camp.
I believe that in order to oppose successfully NATO and the continuing militarisation of our society we need to work co-operatively with many different groupings and strengthen our alliances but to do this effectively, safely and nonviolently we must ensure we all respect an agreed, transparent, democratic structure to organise our activities and the personnel to ensure it is implemented. If we cannot agree to such structures then it is probably best to organise separately and engage in different, more creative nonviolent activities that will bring in more ordinary people. I was heartened to see so many peace flags flying in Strasbourg in peoples windows. Maybe we should just have concentrated on visiting people's houses and giving them peace flags and anti-NATO banners to fly from their windows? The police could not have done anything about that nor could the black block have disrupted it.