Strasbourg – The organiser's viewpoint

IssueJune 2009
Feature by Andreas Speck

After several meetings, including one at the European Social Forum in Malmö, Sweden in September last year, the International Coordination Committee No-to-NATO 2009 (ICC) was officially formed at a conference in Stuttgart, Germany over the weekend of 4-5 October 2008. We agreed four main aspects: an international demonstration in Strasbourg on 4 April, a counter-conference, civil disobedience, and a camp (called a “village” by the French).

The French groups participating in the ICC worried that the civil disobedience would put the demonstration at risk, and would lead to violence. The difficult compromise reached was that the ICC would not itself organise civil disobedience, but that such actions would be part of the overall activities. Similarly, the camp was mainly organised by an autonomous French-German camp group, with little connection to the ICC.


In February 2009, at an Activist Conference in Strasbourg, it was finally possible to form a loose coalition called “Block NATO” for the planned civil disobedience in Strasbourg. Block NATO consisted mainly of the German left groups Interventionist Left (a post-autonomous network) and solid (a Socialist youth organisation), the French Desobeissants, and the international nonviolent coalition NATO-ZU, which included War Resisters’ International, the Belgian organisation Vredesactie, and several German nonviolent and peace movement organisations.

Most of the preparation by Block NATO focused on the blockades themselves, with little discussion, for example, about how Block NATO would get involved with the camp as a whole. (Block NATO had its own barrio or neighbourhood, where training, planning and preparation for the blockades happened.) Block NATO also had no plan or structure for dealing with the violent escalations that arose between the police and some people in the camp. While we did intervene – partly successfully – this tended to be late and unplanned.

Communication problems

One participant was the “Black Bloc” – not an organisation, but rather a tactic used by a variety of loosely-connected anti-authoritarian groups. Some groups within the ICC (especially Block-NATO) engaged in dialogue – with some success – with these “autonoms”.

Problems with authorities

Agreement with the authorities in Strasbourg about the conditions for the camp was reached only a week before it was due to begin. The contract was signed by the ICC, as the camp organising group did not want to enter into any formal agreement. Agreement was not reached about the route of the demonstration, only about the assembly point. The authorities insisted on a route that avoided the centre of Strasbourg – unacceptable for the organisers.

In retrospect, it almost looks like the French authorities wanted violence to happen in Strasbourg. On the other hand, while it is clear that there were plenty of agent provocateurs, there were enough people happy to use violence among the demonstrators.


Violent confrontation was predictable, but the level and randomness of the violence was shocking for most people. Luckily, quite a bit of criticism has come from groups which can be considered part of the “Black Bloc” culture.

I see three related and mutually-reinforcing sets of problems in Strasbourg:
* A strategy of militant confrontation pursued by “autonomous” groups which rely on anonymity. Other activists are used, unasked and unwillingly, to provide cover;
* The violence of the impoverished French suburbs, which became mixed with the autonoms, but which has little in the way of political objectives;
* The use of agents provocateurs by the state, made easier by the anonymity and the mishmash described above.

Regardless of who exactly was responsible for what, this kind of situation forces social movements – in the case of Strasbourg the anti-war and peace movement – into violent confrontation with the police, a confrontation which they can only lose.

For pacifists, it will be important to respond to these problems. One solution might be to organise on our own. However, the danger is that this leads to isolation and self-marginalisation. The other option is to engage with the different strands of the movement, including with the “Black Bloc”, to reach practical and tactical agreements.

One of the main lessons of Strasbourg is that radical pacifists and radical nonviolent organisers need to communicate more: with the “Black Bloc”, with people taking on certain tasks (such as organising a camp), with the mainstream peace and anti-war organisations.