At the beginning of April, as London preoccupied itself with the G20, and the Met was busy batoning and shoving over peaceful protestors and newspaper vendors, I travelled to Strasbourg, France, with nine other peace activists who had chosen instead to join NATO’s sixtieth birthday celebrations. Our ad hoc affinity group, “Odd Socks”, consisted of eight Brits (one Anglo-French), a German woman and two Belgian lads.
Five of us were members of the anti-nuclear nonviolent direct action group Trident Ploughshares. We were to join the NATO-ZU (Shut down NATO) coalition of nonviolent activists from across Europe taking part in the supposedly nonviolent actions of Block NATO.
Off with a bang
We arrived at Camp Ganzau, the temporary home of Block NATO in a suburb to the south of Strasbourg, late on Tuesday evening. During the evening plenary, we heard that police officers were on the camp perimeter carrying out ID checks. Livid activists rushed out to express their disapproval, to be met by sound grenades. The officers had felt intimidated at being suddenly confronted by an angry mob of masked-up and hooded anarchists. Strange that.
Camp of conspiracy
The camp operated much along the lines of the British Climate Camp. There was always a plethora of planning meetings advertised (anti-militarists seem to like meetings). I don’t recall many workshops besides nonviolent direct action training sessions run by NATO-ZU and the splendid Rebel Clown Army. Meetings had to be translated into two or three languages, which dragged them out. (They’ll be faster when everybody learns Esperanto.)
First aid briefings prepared individuals for tear gas attacks (wear goggles and mask, and douse yourself in diluted Maalox antacid). The NATO-ZU meetings operated by spokescouncil, where a representative from each affinity group attended plenaries, feeding back to and from their own groups.
During media hour each day at noon, journalists would come to the welcome tent; they were rarely allowed onto the site itself. The kitchens, meanwhile, did a great job preparing delicious vegan meals for hungry international anti-militarists/ troublemakers.
In the early hours of Thursday, an emergency plenary was called because the police in London had “assassinated” a protestor during the G20 demonstrations. An anti-repression march was held that afternoon, with up to 1000 masked-up “Black Bloc” protestors leaving a trail of destruction through the local neighbourhood – though one of the targets was an army barracks.
Anxious to avoid being locked-down inside the camp, our affinity group left early Friday evening for a municipal campsite well away from the city. We awoke very early on Saturday to find streams of riot vans leaving our campsite. Out-of-town coppers had chosen the same spot as us! Somehow we escaped their notice, and at around 7am we arrived unchallenged at the pre-arranged (secret) NATO-ZU rendezvous point.
Seven members of our group got into the middle of the road, eventually joined by over 200 NATO-ZU folk from a dozen countries, in a wholly peaceful sit-down protest. They completely blocked both carriageways of the main access road immediately to the north of the red security zone inside which NATO was meeting. The riot cops mostly kept their distance a couple of hundred yards away, and the blockade finally ended at noon through group consensus, with no arrests or police intervention.
During these five hours, news came through that other groups of 500 and 700 activists from Block NATO had managed to block other main roads into the red zone, but had suffered harsh treatment, including use of tear gas.
In the afternoon, most of NATO-ZU marched into town to join the big international demo, but were forced to retreat. Two of our group got pepper-sprayed, but were OK after on-the-spot treatment (with Maalox). All got back safely in the end.
While Strasbourg was a memorable experience, I’m not sure I would want to go through it all again in a hurry. Whilst there are those who, for the sake of unity, would have nonviolent activists form uneasy alliances with groups with no firm commitment to nonviolence, my experiences in Strasbourg have made me sceptical.
As somebody who subscribes to the Gandhian philosophy of being the change we wish to see in the world, I seek to be part of a strong movement of people with similar ideas to my own, with no desire to be associated with or the victim of aggressive or violent tactics perpetrated by “one’s own side”, whether agents provocateurs or otherwise.
I admire the peaceful tactics and discipline of Climate Camp, refusing to capitulate to violence and aggression even when confronted by brutal oppression by paramilitary agents of the state. By refusing to engage in violence under such circumstances, we expose the true brutality of the state and win the sympathy of the wider public. This, I believe, is one important road to bringing about revolutionary change through peaceful means.
The question is: are we up to the challenge?
Our minibus, parked well outside the camp at the time, was used (without our permission) by the “Black Bloc” as part of a (burning) barricade on Friday afternoon. We eventually managed to rescue our vehicle, albeit with a smashed front passenger window and some damage to an indicator light and bodywork. There is still a shortfall of £200 in repair costs that had to be paid to the hire company.
Please send donations (payable to “M. Harrison”) to Strasbourg Minibus Repair Fund, c/o Mell Harrison, Campaigns Officer, CND Eastern Region, The Flint House Dunburgh Road, Geldeston, Beccles NR34 0LL.