According to the NATO Welcoming Committee’s website, at 10.30am on 13 November, text message alerts would be sent out disclosing a “secret” meeting place, from which we would march towards the NATO parliamentary assembly in Edinburgh.
By 10.45am, I’d made it to Edinburgh’s Forest Café, which was providing the convergence space for the event. These “closed” meeting tactics – the pre-planned action, text message alerts and a small hive of activity directing the bigger picture – had been adopted on the basis of widespread security concerns.
As one person put it: “I think in these circumstances it makes sense to have a closed process. The police are pretty interested in who is organising and while there is quite a potential for repression it’s important to be working around people you trust. I think this is unfortunate, but necessary.” However, it wasn’t clear that security had been maintained, despite the effort to which people had gone.
The secret location, on the west side of Edinburgh’s Meadows, was revealed to me in person after the texting system was finally pronounced dead. And it was overrun with police as the select group of protestors from the cafe arrived. It quickly became a site of conflict.
Earlier, I had asked organisers about how they accounted for some of the controversial imagery in the anti-NATO propaganda. Stickers showing smashed glass, vandalised cars and so on had been popping up around Edinburgh, prompting some concern about the confrontational attitude that was being adopted.
The accounts differed. Some, for example, had stated that they didn’t see the imagery as violent at all, saying: “Property destruction isn’t violent. If you’re destroying an object of war to prevent the inevitable suffering that it would inflict, I do not think that that is in any way violent.”
Others indicated the massive violence that characterised the capitalist world that we live in, and argued that violence was therefore hardly uncalled for, stating that: “... while I don’t think violence is a good thing, I think we need to use force sometimes to make the world a better place.”
Back in the Meadows, 30040 masked protestors, flanked by assorted onlookers, attempted to lead a sound system (playing music by Rage Against the Machine, like a giant iProtest) through a line of cops, which quickly turned into a scuffle.
After a good half an hour of to-ing and fro-ing, by which point it was 11.30am, the only victim of severe violence in sight was the activist sound-system. Whether or not the wounds inflicted are merely cosmetic is not yet known.
After a couple of roughly handled searches and un-maskings (the police, we were told, had put in a Section 60 covering the whole area, although this hasn’t been confirmed by their press office) people began to dissipate back to the Forest Café, with a small contingent heading along to the conference centre.
By this point I had been asked five or six times what “the plan” was and, for all the wonderful rhetoric that autonomous organising inspires, it was becoming clear that with no real sense of purpose around that people were becoming unstuck from the demonstration. Nonetheless, after a short break, a slightly diminished group of protesters made their way to the conference centre to join the others.
In explaining the purpose of the demonstration, a common sentiment had been “mobilisation” and “bringing together” the anti-militarist movement that was developing in the UK. As one organiser had said: “We’re not naïve. We understand that stopping the summit is incredibly difficult... but I’m looking at this as purely a way of bringing together anti-militarists from Britain and building on the current movement.”
Pointless and boring
Despite these grandiose hopes, what happened after the protest re-convened at the summit was more akin to a street gathering that lacked any real focus. As time wore on and more people, some of whom by this point had been texted, began to wonder out loud what was going on, things descended into the familiar dance of activists complaining about cops, police alternating between boredom and pointless crowd control techniques and some enthusiastic activists posing for press photographs and firing their disdain at those who refused to be snapped.
By about 3pm, the delegates had left, accompanied by considerable shouting at their tinted bus windows, prompting the police for the most part to go home and the activists to disperse. Overall, it’s difficult to summarise the impact of the day.
While some people certainly did come together to get the Anti-Militarist Network’s founding project off the ground, only time will tell if the demonstration will be a learning experience for the movement or simply dissipate what enthusiasm remains for anti-war activism.
The Anti-Militarist Network will have a workshop on this topic at the Peace News Winter Gathering in Nottingham, 15-17 January.