Monday, 6 April 2009

l'Agents Provocateurs

The march against NATO left the International Village of Resistance at about 10 Saturday morning, starting (I think) with a block from one of the French Communist Parties. Our coachload was sandwiched to begin with between a Die Linke delegation and the comrades from London (with whom we stuck tight for the whole demo, thanks largely to Geoff's Manchester Trades Council banner, which was very visible and served beautifully as a rallying point for the British group...and also possibly as our lifeline against police brutality, which I'll come back to later). I shared the banner with Geoff initially, and continued to do so for most of the demo.

There was nothing particularly reportable for the first hour or so - other than maybe the chanting, in several languages including English ("one solution - revolution", "how many kids have you killed today?", etc), French (mostly protest songs which I unfortunately didn't have the linguistic skill to follow rather than chants, including the Internationale at one point), German ("hoch die internazionale solidaritie", "nein zum krieg - nein zur NATO", etc) and (surprisingly, given the apparent lack of Spanish comrades in the demo) Spanish ("a-anti-anticapitalista" and "[insert politician name] - terrorista") - until we reached a fork in the road with the Vaubaun bridge to the right, towards which the march turned and somewhere across which I therefore naturally assumed the NATO summit was being held, and the road into central Strasbourg (where the summit was actually being held) to the left with several ranks of CRS riot police across it.

There was a tram platform a few minutes march towards the bridge, at which two members of the black block climbed the shelter to break down the unusually overt (by British standards anyway, it could be normal in France for all I know) CCTV cameras on top, to a roar of enthusiastic approval from the crowd. About half an hour later, at the peak of the bridge, the front ranks of the march encountered another CRS blockade (and I later discovered that the route over the bridge they blockaded had been confirmed with the state enforcement apparatus only the day before, so there was no excuse even by the standards of SOCPA in Britain), whose perpetrators showed the aggressiveness of their style of enforcement by throwing tear gas canisters at any demonstrators who approached them. It was around this time as well, I think, that police helicopters started to appear - at least, it wasn't long after when they started raining tear gas down indiscriminately on the procession as a whole...and the gas used by the CRS turned out to be a far stronger strain than I had experienced on demonstrations in Britain. There was a certain amount of panic, initially, with people running in all directions away from falling gas canisters, resulting in injuries from collisions etc, but this was quickly overcome and people began to be more calm in their retreat from the gas, at least in our part of the column, thanks in large part to Andy's initiative in rallying people around our banner. After awhile, the cops were pushed back, and eventually the line was broken completely - I cannot underestimate the role played by the black block in this initial victory.

Another hour or so further down the road, the front ranks of the marchers turned into...a car park. A very large, gravely car park, with a heavy, lockable metal gate and surrounded by high concrete walls. For a moment, I wondered if some of those leading the march were police infiltrators and we were being herded into a remote car park away from the eyes of the public and the media to be riddled full of bullets by the helicopters which still hovered above - but then I saw the stage at the far end, and realised this was the site of the rally and concert I had thought was supposed to be held outside the actual NATO summit, and that the NPA or whoever had organised the demo were just really, really bad at negotiating with the police.

After about two hours worth of speeches and music, a plume of smoke appeared over the wall, followed within another hour or so by another, and two or three more. Later research has uncovered that the buildings on fire included a border control station (most definitely a legitimate target), a hotel (which was part of a chain, and which there are rumours was at the time being used solely as a staging post for CRS personnel shipped in from other cities - but I haven't seen anything to confirm or discredit that claim yet, so it may or may not have been a legitimate target) and a local chemist (not a legitimate target) right next to a block of housing inhabited by ordinary people (precisely the sort of thing a black block should be protecting). So I believe it was around this time that the black block fell victim to infiltration by police provocateurs, with the dual aim as always of reinforcing the stereotype of activists and particularly anarchists and black block-ists as nothing more than violent nihilists with an insatiable desire to "smash shit up", and to drive a wedge between the black block and the rest of the demonstration when they were later reunited.

After about another hour, a speaker (it might have been Bianca Jagger, but I don't remember entirely clearly) was interrupted by the advance of dozens of CRS grunts into the car park, preceded as always by volleys of tear gas shot from the ever-present helicopters, and we were forced to abandon the rally and retreat from the car park.

An hour of marching, made interesting by the parcels of tear gas intermittently delivered by those delightful pigs, and during which I think it was that most of the black block - plus some newcomers, unbeknownst to the rest of us and presumably to the other black block-ists as well - rejoined the main demonstration, took us back to the bridge, which the riot squad prevented us from crossing again - and those at the front of the march must not have been aware, just as I wasn't, that the road they were directed onto was a dead end, with no second bridge to be found further along.

There was a post office around half a mile up the road, at which half a dozen black block-ists - who I noticed were all wearing identical boots, which I discovered yesterday by coming face-to-face with two seperate groups of squaddies who stopped and searched us on the way to the rendezvous with the coach back to Manchester were CRS-issue - spontaneously took offence, and took crowbars to its windows and doors; I considered trying to pull them away... what stopped me was the fear that if they retaliated it might start a conflagration within the demonstration (in hindsight, that was probably what they were hoping for, although I hadn't realised they were police agents yet at that time - I made a judgement call by refraining from intervening, and I suppose it was the right one). Further along the road, a group of black block nihilists - and it should be noted that while just enough token nihilists to lend credit to the stereotypes are an inevitability in any black block, they had no doubt become more influential because of the actions and presence of the police infiltrators - and probably some of the police agents sustained their attack on public services, unity between demonstrators, and the media image of activists by completely wrecking several bus stops, and apparently (again, according to research done since returning to Britain) smash the windscreen of a passing car. Any genuine anarchists left in the black block at that time presumably broke with it and either left or took off their black jackets and masks and dissolved into the demonstration - everything the black block was doing by then was cynical at best, perhaps even explicitly counter-revolutionary, and I can't imagine any anarchist wanting to be associated or complicit with it.

Later, after provoking the CRS and forcing us into a position where we had the river on one side and the falling tear gas on the other (flanked by a barbed wire fence and a pile of rusty train tracks), the "black block" - if it could still be called a black block, which is supposed to defend demonstrators from police harrassment, not manipulate them into a potentially lethal situation - disappeared into the industrial estate outside which we had become trapped; one comrade from our group picked up a glove a black block-ist had dropped in his flight, which would turn out tomorrow to also be CRS-issue. We eventually managed to negotiate our release from the cul de sac into which we had been herded, thanks largely to Geoff's trade union banner - the trade unions being so much more powerful in France, of course, the idea that they might be exposed as assaulting official trade union delegates struck real fear into the CRS officers - although the route they forced us to walk back to the campsite was quite literally several miles out of the way; ironic, I think they wanted to deter us from coming back, but...well, I don't know about anyone else, but having experienced the peculiarity and severity of the repression the French state engages in only makes me more determined to aid in its overthrow.

Clarification 21/05/2009: there were actually some Spaniards there, because I remember seeing CNT flags now, but I only saw a small group of CNT people as far as I know and I didn't see any sign of anyother Spanish organisation, so I'm not sure if they were there in any significant numbers like the delegations from other European countries.