Despite the Violence, Peace Broke Out: Reflections on the Nonviolent Blockades of NATO in Strasbourg
Andreas Speck is a staffperson with War Resisters International in London, England, www.wri-irg.org.
Final preparations for the nonviolent blockades to protest NATO's violence during the 60th anniversary summit started in the camp in the rue de la Ganzau, to the south of Strasbourg. The camp was the base for a wide range of activists, from pacifists to the so-called "black block" (not at all a homogeneous grouping), and many people who did not have any clear affiliation.
In the camp, the NATO-ZU/Shut down NATO (an international nonviolent initiative co-founded by War Resisters' International) and the Block-NATO coalition (of which NATO-ZU is a member) had our own "barrio," where every day at least three nonviolence training sessions took place, affinity groups [of between 5-15 people] were formed, the representatives of affinity groups met in spokes-councils [in which each participating affinity group selects a spokesperson to attend a decision-making meeting], and in general all the planning and preparation for the blockades happened.
The Success of the Nonviolent Blockades
Early in the morning, at 3 am on April 4, 2009, Block-NATO affinity groups left the camp and tried to reach the publicly announced meeting point at the university, in the south of the city. Without warning they were attacked by police with tear gas, but managed to withdraw and bypass the police, clearly avoiding any confrontation. Other groups went directly to the university, where they were also attacked by police with tear gas.
The affinity groups of NATO-ZU/Shut down NATO tried a different tactic. We did not have a public meeting point, but had decided that each affinity group would make its own way to the blockading point (on the northern access road to the Palais de Musique et de Congres, where the NATO summit took place). We planned to converge at 7 am sharp. We did not encounter any police, and 200 of us reached the blockading point on the Avenue Pierre Mendez France without any problems. We established the blockade without any interference by police. At 7:05 am, the message went out that NATO-ZU/Shut down NATO coalition was blockading the northern access road to the NATO summit.
Later in the morning, the groups of Block-NATO affinity groups also managed to establish two successful nonviolent blockades (each with about 500 people participating) in the inner city. While the two inner-city blockades were initially attacked by police with tear gas, the situation calmed down after a while and the police relaxed too.
The atmosphere in the blockades was relaxed, and joyful. We did it! After all the discussions of the days before we had not really expected to be able to establish blockades, and even less to be blockading for hours. Everyone was prepared to be cleared away by police using tear gas within minutes, but in the end we ourselves decided to end the blockade around noon. At this point the spokes-councils decided to end the blockades and join the larger planned legal demonstration. We thus demonstrated our autonomy, not leaving the decision to the police.
The Legal "Demonstration"
NATO-ZU/Shut down NATO ended its blockade at noon with a small ritual. We then began the long walk to the port area of Strasbourg, where the demonstration was supposed to start, bypassing the security zones. However, when we got closer, we saw black smoke in the sky coming from what we assumed was the Europa bridge over the Rhine, which links Strasbourg on the French side with Kehl in Germany, and over which a feeder demonstration from Germany was supposed to come. When we got to the Pont d'Anvers, leading to the port area, we first made a stop at van of the kitchen collective Rampenplan, which was waiting for us with some food.
While we were eating, police arrived in force and drove onto the Pont d'Anvers, spraying pepper spray from their vans. We quickly withdrew further away, and soon after called for a spokes-council to check if all affinity groups were okay.
The police presence prevented us from joining the planned demonstration (which ended in chaos after the police attack), and after a while the affinity groups decided to call it a day.
The nonviolent blockades of Block-NATO and NATO-ZU/Shut down NATO showed that even with tensions running high, with police and some demonstrators engaging in violence, it was still possible to disrupt the NATO summit through nonviolent civil disobedience. According to a report in the Badener Zeitung, the blockades led to the diversion of a convoy of the heads of state.
While later in the day violence erupted in the port area of Strasbourg, where the international demonstration was taking place, the careful preparation of the blockades ensured that there was no violence from the side of the nonviolently blockading activists.
Communication with the Black Block is Necessary
I heard some self-criticism from members of the Black Block, clearly saying that things went too far. I also saw some Black Block members trying to de-escalate violent confrontations at times. My own impression is that those of us who are advocates of nonviolent demonstrations need to keep communication channels open with elements of the Black Block that are open to talking. Perhaps, together, we can critically reflect on what happened in Strasbourg. The purpose would not be try to convert Black Block members to pacifism, but to try to come to some tactical agreements. It is sometimes possible to derive agreements to safeguard the safety of participants (not always, but often).
I also think we need to seriously think about how we can deescalate violence in our large-scale demonstrations. Clearly, the traditional system of stewards [Editor's note: in the US we'd say peacekeepers] cannot cope with this kind of large-scale escalation. We might need to prepare affinity groups, trained in de-escalation, that are willing to nonviolently intervene between police lines and violent demonstrators in an attempt to physically separate them. I don't know if this could work. Certainly it will require much more thought.
I left Strasbourg on Sunday sad about the
violence of Saturday afternoon, but also pleased with what we
- as Block NATO and NATO-ZU/Shut down NATO ñ were able
to achieve through our nonviolent civil disobedience.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more on the nonviolence programs of WRI,
including the war profiteer of the month, see www.wri-irg.org/programmes/nvp.
For info on NATO protests, www.wri-irg.org/node/7275, www.wri-irg.org/node/7162, www.wri-irg.org/es/node/7199