[Marxism] Diana Johnstone takes on the fucking god-damned Black Block

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 7 13:45:29 MDT 2009

Counterpunch, April 7, 2009
Ingredients for a Disaster
NATO, Strasbourg and the Black Block


NATO creates threats wherever it goes. That is its business. Whether in 
Afghanistan or in Strasbourg, the foreign military presence provokes 
violent rebellion, especially from young men who feel challenged. Their 
violent rebellion is cited to justify an increase in repressive 
violence. And so it goes…

This cycle of violence was played out last Saturday, April 4, in 
Strasbourg, where thousands of police and a small number of Black Block 
street fighters stole the show from what should have been the launching 
of a new European mass movement against NATO war policy. The peace 
demonstration was squashed and disintegrated by armed police as 
black-hooded youths threw stones and set fires.

In this cycle of provocation, there is no doubt who started it: NATO. 
The lavish celebration of NATO’s 60th anniversary, held in the Rhineland 
cities of Strasbourg, Kehl and Baden Baden over the weekend, was an 
insult to the citizens. After all, if President Obama and the other 
leaders of the self-proclaimed free world of democracies are so popular, 
why must their host cities be turned into heavily armed fortresses to 
receive them? If Europeans welcome NATO protection, why must they be 
held at gunpoint miles away from their benefactors? But of course NATO 
is not a defense force. From the bombing of Serbia ten years ago to 
Afghanistan today, NATO has been progressively transformed into a 
foreign expeditionary force. The draconian security measures clamped 
onto three peaceful, conservative European cities, which confined people 
to their homes, resembled a foreign occupation. Despite the momentary 
popularity of Obama, the NATO summit illustrated the drastic and growing 
gap between ordinary people and their leaders. A great salesman, Obama 
tried to persuade Europeans that they are even more endangered by Osama 
bin Laden and Al Qaeda than Americans, and should pay their tribute in 
tax money and soldiers to eradicate this threat off somewhere in distant 
Afghanistan, or is it Pakistan, or who know where? European media 
largely evaded this embarrassingly absurd notion by concentrating on 
what Michelle Obama was wearing. But tens of thousands of European 
citizens made their way to Strasbourg hoping to register their 
disagreement. They had arguments they wanted to make heard. They ended 
up being tear-gassed, herded into pens and terrified. Many of them will 
probably never venture into a mass demonstration again.

Responsibility for a Fiasco

The responsibility for this fiasco is threefold. The most responsible 
are, of course, the security forces which are getting nastier and 
nastier all over Europe in their treatment of demonstrations. With 
helicopters hovering noisily overhead, phalanxes of helmeted police 
"kettled" people into small, separated spaces, sometimes surrounded by 
metal fencing from which escape is impossible. It amounts to treating 
people like cattle destined for the slaughter-house. Groups that had 
planned to get together were unable to find each other. Well over ten 
thousand police employed an arsenal of up-to-date anti-personnel weapons 
against a similar number of defenseless demonstrators, firing tear-gas 
canisters, rubber bullets and stun guns to break up the rally and then 
to disperse people who were already dispersed and had no idea where they 
could go. The chaos was total.
All that was deliberate.

But a share of responsibility belongs to the organizers, if that is the 
proper term for an event so dismally lacking in organization. The April 
4 anti-NATO demonstration was called by a collective of French activist 
groups, none of which had the authority to impose a coherent plan. By 
dint of seniority, the relatively conservative Mouvement de la Paix 
seems to have exercised the greatest authority, notably by supporting 
the disastrous decision to accept the French government’s choice of site 
for the rally. Instead of being allowed to meet in a city square and 
march through the streets of Strasbourg with their banners, slogans and 
bits of street theater, the peace demonstrators were exiled to a 
peripheral island between the Rhine and a large shipping canal, with 
only two bridges as access. Anyone looking at a map could see that this 
site was unacceptable for several reasons. It was hard to reach – about 
eight kilometers from the railroad station – especially on a day when 
all public transportation was shut down and the city center was off 
limits. The terrain was rough and confusing. It was out of sight of any 
public the demonstrators might want to communicate with – in short, no 
"communication" with fellow citizens was possible. And worst of all, it 
was an obvious trap, a perfect place for police to practice their 
kettling techniques. Yet the organizers accepted this unacceptable site, 
and then failed to organize any protection service of its own.
Still, the Prefecture (regional authority) had made certain promises in 
return for agreement to this unfavorable site. These promises were 
flagrantly violated. Streets and bridges that were supposed to be open 
were periodically blocked by police. Curiously, several thousand 
peaceful demonstrators were blocked on the German side of the Rhine, and 
never joined the rally, whereas German Black Blockers were active on the 
scene. In general, the police treated peaceful demonstrators as the 
enemy in a civil war, while doing nothing to protect people or property 
from the violent minority.

The rally itself, held in an indentation on this island, was distracted 
by the unnerving spectacle of a nearby hotel going up in flames. 
Helicopters drowned out speakers and music. The subsequent march was 
never able to take place. Totally disoriented demonstrators were left to 
their own devices, in a strange and hostile environment, as they tried 
to flee from tear gas through a maze of police traps.

The Black Block

The peace demonstrators were totally upstaged by the Black Block, 
described in France as "casseurs", smashers. Unlike the non-violent 
protesters, they appear on video film to be having a great time, 
battling with police. Chances are that they may be looking back on their 
exploits with pride and satisfaction.

The Strasbourg disaster makes it clear that the anti-NATO movement, to 
survive, must deal with three problems: its own flagrant organizational 
weaknesses, police repression and the Black Block.

A question that goes the rounds is this: are the Black Block smashers 
police provocateurs? Unable to investigate this matter seriously, my own 
intuitive answer would be: subjectively no, objectively yes. Certainly 
they can’t all be police wearing black hoods. Most of them surely 
believe they are "fighting against capitalism", as they proclaim. But 
objectively, they do the job of justifying the very police repression 
they combat so enthusiastically.
To err is human.  Bad intentions flourish, but error is even more 
common. An advanced, civilized peace movement should be able to try to 
apply the alternative to war – reasonable argument – in all 
circumstances. We should argue with people who are mistaken about NATO, 
to explain what is wrong with it. And we should argue with people in the 
Black Block, to explain what is wrong with their form of protest.

How to enter such a dialogue is not obvious. Assuming that not all of 
the Black Block people are police provocateurs, if I could, I would ask 
the presumably sincere ones to consider the following:

Black Block fighters should question their own motives. Let’s face it, 
throughout history, young men have enjoyed banding together to fight 
their enemy. Testosterone and adrenalin are not political arguments. But 
they are great stimulants to hurling projectiles at the armed foe. 
Lightly armed street fighters easily feel victorious and superior 
confronting masses of highly armed policemen, who look cowardly in 
comparison. They win the macho contest, but what good does it do except 
to their own egos?

Black Block fighters should question the effect they have on ordinary 
citizens, who may be undecided politically. NATO is a protection racket. 
It lives off people’s sense of insecurity. Black Block actions feed that 
sense of insecurity.

Black Block fighters should think about the devastating effect they have 
on other forms of public protest. Along with police, they are driving 
peaceful protesters off the streets.

Black Block fighters should reflect on how readily they are exploited by 
their enemy. For one thing, whether they want to admit it or not, they 
are almost certainly infiltrated by police agents. And they should ask 
themselves why some of them were allowed to smash the windows of the 
Ibis hotel on the Rhine island in Strasbourg, then set fire to it in a 
leisurely manner, while no police intervened. Moreover, the impressive 
fire was allowed to burn for over an hour before the fire department 
arrived on the scene. Didn’t the spectacle of this fire serve perfectly 
both to frighten and disperse the peace demonstrators and above all to 
fill television screens with evidence that "demonstrators are 
destructive"? The authorities cited the fire as proof that the heavy 
police presence was necessary to protect civilization from its enemies. 
And why set fire to an Ibis hotel? There are eight Ibis hotels in 
Strasbourg, and this one was perhaps the poorest. And what 
semi-professional means were required to set such a spectacular blaze? 
And why set fire to the nearby pharmacy, which was a public service to 
sick people in that small and relatively run-down neighborhood. What 
possible political message did this convey?

In short, Black Block militants, whatever their age, should grow up and 
realize that to combat unjust powers must be done first of all with 
thoughts, reasoning, facts and arguments. Playing with violence is 
playing their game, on the one terrain where they have all the assets. 
Intifada may be the only recourse for Palestinians, but in Europe there 
are still other ways of expressing political opposition. These other 
ways must be invented, explored and developed.

The year 2008 was a watershed, with two major events that changed 
people’s vision of the world: the financial collapse and the Israeli 
assault on Gaza. The repercussions, the change in vision, are ongoing. 
They are preparing the ground for popular opposition to the financial 
and military powers ruling the West and attempting, through NATO and 
other institutions, to extend their rule to the entire globe. There are 
signs that those in power are among the first to recognize this and are 
perfecting their repression technologies as a preventive strike against 
the mass protest to come. It is urgent to provide political alternatives 
in terms of programs and leadership. If mass demonstrations are 
vulnerable to police repression and spoiling actions by smashers, other 
more varied and flexible means must be invented to communicate with 
citizens and broaden a coherent movement to combat militarization and 
build an economy centered on people’s genuine needs. In any case, any 
future mass demonstration against NATO must be organized with its own 
protection service, wearing arm-bands and following clear instructions. 
Demonstrators must be protected. There can be no mixing with the "Black 
Block" or other groups looking for the same sort of trouble the police 
are looking for.

This was the urgent lesson of the Strasbourg fiasco.

Special thanks to Karen Sharpe, who experienced it all.

Diana Johnstone is author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and 
Western Delusions (Monthly Review Press). She can be reached at 
diana.josto at yahoo.fr

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