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A Bridge Too Far: Strasbourg - Kehl 04/04/09

category international | anti-war / imperialism | opinion/analysis author Sunday April 05, 2009 22:14author by Mark Price Report this post to the editors

An eyewitness account of some invisible events

The Anti-NATO demonstration at Strasbourg - Kehl is disrupted by the strategic intervention of the police, but the attempt by the state to hide this strategy is in turn disrupted by the Black Block youth. This game is conducted at the level of the symbol.

The official rhetoric of the event on the Rhine, which was staged on the 60th anniversary of NATO (as part of the process of normalisation of militarisation in the public imagination), was that the French and German leaders would meet to join hands on the Passarelle des Deux Rives which crosses the Rhine between Strasbourg an Kehl, and re-enact the rapprochment which followed the ending of the Second World War and subsequent founding of NATO in April 1949. The benign supervision of the American president would echo the liberal interventionist role of the US in 1945 (this narrative has erased the crucial significance of Stalin's Red Army in the defeat of Naziism). The symbolism of the bridge is anodyne yet powerful, as fake and as pervasive as the 'generic' bridges which decorate Euro banknotes (the Euro of course, like NATO, was another liberal US intervention).

500 metres downstream however another bridge story was being played out. Hundreds of German police formed a barricade across the Pont d'Europe, in order to prevent anti-NATO protestors from moving between Germany and France (several thousand protestors had gathered on each side). This was part of an official strategy which included the suspension for the duration of the summit of the Schengen Agreement , which allows the free movement of people between certain member states. To celebrate Free Europe, Europe would have to be made temporarily somewhat less free.

March organiser Tobias Pflueger of Die Linke argued with the police for the bridge to be opened, to allow protestors from both sides to join hands in a symbolic display of unity. Unfortunately while this discussion was going on a group of black-clad youths had made another barricade on the French side of the bridge and set fire to it. The police were then able to point to the burning barricade as a sensible reason for not allowing peace protestors (or indeed anyone) to cross the bridge. The action of the black-clad youths had seemed reckless and self-defeating, and the organisers of the protest were exasperated. I helped one of them to try to dismantle the barricade but it had become impossible. Had the black-clad youths ruined it for everyone?

The answer must be emphatically No. The black-clad youths had made the deepest (maybe instinctual) reading of the day's events. Had the bridge been opened and another five of seven thousand demonstrators from Germany been allowed to join the demonstration, so what? When Tony Blair was asked to respond to the February 15 2003 march, he said 'This is why we're going to Baghdad, so that people there can protest too'. You realised then that the only difference between Saddam and Blair on this point was that Saddam was making a saving on cleaning up the litter. The fact is that liberal democracy wants to be seen as a place where people have a right to protest, but is not a place where protests need have any effect on policy. For this reason it was important for the authorities in Strasbourg on Saturday to be seen to allow the demonstration, while in fact keeping it under tight control.

The skirmishes with stone-throwing black-clad youth served to distract from the fact that the march had been confined to a small area around the docks. The setting fire to the Ibis Hotel and other structures and the vandalism of certain marchers was widely regretted by the 'majority of peaceful demonstrators'. However the barricade on the bridge created a powerful counter-symbol to that of the Passarelle des Deux Rives. It reinforced, made concrete and drew attention (with a plume of black smoke) to the reality of Strasbourg -Kehl on 4th April 2009, which is also the reality of Europe: Europe is united only at the level of official discourse. This is a unity which asks everyone to join together to defeat 'the common enemy'. This is a union of state-corporate interests in which the people are invited in as spectators of staged symbolic events. The well-meaning 'peaceful protestors' are mistaken if they think that the audience participation in this theatre will have any effect on the plot. The Black Block element understand the need to claim an autonomous narrative.

author by Mike Novackpublication date Sun Apr 05, 2009 23:03author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"The fact is that liberal democracy wants to be seen as a place where people have a right to protest, but is not a place where protests need have any effect on policy."

If protests NECESSARILY had an effect on policy you wouldn't be having democracy of any kind (let alone liberal).

Please try to explain to me why (what is your reasoning) that you expect even a truly large protest NECESSARILY should have an effect? What is your reason to believe that there is not an even larger block of the population aligned against you on the other side of the question. Mind I am not speaking about this or that particular issue but your general assessment.

author by Tim Houriganpublication date Mon Apr 06, 2009 15:22author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I was at a different vantage point near the speakers platforms (although I didn't listen to most of the rhetoric of the speeches, and instead met as many active groups from around Europe as I could).

As people got to the area for the speeches, I could already see a vandalised petrol station, and lots of people masked up and acting macho.

As the speeches started I could see a lot of black smoke rising off to my left.
Shortly afterward, I noticed a second pillar of smoke, which began to descend onto the assembled crowd in front of the stage and was quite nasty to breathe.

At this stage I reckoned I had spoken to about as many people as I was going to network with, so I moved away from the the high wall, (to the left of the stage) and went where the air was clearer.

We could hear explosions not too far off, whether it was the riot cops shooting sonic grenades or just bits of the burning Hotel, I couldn't say, and I wasn't in a mood to go investigating either. (One wonders how it's possible to burn a hotel, with thousands of cops hanging around)

I saw a big crowd of people in black clothes head back towards the gate we had entered by, and rocks were thrown at the cops, who of course were only too happy to respond with barrages of teargas.

It was at this time, that some guy up on stage started encouraging everyone to assemble and march, shouting some rubbish about not letting Sarkozy take our right to protest from us. He went on like this for about five minutes, encouraging people to exit the area, (which involved a blind corner with a high wall) while he stood in safety on the stage. He could at the very least have asked them to send someone to scout out the gate, so that they didn't walk into a running battle with the cops.

As you may imagine, that's not something I wanted to walk into the middle of, so I started looking around for a safe exit, and eventually found a hole in the fence, into the neighbouring woodland. After checking it out for a few minutes I came back to help some of the older folks and kids get through the woods and up onto the railway tracks (there were no trains running).
It was all a bit hectic, but people were helping each other along. One woman was wearing high heeled boots of all things, which made it tricky to cross rail lines and descend the embankment. She might opt for more sensible shoes next time she goes to a public demo.

As we got back onto the foothpath, we met up with the main body of the march, which was mostly people walking in fairly dignified fashion with anti-NATO, anti-Capitalist, anti-war slogans in various languages. However, in amongst them, a few opportunists were happily smashing up billboards and bus shelters.

One gobshite, using a t-shirt to cover his bald head, was repeatedly throwing a heavy metal bar at at billboard, despite the fact that the billboard was suspended over the footpath, and the bar was falling near some of the marchers. I think he got verbally abused in half a dozen languages before he copped himself on.

We found most of the routes back to the city centre were blocked by large numbers of riot police, and at each one, we were told that if we headed south, we could make a right turn at the next junction. At one turn (I think near Neuhof) they were letting in people who could show they lived on that street. A father carrying his 8 month old daughter asked to allowed through, rather than having to walk around the city to get back home, but the cops were having none of it.
It was a long enough walk mostly through industrial areas, where there was no place to ask for water.
we continued walking south, negotiating, and sharing water and fruit with thirsty peaceniks, until we found ourselves able to get off the road just very close to Ganzau, where activists had set up quite a nice camp.

I met lots of fairly cool and enthusiastic folks at the camp, and they had great kitchens, as well as a legal team, and someone to update the notice boards, and people to drive to collect people who had been arrested.

I helped out in the kitchen for a while and spoke to some of the campers, who were fairly sound people.
I noticed that some of the locals in the neighbouring houses were flying peace flags and helping out at the camp as well, which is always good.

I was offered a lift into town, but I decided to walk, as I was staying outside of the city centre, and there was no public transport during the NATO summit.
On my way north on Rue de Ganzau I saw smashed bus shelters, and a local car with the windscreen and sunroof smashed in, (someone else had put a sign saying 'sorry' on the car).
It seems obvious to everyone except these gobshites,that just a few fools like that can ruin the solidarity with the locals, but I'm sure some of these hooligans will have considered it a mighty blow against capitalism to bust up a family car.
Thankfully, we don't have large violent groups like that in Ireland, rather we've had dignified people who smashed up military jets instead.

On the train back to Paris the next day, I saw lots of journos uploading photos of black clad rioters throwing rocks and anything else. I didn't notice any media reports on the anti-NATO conference which was held the same weekend and saw inspiring speakers from Japan, Afghanistan, Germany, Greece, the US, Czech Republic, Poland and more. While some of the workshops felt more like talking shops, there was a lot of valuable networking going on at the sidelines.

author by Kursk.publication date Mon Apr 06, 2009 15:48author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"This narrative has erased the crucial significance of Stalin's Red Army in the defeat of Nazis"

Nobody denies that the Red Army trounced the Wehrmacht.

NATO was set up so that they would not trounce ANYBODY ELSE.

author by Yukipublication date Fri Apr 10, 2009 18:36author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I think it honestly wasn't just the bridge that was symbolic, but the toll station after the bridge that also got burnt was symbolic. Despite the fact, it was going to be torn down anyway it showed how we do not accept the fact that there should be anything that prevents us from moving from one country to another. Something that still makes me incredibly anger about how difficult it is to move between Continental Europe and Britain or Ireland, whether one is flying or travelling with the ferry. I have been denied the right to travel due to the fact that my passport was not in check, but had three forms of other valid ID.

The point to Demostrations is that to a certain extent they seem so pointless, it's something simply for governments to show off how "democratic and free" they are. But the average person is also here to blame, 80,000 people on the streets will make no difference especially in countries with populations as vast as in France or Germany. One needs a million on the street before the government will do anything, but only something that suits them.

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