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No to NATO, Nein zur NATO, Non à l’Otan

April 24, 2009

Turns out I’m a big fan of postponing writing about epic events.  I hope you understand.  I went to France to a protest of NATO.  I boarded one of four busses that had been chartered by protest organizers to drive overnight from Berlin.  We got held up at the boarder after a fitful night’s worth of bus sleep because the boarder guards detained some people and the group tried for several hours to figure out if we could get them back to come with us into France or if we had to leave them and pick them up later.  I didn’t know any of them, so mostly I was just eager to get to the other side of the Rhine (I guess my spirit of solidarity was a bit low).

By the time we got into the city of Strasbourg, the police had made a human ring around a giant corner of the city where the protest was to take place.  Of course, the corner was on the opposite side of the city from where the conference was actually taking place, so we were a “safe distance” from Obama, Angela Merkel, Sarkozy, etc (and tramping around a much less privileged area of town, of course).  This meant that we had to find a way to get inside of the police ring and join the rest of the protest.  Problem: when a group of protestors marches toward a line of cops, the cops would much rather teargas everyone than let them through.  The first canister landed a safe distance from all of us, but still, we figured out pretty quickly that we would have to find another route.  It is hard to explain that you’re just lost when you can’t get closer than a city block.

This led to what I thought was a quite pleasant morning walk through the deserted city of Strasbourg.  The weather was clear – hot even – and I had snacks and water and some buddies to walk with that I had met on the bus, as well as a young communist who talked my ear off (it is what communists do best, I think even they would admit that.  Plus, I know all the theory and theorists from my former involvement in the ISO, so you can have a different kind of discussion when you’re talking about deformed workers states and degenerated workers states and state capitalism…..never mind).  I saw a lot of the city while I walked with our little 200 person contingent, without much direction, always heading toward a foreboding column of smoke that seemed to be where the action was most likely to be.

Eventually, we reached the bridge that had been the earlier site of quite a scuffle between protestors and the police (perhaps you saw it on the cover of the New York Times? Or this one?)  I had just read The Road by Cormac McCarthy a week or two before, and the scene looked a lot like what I had imagined in that book.  Piles of smoking wood pallets and charred barbed wire, trash and flyers everywhere and up ahead, that column of smoke.

I’ll spare you the next 5 hours worth of details.  Three buildings had been set on fire: a hotel, a restaurant, and a historic boarder crossing building.  I heard later that the police may have been using the hotel for storage, and things like tear gas canisters are highly flammable if they go off by accident, so it could have been arson, it could have been chance.  Also, a funny sidenote about the boarder crossing building: apparently developers have been trying to get the thing torn down for years but it was historically protected, so we decided to start the “Strasbourg 09: Inside Job” campaign.  The developers clearly saw this as a golden opportunity to burn the building down and blame it on some rabble rousers! Problem solved!

Ok, but in seriousness, I mostly walked around, listening to chants in all sorts of languages (I swear, if Obama could hear French people chanting “Stop zee War!” he might consider it.  It was also interesting because in French, NATO is OTAN, so banners throughout the protest mirrored each other.  There were 30,000 people at this march, which is by far the biggest march I have ever been to.  I didn’t really feel that size until we were marching back into the town after a bit of a scuffle and we had to walk down a long street (probably a quarter of a mile) along a sort of a beach of the river and then turn right to cross a bridge.  When I was at the beginning of the street, I could make out movement on the bridge way in front of me, so I knew people were that far ahead, and by the time I got to the bridge, I looked back at thousands of people coming up the street behind me.

I climbed more walls and fences than I think I’ve ever climbed, trying to avoid trouble and tense situations that could lead to violence.  I walked around the city, trying to find a way back in (did I mention the 10,000 cops?  They found a lot of places to stand and look foreboding), I walked around the center of the city for hours, looking for a place to find some food and a beer, and finally found an Irish pub.  It turns out Guinness is the best drink to have after a long day in the sun walking around with thousands of other people.

I had all sorts of plans to meet up with IVAW members that were there and spend a few days in Strasbourg and then go up to Paris, where I have never been.  But it is hard to find people in such a crowd, I was exhausted, and I had already paid a round-trip bus fare, so I had a place on the (second overnight) bus back to Berlin.  So I went back.

This involved getting over to the German side, which proved more difficult than it would seem.  Remember that boarder building, still surrounded by fire trucks.  Then we (I was with one of my German tandem partners for most of the day) went up the bridge, but didn’t know if it was the right bridge, so we knocked on the window of a van full of sleepy policemen (there was literally a guy in uniform passed out in the passenger seat, which struck me as funny), and they told us it was the next bridge.  This of course, proved not to be true, which we found out by jumping the fence into a gorgeous park that led to the bridge, which turned out to be just a pedestrian bridge with policemen on it that shined a bright light on us while we turned back to the bridge we had been on previously.  Then we had to talk to some French cops and explain why we now had to climb this fence with their blessing to get out of the park.  When we got back onto the bridge, we discovered lines and lines of police vans, with cops changing their belts or jackets, relaxing with a cigarette, or eating dinner.  It was a surreal way to leave such a hectic day.  How interesting that these men and women have been so physically and ideologically separated from us all day and now we walk past as they spoon food into their mouths.  Mostly, it was just sad to know that throughout Germany and France there were 10,000 families who’s mother (I didn’t see any female cops, but I assume there were some somewhere) or father had to work all day and all night.  I hoped they were getting overtime (do they have special protest pay for police officers?).  It is unfortunate that by doing something we believe in, protestors alienate this chunk of the population.  Of course, this makes political sense, but when I saw so many cops in one place, I thought about all of these people hate protestors for what I consider good reasons: that we prevent them from spending time with their families and friends for days on end.

My favorite police officer was the one I met on the German boarder, in the middle of the bridge between the two contries.  We were stopped and asked for identification.  When the officer handed my passport back to me, he said, “That’s nice.  Goodbye.”  We laughed about that one for the other half of the bridge walk.

We made it to the McDonalds where the busses were meeting us, the busses were late (they had to find a way over from the French side, which of course proved to be difficult), so we sat in the drive through patch of grass, while cop car after cop car drove past, parked, and about forty cops watched us board the busses (they really didn’t have much to do at this point).

And then I went home.  And slept.

One more political note.  We have got to figure out what to do about the black bloc.  These are people who come dressed in black, prepared to fight the police.  They are the ones that throw rocks at the cops until the cops teargas a larger group.  I saw this happen and when the people dressed in black were throwing stones, the rest of the protestors were booing.  Booing!!  Talk about a lack of a cohesive movement.  If you are going to have a protest against NATO, then protest NATO.  If you want to beat up on cops, then do that in another venue.  The black bloc couldn’t have a protest of their own because they are too small and the police would arrest them all immediately (this is usually what happens at some point during most marches I went to in Portland).  They are safe in the larger numbers of the peaceful protestors, but then you get the news I linked to above where the protest is blamed for vandalism, the protest organizers blame the ‘few bad apples,’ and nobody comes out better for it.  If we are ever going to have a successful movement for or against anything that is happening in the world today, we have to start agreeing and (I hate to sound all rainbows and peace signs but) working together.  We can’t have most of a protest chanting and walking to show their disagreement with something and a select few who come ready to fight police officers.  It isn’t fair to the people that aren’t prepared and didn’t bring their gas mask, and it accomplishes nothing to fight the cops, unless you are at a protest against the cops.

So that was my 12 hours in France.  Hopefully the next time I make it over there, I will have time for a baguette and a beret.

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