Ingredients for a disaster: NATO, Strasbourg and the Black Block

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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


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Dear Friends,

I am forwarding some of the comments I received following the eye-witness report that I wrote on April 5th, the day after the demonstration in Strasbourg.  ("NATO Demo in Strasbourg ends in disarray following attacks by 'hooligans' and police"

The comments I received suggest that we ought to consider analyzing what happened in Strasbourg within an international and historical framework. For a more detailed and reflective report on Strasbourg that raises some of the same issues, see "Ingredients for a Disaster: NATO, Strasbourg and the Black Block" by Diana Johnstone  (  Maybe she, also, has received some interesting comments?

Many of the comments below address the speculation that possibly some of the Black Block in Strasbourg may have been police agents.  It may in fact not be all that important to establish whether and how many police may have been masquerading as Black Block. What is important for our future work is to address the fact that the form of Black Block organization endangers the movement because it COULD be used by police, etc. and it DOES provoke a lot of anxiety and mistrust among large numbers of demonstrators. Further, the Black Block provide the police with an further excuse and cover to curtail our civil liberties, while at the same time justifying their anti-democratic procedures to the media.

If there is ever again to be an attempt at integration of such a broad spectrum as we attempted in Strasbourg, there must be clear and binding and ongoing communications between all groups as well as a common strategy.  And in my personal opinion, there should be no masks at all.  Masks and disguises should neither be allowed nor encouraged by us at broad-based peace demonstrations, nor at the camps and other facilities supporting them.

In contrast, perhaps, to some leaders of the traditional peace movement, I personally do see a role for attacks on certain property, such as dismantling of military aircraft in Shannon Airport.  But these activities must be, in my opinion, clearly demarcated and separate from the mass mobilizations that should and must grow larger. 



On Apr 15, 2009, at 3:47 PM, Lawrence McGuire wrote:

There is a lot of documentary evidence about police dressing up as Blac Bloc in Italy (as well as other places).  The whole strategy in Strasburg was VERY similar to Genoa (blocking off the city center, using tear gas to split up the demonstration at a very strategic point, fake blac block who appeared just before police attacked a peaceful group of demonstrators, stopping protestors at the border, etc).  I would say it was the SAME strategy in fact.
"It is Saturday afternoon and there are as many as 200,000 people marching on Genoa against the G8. It is not a combative march. As they swing onto the seafront, a group of agent provocateurs began throwing stones at the police. These are undercover cops, or secret police, or mercenaries or nazi's. They are used by the police same way the paramilitaries are used by the state in Chiapas or Belfast, or even how they used them in Italy in the 1970's. The police want to pick the time and place of the confrontation. They are ready and prepared. This was planned. This is how the Police work: a few stones fall harmlessly into their ranks and they open up with tear-gas. The canisters fly deep into the multitude, immediately creating panic and chaos. People flee, young and old, babes in arms, but there are too many people, nowhere to run, they are hemmed in and poisoned from the gas. It is horrific.This is how the people resist. The militants stream through the crowd to the front. There they attempt to build barricades, hold back the advancing cops. The sky fills with stones. They hold the police and the people behind have a few moments more to retreat. Those who needed to get away from the zone could. "

With hindsight, and more importantly photographic evidence, it is now apparent that many of the arseholes engaged in this behaviour were agent provocateurs. Many later commented on the fact that large numbers of those engaged in the most senseless acts of destruction were left well alone by cops, indeed people dressed as Black Block members were seen freely making their way across police lines and talking to cops.

From: George Pumphrey <>
Date: April 9, 2009
I would like to give you an example of how NATO/the US staged a "terrorist" attack against NATO/US forces in Europe in order to criminalize and split the movement against the installation of the Euromissiles in the '80s.
We'll take the case of the bazooka attack against Gen. Frederik James Kroesen 15. Sept 1981, in Heidelberg Germany. Kroesen was riding in the back seat of the car taking him to work at US Army Hqtrs. in Heidelberg where he was the Supreme Commander of the USAEUR (US Armed Forces Europe). Beside him in the back seat was his wife - a fact not without importance. How many generals' wives ride to work with gen. hubby?.

The car stopped at a traffic light and was promptly hit in the rear by a shell supposedly fired from a Soviet made RPG-7 grenade launcher. Just as promptly the Red Army Fraktion (or RAF) was accused of having made the attack. RAF had already been dormant for 4 years only to be spectacularly raised from the dead for this attack.

(This note from George included attachments with substantiating evidence George gathered in 1981 and an excellent analysis he wrote in 2003 called "Types of Terrorism and 9/11":


From: "acdn"
Date: April 6, 2009 10:04:20 PM GMT+02:00
Dear Elsa, Loring, and others,
First, thank you, Elsa, for your precise and precious testimony. May I put it on the website of ACDN? With the signature of “Elsa”?
Second, thank you, Loring, for the important questions you are raising. Personally, I disagree with the “confusion des genres”. Non-violence is non-violence, that is, it should refuse any kind of violence. But I agree with you: that needs to be worked out.
Best regards.
Jean-Marie Matagne, ACDN (Action of Citizens for the total Dismantling of Nukes), France
De : [] De la part de
Envoyé : lundi 6 avril 2009 17:04
À :

Elsa and GN list,

   There is an interesting reaction to Black Bloc anarchist protesters that I see in the U.S., which also may be true in Europe.

   Many peace activists say their commitment to nonviolence is non-negotiable, but at the same time they have a certain "romantic" attachment to black-bloc provocation actions.  At one WTO meeting in Washington, DC, for example, two thirds of the crowd at an outdoor festival stood and cheered when the black-bloc contingent entered the field.  I understand where this comes from, in part - I support anarcho-syndicalism as a political and economic philosophy, and there is a feeling sometimes that anarchists and autonomen groups are the only ones truly challenging the state.

   However, as you pointed out in this post, the police often use the provocations as an excuse to use extreme crowd-control tactics against peaceful crowds.  We saw it in Strasbourg, we saw it in London on April 1 and 2.  And here in Colorado Springs, we saw the police tear-gas a group of 5000 at the start of the Iraq War in 2003 because a dozen anarchists were blockading cars and wielding sticks to break windshields of cars.  I don't think all black-bloc actions are police-agent actions by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact, COINTELPRO-type actions may be a very small percentage of what we see.  But it is worthwhile to ask, when are the anarchist groups doing preceisely what the police want to see?

    The extreme security measures used by the London police show that police forces will use extreme crowd control regardless of whether provocateurs are in the crowds or not.  But I think the events of Strasbourg show that there must be an open dialogue in the peace community regarding our feelings on black-bloc actions.  Are they always wrong?  Are they OK if only property is damaged but people are not hurt?  If peoplein the peace community want to pre-arrange civil disobedience with police all the time, are we allowing police to turn protest into pre-arranged theater, and does this end the spontaneity and unpredictability we see in black-bloc protests?  I remain committed to nonviolent philosophies, but I am still trying to work out how I feel about these sort of actions.  Thanks for your report.

Loring Wirbel
Citizens for Peace in Space/GN
Colorado Springs, CO, USA

From: Janet Larson
Date: April 6, 2009 8:51:52 PM GMT+02:00
Elsa, this is just horrendous. Thank you for your detailed report! I look forward to the rest.
   Is the mayor of Strausbourg considered a 'friend' of sorts because of his statement that there must be
and explanation of police behavior? Have other officials joined this call?
   Noticed the press report didn't mention the gassing or the grenades.
   A similarly huge force was assembled against the anti-trade ageeement demonstrators in Miami several years ago,
with police riots and shooting of pellets that severely injured people of all sorts, including labor movement retirees and journalists.
This hardly got into the news here.
  I hope some of your peace people had cameras.
  Black Bloc should be pressed to drop the disguises to show good faith that they're not infiltrated by police.
  In solidarity with all antiwar people of courage and principle like yourselves,
    Janet Larson, New Jersey Peace Action & UFPJ Af/Pak Working Group

Begin forwarded message:
From: Janet Larson
Date: April 13, 2009 7:32:58 AM GMT+02:00

  The pellets in Miami, as I recall, were pepper pellets. Add if you want.
  The Miami police chief made efforts to intimidate and prevent the protest ahead of time (another parallel). They also assembled a huge number of police, intel, and counter-terrorism forces from other states--some coming as 'observers' to see how this would be done (and, presumably, could be replicated elsewhere)--as well as military vehicles and hardware, to project overwhelming force.
   The New York Times front page photo of Strasbourg April 5 pictured the smoke from the burning hotel, with inside photo of police wrestling with demonstrators. A statement by an organizer about the peaceful purpose of the march was at the very end of the report.
    Janet Larson
From: Ward Reilly <>
Date: April 6, 2009 7:06:26 PM GMT+02:00
To: Anti war group Baton Rouge <>, C3 Listserve C3 Listserve <>, Camp Casey group Camp Casey Group 4-06 <>, vfpresearch vfpresearch <>, VFP-Contacts Contacts 2008 <>, Bush Be Gone Bush Be Gone group <>, vietnam veterans against war <

Sounds like a COINTEL Pro operation to me...


Situationist International of 1968 stated: Public policy is about spectacle, still true for international "summits". called by the privileged political class. The real power is the unvisible hand of the market. Or at least the threats of the police and military forces.

London and Strassburg manifestations were succeses for the movement. The "theatre" of the establishment was disturbed. Mass media could  almostnot ignore our "multitude". More important were direct experiences of common people. "Stay put" measures, widespread imposing of policestate experienced by local population. For instance the football club of the tiny village of Stollhofen near Rastatt cancelled his regular training on police orders. H otels and border station can be re-build. This will not be the end of capitalism/imperialism. What counts as is "the subversivity of the action"(Ulrike Meinhof Burn warehouse burn!). Burning the installations on the border demonstrated the weakness of the counterinsurgency forces. 30.000 policemen -a paper tiger and could not prevent it. The strength of the disobendient movement results from its variety of activities done in a solidaric way. In this regard it is counter-productive to blame the "black block" activists as undercover agents, whether subjective or objective. Like Bloch (n "Aesthetic of Resistance" :"the leftist like to loose the battle enjoying it wounds" - NO. We need to win against disillusion - creating a culture of civil disobedience in all aspects.