Video footage of the protests in Strasbourg

I feel I’ve seen enough riot police in the past week to last me a lifetime. Strasbourg, where we went for the demo against Nato, was full of them – complete with pads, shields, helmets, truncheons and an assortment of weapons.

Last Saturday the city centre had police at every corner and a constant parade of police bikes, vans, water cannon and what looked like armoured cars. The smell of tear gas was in the air from early morning.

The assembly point for the demonstration was a car park on an island in the Rhine – sounds idyllic but actually an industrial estate accessible only by bridges which were of course blocked by riot police. There was no local population to witness our march nor was it remotely near where the Nato summit was being held in the centre of town. It has to rank as the worst ever demonstration route I have been on.

Things kicked off early with various blockades which were pretty successful in delaying the start of the summit. Then it all moved to the bridges and the border with Germany. Around 7000 demonstrators assembled on the German side but were denied entry. As the morning wore on plumes of smoke started rising as the border post, an Ibis hotel and various other buildings were set on fire. The demo eventually marched to a blockaded bridge, turned round and was promptly attacked with tear gas.

This went on for hours, the demonstration was broken up and there was constant fighting between police and the Black Block. Bridges stayed blocked for hours, the police confiscated all banners (including our lovely new ‘Jobs not Bombs’ one) and there was absolutely no public transport so we got back to the city centre at 8pm.

A lot of criticism, from media and police but also from some march organisers, was reserved for the Black Block. Now I don’t have a lot of time for them: I object to them throwing stones in a way which draws other demonstrators into being caught between them and the police; I don’t see it’s too clever to smash up telephones or bus shelters in working class areas; and I have a number of political criticisms of their ideas and behaviour. But it is also clear that they attract young people who are fed up with capitalism and want change.

The problem is that unless those criticising them can also attract those young people, they are in trouble. And the problem with the organisation of the main demo and the conference that went with it was that it didn’t have a lot to appeal to those young people or other like them. The French authorities prohibited a march in the city centre but there didn’t appear to be a serious political campaign against it. The conference organisers vetoed the attendance of a representative of the Lebanese resistance.

The movement has to try to be militant as well as broad. Incidentally, broad means engaging with wide sections of those who make up the oppressed and exploited, including the large Kurdish population of Strasbourg, and the Arabs and Africans who make up a big part of the population of the housing estates we limped through after the march. They were almost totally absent.

Here in Britain, the largely south Asian Muslims have been part of our mobilisations from the beginning. But here too, the police are resorting increasingly to repressive tactics, as we saw on our Gaza demos in January and again last week round the G20. True they don’t have tear gas, but they are much more prone to using their truncheons and their practice of ‘kettling’ effectively deems demonstrations illegal. The death of Ian Tomlinson, last week reported as due to natural causes, now looks increasingly suspicious. I have been on two demos where people were killed – in Red Lion Square in 1974 where Kevin Gately died, and in Genoa in 2001 where Carlo Guiliani died. I was ill in 1979 or otherwise would have been on a demonstration when the police locked down the largely Asian area of Southall to allow 100 fascists to march and where Blair Peach, a neighbour and comrade, was killed.

In all those cases, it was obvious by police behaviour and equipment that something terrible was likely to happen. And it was again last week. Civil liberties are under more threat than at any time I can remember.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.