Bodies and Barricades: Blockading Heiligendamm and Future Flows of Capitalism

(by Association for Autonomy, a4a)

This text provides a tactical analysis of the most crucial operation of the week of protests against the G8 in Germany: the blockades. Whilst Block G8 champions its successful mass blockades at two of the gates to Heiligendamm, the decentralised blockade concept, PAULA, seems to have vanished from the discussion.

While this in itself would already be an interesting point for reflection, our interest here is neither to play one concept off against the other, nor is it to provide a deconstructive critique of each of them. Our aim is to offer a point of departure for a discussion about the effectiveness of our collective tactical operations during such direct actions as blockades so as to strengthen these in future.

There is a pressing urgency for such an analysis from our perspective. This necessity has to do with one of the pivotal insights of the cycle of summit protests after Seattle: that direct action is possible within the context of a mass movement.

Body a barricade

What has changed the nature of the conflicts occurring in the streets so much in recent years, and therefore made it attractive for radicals to organise for them, is the fact that people have not directed policy demands to institutions like the WTO, IMF or the G8, but that they have been ready to implement their rejection of these institutions by putting their bodies in the streets to prevent these folks from holding their meetings undisturbed. Here we address the contradictions of symbolic versus material blockades, mass versus decentralised actions, civil disobedience versus direct action to seek answers to how we do politics in a context where symbolic acts necessarily take precedence.

With a brief excursion to the anti-G8 protests in Scotland in 2005, we recall that during this event it seemed as if the loudest voice that could be heard was that of the Make Poverty History and Live 8 forces. They put the G8 on the map as a solution to the problems of globalised capitalism, as opposed to being a key player of the neo-liberal capitalist strategy, hence inherently part of the problem and not the addressee for potential solutions.

Whilst around 4000 people participated in the blockades that were to a certain extent successful, at least on the first day of the summit, their actions either did not impact significantly amongst a broader public, nor were they really understood, and even less accepted, due to the discursive conflict that existed between the different mobilisations, resulting in the victory of the pro-G8 voice.

There were a number of factors that contributed to this outcome: the radical left’s propensity to clandestine organising and an inability to explain the anti-G8 message beyond its own circles, a divided and small counter-globalisation movement with an open dislike for one another, and the specific nature of the state-civil society complex in the UK in which charity-type lobby organisations enjoy broad public support and a close relationship with the government.

In many ways, our protest was co-opted and sold back to us as a spectacle of the worst kind in which the UK government, pop stars and multinational corporations celebrated protest as a legitimation of global neo-liberalism (albeit with a “human” or “environmental face”).

In Heiligendamm, the constellation of forces was different again. With the prevalence of the blockades, our movements were able to return to a politics beyond representation and demand, and therefore made a total rejection of the G8 their central focus. Two action concepts were central to this: Block G8 and PAULA.
Block G8

Block G8 was an alliance between the Interventionist Left (IL), several local ATTAC groups, anti-fascist groups, trade union and Green Party youth organisations, as well as christian groups and a cross section of the anti-nuclear movement. It was formed specifically with the political goal of forming massive and effective blockades to disrupt the infrastructure of the G8. Transparency and a relation of trust between all people involved were explicit goals from beginning. Given the different action traditions of those participating, a large portion of good will and patient negotiation was necessary to ensure the coalition did not fall apart around action form and (un)willingness to resist police attacks. The final action consensus publicly declared:

‘Our objective is to blockade. Therefore, we will overcome the police’s barriers; pushing them out of the way, going around them, or cannily flowing through them. We will not allow ourselves to be stopped, distracted, or to get embroiled in the police’s possible strategy of escalation. Our objective is to reach our blockading destinations. Our protection is our concept of diversity, mass participation and desired (media and other) publicity […] There are lots of people who will simply sit down and blockade the street with their bodies. In addition, there are people who will remain standing, linking arms in chains and using foam and balloons to protect their bodies. Some will push back against those attempting an eviction, to make it more difficult for them. All these different blockade forms will show solidarity with each other and will not endanger one another. We will remain together and hold our common position. Through the means of civil disobedience, we will resist by showing solidarity. We do not want to injure anyone.’
(see http://www.block-g8.org)

The initiative was widely publicised beforehand, for example at the international preparatory Campinski camp in August and during the Action Conferences in Rostock. Several months before the summit, the Block G8 alliance began a world-wide campaign to create leverage and political legitimacy for the blockades through petitioning allied individual public figures and organisations to sign a declaration of support for the Block G8 blockades.

Further to this, the coalition organised a series of blockade workshops throughout Germany, where the basic concept and the action consensus was explained and blockading and quick decision making techniques in affinity group structures trained. Besides this, especially in the weeks ahead of the protests, these workshops functioned as media events, where the intention to blockade could be communicated via the press to the public and its de-escalating intentions demonstrated. Such preparations continued during the days before the blockades in both the Rostock and the Reddelich camps.
PAULA initiative

Since it was clear that Block G8 was not able to accommodate all blockading tactics and strategies, another initiative was started. The PAULA call for decentralised (and mass) blockades in and around Heiligendamm. The call was circulated for the first time in October 2006 through mailing lists and an international newsletter from the autonomous spectrum. The call reads:

‘To get started and to disturb the course of the meeting as comprehensively as possible, we place our bet on a circle of bigger and smaller blockades, massive and massing, multiple and decentral, that in time advance closer and closer to the G8. Besides sitting, standing and walking mass blockades this will include the construction and eventually the defence of barricades. Direct actions of small affinity groups […] creative actions of incalculable activists or the tying down of police units in black block actions will complement the scenario […] acting effectively during the summit constantly demands timely information – a task that will be covered by infopoints on the camps and wherever we need them to be.’
(see http://dissentnetzwerk.org/node/106))

Of course there were discussions and action workshops about decentralised blockading experiences and tactics during the Campinski action camp in the summer of 2006, but no formaliseed network was established to coordinate any actions and thus this process largely relied on discussions between individuals who knew each other personally.

The PAULA call was followed by various other proposals for autonomous interventions, for example that of the ‘2nd November Collective’ who argued for moving away from Heiligendamm in the event that the police presence was too inhibitive to blockade different parts of Germany. This led to a considerable international debate regarding desirability and feasibility, partly during another international networking meeting in February 2007. Quite soon it was clear that the sympathy of the German Dissent network laid with the PAULA idea. Yet, for the latter case, a Plan B was circulated that included the option of organising actions in other parts of Germany.
So what came out of all of this?

In the case of Block G8 the story begins quite simply and ends more complicatedly. Due to clear and visible access in the actions camps, many people joined Block G8. In the early morning of the first day of the Blockades, groups of around 5,000 and 3,000 blockaders left the Reddelich and Rostock camps respectively to block the East Gate and the Middle Gate (next to Bad Doberan).

The sheer amount of people and a cleverly applied five finger tactic ensured both groups arrived at their final destination, in one case with more police resistance than in the other, but without any escalation from the side of the blockaders. Participants, and that might be the right description, since there was a clear organisational structure led by an action committee in which people could participate, abided by the action consensus. This was certainly necessary for reaching the targeted roads and holding the blockades at the beginning.

Despite a swaying participation (especially during the nights), the blockades were held until Friday afternoon. Whilst police forces had been extremely heavy-handed in attempting to prevent the protesters from reaching the blockading points, they seemed less intent on clearing the blockades once protesters had occupied the roads.

The mass blockades of Block G8 gave people the opportunity to engage in a first experience of civil disobedience. Mass protests at such major events often become moments of radicalisation for less experienced protesters. The Block G8 alliance provided a clear structure for that.

Another important effect of the Block G8 efforts began already in the weeks prior to the protests. The broad public campaign of Block G8 gained a lot of legitimacy and support for a conscious trespassing of the law. Whilst this created the space for an acceptance of the blockades, with the (intended) knock-on effect of limiting the possibilities for police forces and the German government to repress and demonise protesters, it is also a contradictory success for activists intending to engage in more confrontational actions and material blockades.

There are a number of directions in which this contradiction can lead. On the one hand, public support could be mobilised and extended to more radical actions. On the other, the effect of such a publicity campaign like the one of Block G8 can sharpen the criminalisation and delegitimisation of other types of actions via a dividing line that contrasts the ‘oh so lovely and peaceful civil disobedience sit-ins’ to the ‘violent actions’ of others.

With the actual blockades, the Block G8 campaign created incredibly positive media attention. There were few media outlets that stuck to the harsh tone with which they had reprimanded protesters after the skirmishes in Rostock on the previous Saturday. The question is, however, whether it makes sense strategically for the media to find us ‘nice’.

Such positive reporting can also be an indication of our irrelevance, of not holding a conflictual space. And at the end of the day, the explicit goal of Block G8 was to physically intervene in the infrastructure of the G8 summit and at least hinder its smooth running. This brings us to the less positive outcomes of Block G8.

It can be argued that the lack of interest of the police in evicting the two mass blockades of Block G8 together with the cuddly media attention meant that the line of antagonism was shifted from one in which protest, even if it was direct action, could be co-opted back into a realm of acceptability with a neutralising effect.

In this sense, the line of division is drawn, not as has happened in the past, between a ‘peaceful’ protest march and blockades, but between ‘good’ blockaders and ‘bad’ blockaders, ushering back in the well-known ‘law and order’ debate. Although the spokespersons of Block G8 did a great deal not to separate themselves from other protest forms, this perspective did not translate publicly.

Another unsatisfactory outcome of the Block G8 practice was the level of disruption that occurred after reaching the roads targeted for the blockades. After the march towards those spots, the media coverage was dominated by the image of a clever David winning against a confused Goliath: protesters peacefully crossing police lines en masse.

The desire to disrupt stopped where the result was better than ever expected: the blockaders actually reached their point of destination and could stay there without any serious police response. Under these changing and unexpected conditions, the action committee still decided to stick the proclaimed slogan: move, block, stay.

There might be more contentious things that could have been done (even symbolically), but “we said we’d stay…” In the end Block G8 could not entirely fulfil the promises that the five-finger tactic had awakened during the march towards the blockades. The disruptive potential that could have been developed out of the mass blockades was not realised. It looks like this task was outsourced to a mysterious temp agency called PAULA.

In the case of PAULA things are quite complicated at the beginning, and quite simple at the end. The positive aspects of PAULA centred upon its potential element of surprise, spontaneity, flexibility and decentralisation of action points. This could have provided an effective counterpart to the Block G8 actions, together achieving more disruption. The visibility of the decentrally organised blockades was, however, severely restricted.

It remains unclear whether this was because there simply were not that many PAULA actions. But it is also possible that, quite unlike in Seattle, the more confrontational actions bound so many of the police forces that the civil disobedience inspired mass blockades had more space to manoeuvre. It has to be mentioned that the strategically necessary point, the West Gate, was one that was successfully blockaded by groups that had organised in a decentralised way. It was here where the blockades faced the heaviest police response, especially on Thursday, when police forces cleared the blockades at the end of the afternoon with heavy use of water canons, injuring lots of people, some of them severely.

As has since transpired, the blockades at the West Gate served as a starting point for further small blockades and direct actions. Another important target of decentralised actions was the press centre in Kühlungsborn, four kilometres to the west of Heiligendamm. On Thursday the 7th [June], the railway of the antique train, the “Molli”, was occupied, meaning journalists had to be brought by boat to the summit, turning up too late for the photo date with the heads of state because of heavy winds that prevented their travel for a number of hours.

On the 8th of June, another street blockade took place at Kühlungsborn, a spontaneous swimming action in the Baltic Sea, and the tyres of 50 police cars were deflated, also not an entirely insignificant disruption of the summit’s infrastructure. And this is not all: there were various affinity groups that moved about the woods around Heiligendamm and erected one barricade after the other; on Thursday, there was an attempt by more than one hundred people to blockade the road from Rostock towards Bad Doberan, which ended up with the police blocking the road for hours until everyone was detained; on the same road a Naked Block appeared later that day; the road towards Kühlungsborn was blockaded with cement; on the road leading from the Rostock Laage airport to Rostock and Heiligendamm several blockades were attempted; and there may have been many more actions we might not even know about, as it normally happens with decentralised actions.

What the PAULA call provided was a context for organising spontaneous and flexible actions. Working in affinity groups, often with experienced people, at times these groups united in broader clusters to blockade together. This proves that decentralised actions and mass actions are not mutually exclusive.

On a negative note, PAULA’s protagonists chose the route of clandestinity and relied too heavily on personal networks. Thus, people not already in the know, especially people coming from abroad looking for an access point to the process, found it extremely difficult to make contact.

The confusion as to who ‘organised’ PAULA, whether it was a Dissent process or not, contributed to the problem. This became especially clear when people started crossing the camps asking for a central Dissent meeting where they expected the PAULA plans to be explained.

Both PAULA and Dissent simply ceased to exist the moment the camps began. Yet it is amazing how many small actions were carried out, even when so many people decided to join the more transparent Block G8 plan. If we are serious about the value of decentralised self-organisation, what might have happened if the same amount of people as had participated in the Block G8 blockades, had organised multiple blockades in the area around Heiligendamm?

In the media, hardly any of the decentralised action appeared, which mirrors the fact that radical left groups have not been able to create a sense of legitimacy for more confrontational methods in public opinion. Is the media hatred that permeates some sections of the radical left one that is counter-productive?

Here, we have observed that the simplistic way in which media work is analysed amongst many radical left groups has more to do with a criticism of a certain type of communication, i.e. one which tries to appear as conciliatory to the media, not one which understands the media as a site of struggle in itself.

Although there were certain cumulative effects of the two blockading concepts, we would argue here that the Block G8 approach and the PAULA concept could have been far more complimentary, thus contributing to a much more significant moment of antagonism, less able to be co-opted. In this spirit, we have three proposals for future experiments with radical mass resistance:
Three proposals

Firstly, the radicalising potential of Block G8 tactics could be extended if we are able to find ways to remain within an antagonistic position. The challenge for the future is to think about how to organise an accessible experience of resistance for inexperienced people that empowers them to push the boundaries of the possible towards more confrontational methods (whereby the content of ‘confrontational’ has to be specified in the concrete situation).

Secondly, PAULA-type approaches, need to be organised more accessibly and transparently. This issue connects to the problem of clandestinity. Do people organise so clandestinely for fear of repression? It is useful to remember that much of what PAULA encompassed was not more criminalisable than the Block G8 actions. Marginality often results in a self-reproducing style of politics that merely serves to reinforce people’s sense of identity with an inward focus towards subcultural existences, and not to transform social relations. A clearer structure for organising decentralised blockades is required, which does not preclude the possibilities for personal networking for those who want to work in clandestine and small groups.

Finally, we propose to concentrate on maximising cumulatative effects between different action concepts. In Prague, for example, during the protests against the IMF and World Bank meeting in 2000, the effect of the ‘Tute Bianche’ of keeping thousands of cops occupied on the bridge towards the Convention Centre was to provide space for the Pink and the Blue Block.

There not only needs to be much more self-criticism of all involved but more open, accessible forms of communication between different action approaches. Not to achieve a consensus about one method, but to think about how to compliment one another during the action. This process also has to become a central part of organising an effective diversity of tactics that is able to amplify our resistance.

For an overview of all the demontsrations, direct actions and blockades in and around Rostock and Heiligendamm, see the action map at http://www.gipfelsoli.org/rcms_repos/maps/action.html.

(by Association for Autonomy, a4a)