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Tag Archive for black bloc

Dispatches from France Three: Nantes Manifestación 6/2/16, A Fateful Resonance, Lines of Graffiti

Nantes1

“Dans la rue avec la CGT on fout le zbeul”
(“In the streets with the CGT fucking things up”)
–Graffiti 06/02/16 Nantes

El Errante

Nantes, Pays de la Loire. Another day. Another manif against the Loi du Travail. This time, Nantes. I had wanted to see Nantes; it is near the ZAD and had been the scene of some of the more furious riots over the past months. Some of the video of the action shows the torching of a Porsche, black bloc versus CRS clubfests, and the arrest of dozens of protestors. Indeed, of those protestors held on house arrest as of 06/02/16 nationwide, the vast majority were residents from the area in and around Nantes. There are a number of reasons for this, the city saw a unique upswing in student revolutionary activity in the late sixties of sufficient size to warrant a trip to the city by Vaneigem to see what, in fact, was happening. The Nantes unions had declared for a Commune which lasted from 23 May to 12 June 1968 during this time the town hall was occupied by a joint strike committee of workers and peasants. This insurrectionary activity has continued to the present and the resonance between the ZAD, and the nearest large city, Nantes, is clear.

I arrived in Nantes on the Sunday prior to the event and had been told about the progress of the planning for the manif. It was pointed out to me that the folks involved in logistics had a very hard in time in Nantes estimating how many folks will attend any given demo. As an example at one of the pro-ZAD manifs in 2013, the expected 5,000 attendees was vastly underestimated, and most observers put the final census at a whopping 20,000 protestors. Planning therefore, and flexibility, are important. The date was set for June second at 10am, all the unions would attend, as would other interested parties — and basically any radical anywhere close to Nantes, who heard the call-out, marked their calendar. I went to the demo with a number of local anarchists and a member of the Federation Anarchiste from Paris. The turn out proved to be less than huge, perhaps 2 to 3,000 — tops. Yet there was a nantesdamagesignificant number of black bloc folks there, and also a good turnout of the local anarchist community. Who were missing were the police, CRS, and the assorted forces of law and disorder. They were nowhere to be seen, which I counted as odd. The march began with the union folks starting off followed by the black bloc and radicals who quickly moved to the front. The first turn was to lead to the local prefecture, essentially the executive of the large county-like structures that functions as a middling level in the hyper-centralized French state, and the police prefecture, no explanation needed and finally into the heart of Nantes. We were supposed to walk across a bridge that spans the Erdre river, a small tributary of the Loire, but it was blocked by hordes of cops, riot vehicles, all standing behind an impressive mesh steel fence reaching to the bridges upper structure. The black bloc went to work throwing bottles filled with paint and some irregular objects. But with the steel fence blocking projectiles there was little that the black bloc could do so the tactical decision to continue and ignore this first technical victory by the police was taken. By now the unions, led by the reformist CGT, had passed around the black bloc and continued to march to — God knows where. The stated goals of the march, the prefecture, the prefecture of police, the town hall and the Nantesgraffiti3train station now seemed out of reach. Undeterred the black bloc regrouped, a graffiti bombardment began (more on this later), and quickly sought to regain the lead position in the march. I stood in the back and watched as a virtual horde of black clad warriors moved quickly past the unionists by sticking to the sidewalk. It looked like a march of black ants climbing a non-descript multi-colored tree or wall. As they attained the front there was a brief halt as CGT marshals tried to get the black to bloc to turn around. They said if they tried to move into the town center, which was the general direction they were headed, that they would all get their asses kicked. The black bloc was not impressed and after some debate and a moment’s hesitation moved off. As I walked in the black bloc the FA comrade beside me looked back and said, “Good, the CGT is following.”

One thing the black bloc had brought to the march was new to me, a sound system, a good, loud, fucking sound system. Which they used to blast alternating dubstep, détourned revolutionary songs, French classics and pop. As we marched we saw a number of cops running in our direction from a side street, as they did the sound system blasted the last minute or so of MIA’s Paper Planes, which includes the chorus of, “All I want to do is (four loud gunshots) and take your money.” The song stopped the bloc and most turned and faced the advancing police as they mimed the gunshots by pointing their fingers at the cops and imitating the motion of firing a pistol and then loudly sang the final line. The faces of the police as a few hundred finger pistols shot at nantesgraffiti1them was classic; a mix of horror, anger, and something else…fear maybe, or vengeance. The song ended, and the march continued. It was pure political street theater, and a scene I’ll likely not forget.

We moved past the town hall, an ugly office like affair, which suffered greatly in smashed windows and loads of graffiti. Moving past the building brought the black bloc into a small open square, which revealed a line of CRS facing their right flank. Barely had I made the open square when the sound of dull thuds sounded and multiple canisters of CS gas poured down on us. The handkerchief came out and I wrapped it around my face. There was little to do but move fast past the spreading shadow of the NiklaBacteargas. The black bloc decided not to stand and fight in the tight streets and moved quickly down and onto the central plaza, and the final destination — the train station.

There was an impromptu march by the assorted radicals after the termination of the original march. We followed this march for about a mile. It was gassed twice and the CRS finally moved in to disperse it along with the most fearsome element of French law enforcement, the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité). The BAC are units of physically fit lunatics whose job is to move in and arrest demonstrators, when there are no manifs to harass, they turn on drug dealers — and in Marseilles at least, steal their drugs and sell them or use them. The Marseilles BAC was fired to a man in a massive vandalismcorruption case that included drug seizure, sales, intimidation, etc. In the black bloc the BAC are loathed and everyone seems to have their own favorite BAC story of abuse and degradation. The folks I attended the manif with decided that the march was ending and so we moved off. At the same moment there was a sound of tear gas being fired and the entire remnant of the demonstrators turned the corner that we had left them at, and came running straight for us. As it happened the FA comrade smiled and said, “ The hardest thing is leaving a manif. Sometimes it follows you….”

The next day I retraced the route of the march to get some photos of the graffiti that had gone up. It varied greatly, alternately ironic, chiding, demanding, and funny. It’s only common characteristic was a knife-edge of provocation and subversion. I include some of the standouts with translations and explanations where necessary.

Dans la rue avec la CGT on fout le zbeul

In the streets with the CGT fucking things up

[A double meaning. 1) The black bloc chiding the CGT as reformist and pacific and 2) An invitation to the CGT to join the bloc to make thigs better. Note also the extreme slang of “fucking things up” (on fout le zbeul)]

2017: les urnes en miettes

2017: ballot boxes in pieces

(2017 is the next national election in France)

Nik la BAC

Fuck the BAC

l’action est le soeur du reve

action is the sister of dream

laragelaswag

Le Rage et le swag

The Rage and the swagger Nantesmayor

l’emuete embellit ma ville—Johanna Rolland

riot embellishes my city—Johanna Rolland

( Rolland is the mayor of Nantes)

Nantes, l’emeute au naturel

Nantes, all natural (organic?) riotimaginationpourvuir

L’imagination a pourvoir

The imagination fulfilled

(a twist on the May ’68 Situationist slogan, “All Power to the Imagination”)

Vive le Vandalisme

Long Live Vandalism

(in the original, Vandalism is misspelled…deliberately?)

 

Dispatches from France Two: Manifestación 5/27/16, Who’s on First, Losing a Friend in a Riot, and Black Bloc Logistics

manif2
El Errante

(Paris, Ile de France, 28/05/16) The scene is becoming clearer and it doesn’t look good. On one side of the street a line of CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) stands in a wall, unmoving, silent, ready. And opposite them by about 100 meters is another solid row of CRS, hard rubber matraques held ready. I look down at Loni, whose view is obscured by the mob, and tell her to get ready, they may use gas. She and I both fish around in our backpacks for the red and black handkerchiefs that the Federation Anarchiste (FA) folks had given us. Movement is impossible in the crush, and I find myself less worried about being pummeled about the head and shoulders by CRS goons than the likelihood of being smothered or trampled should the crowd move or run suddenly. Two or three dull explosive thuds resound in the sunshine and a cloud of teargas, wafted by a slight breeze, moves ghostlike over the crowd. The sound of choking erupts immediately as the protestors begin to move away from grayish blue gas…

Earlier — I am walking with Leon, Loni, and a bunch of folks that we had met at the FA infoshop prior to the demonstration. As we walk I notice that we are headed to the front of the march, and that most of the anarchists and autonomists including the black bloc are positioning themselves there. I ask, “Are you always at the front of the march?”
“No,” Leon responds, “but with the way things are, we take the front and the unions let us. They don’t like diversity of tactics, but in this case they recognize that we are having an impact. Before this we were barely tolerated, now we lead.” And so it was. The manifestacións manif5(manifs) sparked by the Loi du Travail have had a fundamental impact on street-based social contestation in France. The unions failed to respond quickly to the legislation, and initially tried to distance themselves from the autonomist and anarchist challenge. In the ensuing days of confrontation and riot someone, somewhere decided that the unions had better support what the radicals had started — and so the placement of the black bloc (and others) at the head of the march had become, for now at least, standard.

The march was huge, the unions put the number at 50,000, though the initial police estimate was 19,000. The largest reformist union — the CGT — its flags, posters, vehicles and t-shirts were everywhere. Stark, working-class reds glowed in the early afternoon shade. Other unions, professional organizations, and left political parties were out as well — the Force Ouvrier, French Communist Party, Trotskyite groupuscules, etc. As we waited for the march to begin I had time to ask Leon some more questions…

“So what is the bottom-line? What do the unions want out of all this?”

“The ideal would be for the law to be repealed, not amended, not have the debate restarted. Just, deleted.”

“And what is the likelihood of that? Has anything like this ever happened before?”

“It’s possible. Some unpopular legislation has been dropped at the last minute, but this is already law. To retract it now would be committing political suicide. Especially as it comes from a Socialist administration.”

“I still can’t believe that we’re at the front of the march.”

“Well, it’s still about control. CGT has a whole squad of security that march right behind us. If the cops really attacked the anarchists or autonomists, I think the union security squads would back us up.”

The march began to move slowly; the FA folks handed out copies of their new magazine and pasted up circle-A stamps on lamp posts and manif1bus shelters as we walked along. A few “characters” moved through the crowd, one dressed as a clown seemed pretty well known and he would stop and talk to various libertarian groups. As we strolled down the Rue Diderot several explosions sounded up ahead — the black bloc had managed to lay hands on some impressive fireworks, likely M-60s or M-80s and were evidently tossing a few in the direction of CRS lines established to prevent people from splitting off from the main march.

The march then took an odd turn onto Rue Chaligny — we advanced perhaps fifty meters and then in an instant the people at the front of the march stopped, turned and began walking fast towards the back. Their faces immediately told the story — a line of CRS blocking the road up ahead. It’s a trap. Loni and I turned just in time to watch another row of CRS draw up, effectively blocking the street on both ends. She grabbed my hand and pulled me up onto the sidewalk, but that didn’t help matters, it was more crowded than the street and the cops had it blocked as well. I kept wondering what the hell do they want? They’ve blocked off the street, we’re trapped like rats — usually when cops pull this kind of shit they at least leave an outlet somewhere. The people around us began to mask up against the gas, and Loni and I did the same; then the thud of canisters being launched and the (almost beautiful) dispersion of teargas from multiple containers. I had never seen it this close before and just before my eyes began streaming tears I recall thinking, Wow, it’s like Fourth of July fireworks.

The crowd around us surged and I could feel Loni’s small hand slip from mine, and by the time I turned around she was gone — lost in the crowd, gas and fear. The CRS then backed off from the Rue Diderot side and allowed the crowd to return to the main thoroughfare. I met Leon and the rest of the anarchists under their red and black flag. They had brought water ampoules and after dousing my eyes and face my vision finally blurred back into sight. Evidently Loni had made it out safe, but had left the manif and was likely headed back to her hotel. I, on the other hand, wanted to see how it ended.

As I walked ahead of the FA group a commotion on my right caught my attention, it was the black bloc attacking the storefront of a Škoda dealership. The assault was spirited but the windows were proving to be pretty tough to get through. In fact with between 5 and 10 folks working on it took ten minutes to reduce the plate glass to whitish sand. As I watched the progress two things struck me, first there was a significant amount of communication between the attackers and folks standing next to me. This interaction took the form of both hand signals and yelling. Also the folks standing next to me were conspicuous in that one held a small red flag stapled to a dowel and the other occasionally held aloft a book that I recognized immediately, manif3The Coming Insurrection. I also noted that they were constantly looking up and down the street, possibly for police, or more likely for warnings from other lookouts who were placed further away from the action, so as to increase the likelihood of escape if the cops intervened. Which they didn’t. I also noted the complete support of the crowd. As the glass began to give way applause and shouts of encouragement came from all sides. I reflected back on demos in the US where spray painting a Nike store would always draw some liberal out of the crowd to castigate the destruction of property — or the time honored refrain supporting cops — “Well, they are workers too.” Anyway as I observed the black bloc folks, they started to take an interest in me, or rather my t-shirt, which depicted two nihilists in Italy kneecapping a nuclear power executive as they rode by on a motorbike. Rydra had given me the shirt at the East Bay Anarchist Book Fair, and the members of the black bloc obviously recognized the scene and after giving me (or the shirt) a thumbs up, they indicated I should follow them. Which I did.
Which is how during the last part of the march I was swept up into the black bloc and got the chance to observe their tactics more closely.

Which, when you see them on videos, appear utterly random and based on happenstance, opportunity — and to a certain extent they are. Yet there is also some sophisticated surveillance happening and, to the extent allowed by circumstance, security and coordination. The two spotters, distinguishable either by the red flag or the book held aloft, stayed well apart from the action, and each other. Some targets were obviously chosen by virtue of their being in the path of destruction, like the various bus shelters, advertising kiosks, and ATMs I watched being vandalized. The hand signals used were simple, non-military, expressive. The okay signal, indicated that it was time to move on, damage done. A hand wave towards the action brought more folks into the fray, and a hand wave away moved people out of the area. The various implements of destruction, paint balls, heavy objects resembling bricks for throwing through glass, firecrackers, and flares were kept by folks who stayed far away from the action — when needed they were called for. We finally reached the Place de la Nation, and the black bloc faded into the crowd — hoodies were placed into backpacks, shoes were changed, and they walked off in groups of twos and threes looking like normal Parisian high school kids out on a spring weekend. And not the angry, uncompromising insurrectionary that lurked just beneath the surface of each one.

The FA group arrived at the Place some ten or fifteen minutes after I did, we spoke for a moment or two. I thanked them for inviting me and we made plans to meet and talk the next day. I walked the long way home to the hotel in Montmartre. I was tired, my eyes stung, and I couldn’t shake the creepy feeling that the demo, the violence, the riot were still going on — somewhere. And that very soon I would once again be looking down a row of CRS goons, waiting for a teargas canister to blossom at my feet.