From the bar to the barricades

Infiltration, manipulation, amateurism, beginning of insurrection, gratuitous and blind acts or wild carnival…? What happened on November 6 in the margins of the national demonstration?

At first glance, the demonstration organized on November 6 from 12:00 to 14:00 between the Gare du Nord and the Gare du Midi had nothing to excite those jaded by the traditional parade of vests and flags in union colors on a marked route. But the context of generalized austerity and a national strike against the anti-social measures of the new government have motivated the recalcitrant. We were 120 000 according to the police, probably a few tens of thousands more, without forgetting all those who had to stay on the platform for lack of space in the trains to reach Brussels… This had not happened for a long time.

At first glance, the demonstration organized on November 6 from 12:00 to 14:00 between
the stations of the North and the South had nothing to enthuse the jaded of the traditional parade of vests and flags to the union colors on a marked out route. But the context of generalized austerity and a national strike against the anti-social measures of the new government have motivated the recalcitrant. We were 120,000 according to the police, probably tens of thousands more, without forgetting all those who had to stay on the platform for lack of
place in the trains to reach Brussels… This had not happened for a long time. After having been moved by the strength and diversity of the crowd, having tasted the pleasure of jumping to avoid the firecrackers, the first marchers
were invited to join an esplanade largely too small to contain all these people, where in turn musicians and union leaders tried to warm up the atmosphere with the help of hits and speeches dated from the 70s and 80s. Faced with this sad ending, some preferred to storm the bars and snack bars of the neighborhood, or the trains back home, or turn back and admire the procession
which still stretched as far as the eye could see, the last demonstrators having still not left the Gare du Nord.
There, between the esplanade and the boulevards, one could see another animation, much more impressive and unexpected. Hundreds or even
thousands of people, most of them wearing orange work clothes that indicated their belonging to the port of Antwerp, had decided to
extend the route on the Petite Ceinture, probably to the headquarters of the MR, the party of the new Prime Minister. But their project was thwarted by
the appearance of a police roadblock, which had been particularly discreet until then.
A row of blue men, equipped with shields, truncheons and white helmets, tried to contain a mass of orange men, sometimes hooded, who tore, threw or overturned everything they found in their path: paving stones, poles, barriers, vans… The blues ended up backing up several hundred yards, opening up a huge playing field for the « troublemakers ». From time to time, the blues would charge. Then they stepped back, visibly overwhelmed.
The curious flocked to observe, photograph or comment on these insurrectionary scenes with a drink in hand. An indescribable confusion emerged from this ballet of colors, sounds, smells, emotions. One could thus admire the majestic entry of the fire engines, the throwing of tear gas, the clouds of smoke, the fire pits emerging in the garbage cans or in the middle of the streets, the inanimate demonstrators taken away in ambulances, the policemen evacuated in stretchers, the « agitators » passing from the bar to the barricades, a mug in hand… One could in turn: be enthusiastic about the decapitation of the Decaux billboards, be saddened by the explosion of vehicles of inhabitants of this popular district, be pleased with the beginning of the dismantling of the real estate horror that has disfigured the district to house the offices of the SNCB … To be amused by the vision of a policeman running away while abandoning his motorcycle, burned a few moments later, or of his colleague in civilian clothes having his camera snatched by dockers throwing it into the flames. To feel sympathy for those who were pushing back this police whose reputation weighed in 2002 on the decision of the Council of Europe to organize all its summits in Brussels; hatred when some of them attacked other demonstrators or local residents; injustice when vans of flea market dealers went up in smoke.The fight lasted more than two hours, without the blue men ever trying to surround the oranges or to bring them back to the place of the demonstration. Provisional toll: 112 police officers and dozens of demonstrators injured, 43 arrests, 11 vehicles burned and 62 others damaged.
What had happened? A torrent of comments and interpretations was about to break out. The mayor of Brussels explained to us that the Antwerp dockworkers hate the capital and only go there to « break ». The police spokesman said that the dockworkers had been « infiltrated by anarchists » and that this unlikely alliance had set off the fire. Journalists saw the hand of the far right hovering over the « rioters », with some dockworkers linked to the Vlaams Belang and a handful of members of the Nation group having been removed from the demonstration by trade unionists. Worse: the fine detectives of the anti-fascist website Résistances even found two Dutch neo-Nazis marching, with their hands in their pockets, among the 120,000 demonstrators… which was worth a press release, widely taken up, thus giving substance to the absurd thesis of « neo-Nazi infiltration ». On the side of the demonstrators, some pointed out that the police were reluctant to go to the front because they had to deal with arms that were bigger than their own. Trade unionists noted that some of the « forces of order », exasperated by the attack on their pension scheme but also by the chaotic implementation of the police reform, were in solidarity with the demonstration and did not want to repress it. On the other hand, some have argued for a manipulative scenario in which the state has allowed this to happen in order to tarnish the demonstration and justify repression in the next episode. Less prosaically, others saw in these events the beginning of a broad anti-capitalist uprising. Only one thing is certain: the authorities and the unions do not seem to have anticipated these « excesses ». The union’s order service was invisible, the police strategy non-existent. The dockworkers were spotted on their arrival in Brussels, but the « anti-hooligan device » was not triggered, the pump cars arrived empty, none of the adjacent streets were blocked. Officers in the Brussels zone complained that they had not been given permission to send reinforcements when their colleagues in the Midi zone called for help, turning the affair into a psychodrama within a police force that feels unloved by its mayor — who is, moreover, the subject of a complaint by some police unions and of an investigation by the Minister of the Interior.
What if none of these explanations are satisfactory? And what if, beyond the thirst for media sensation, romantic or paranoid versions that ignore the combination of circumstances, we had to accept a certain complexity to understand a social movement of such magnitude? To accept that the demonstrators are as diverse as their motivations, that they are not necessarily all « left-wing » and that it can happen that racism mixes with social revolt, even if it shatters some of our reference points… And that in addition to the rage expressed peacefully by a well-coded mass demonstration, anger and rage are rumbling in certain social strata. Much more than a desperate quest to break the MR headquarters, or the mere desire to fight with the police, the November 6 clashes can also be seen as the simple expression of a need for an outlet to avoid suffocating in the current political climate. A moment of transgression, like a carnival in a way, allowing the release of repressed energies in a society busy breaking all the valves that contained them until then.

 

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