As with every year, protesters descended on last week’s NATO Summit to let the world’s leaders know just how evil they all are. Yet unlike previous years—when actually quite a lot of people turned up to wave placards at presidents and prime ministers from half a mile away—the camp of around 100 people outside the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, looked a little limp. That might sound like a slightly miserable assessment, but it was one suggested to me by some of the demonstrators themselves.
It’s easy to say that protests are pointless, and a lot of people—including disenchanted activists—say exactly that. I wouldn’t level that charge against the anti-NATO demonstration; it’s great that people care enough about what they call the “war-mongering” body to camp out in a wet field in an effort to shut it down, however optimistic that goal might be.
But looking at what they were up against this year—10,000 police, many with guns and dogs, miles of steel fences surrounding the meeting venues, armored cars, helicopters, US Special Forces, British, US, French, and Dutch warships, and the British army—it didn’t seem like their efforts were going to get them very far. This was 100 people battling what's been called one of the biggest security operations the UK's ever seen.
Still, the protesters were there and planned on doing all they could to disrupt the summit, so I went up to Newport to find out exactly what those plans were.
The anti-NATO protest camp in Newport
Conveniently, the day I arrived was planning day. People had organized themselves into affinity groups and were discussing their respective plans of action. There were workshops on self-defense, how to break through police lines, how to free activists caught by the police, and what your legal rights are once you’ve been arrested.
As a journalist I wasn’t readily told what was going to happen. But I did manage to get myself into one of the affinity groups, which I followed to Cardiff, where we were staying due to worries that the camp outside the summit might be raided by police.
The next day, still unsure of what was planned, I followed the group back to Newport. There, a group of activists were marching toward the Celtic Manor Resort.
Of course, there was only so far the march could march, as there was a massive steel wall blocking its path (which may soon be shipped to the port in Calais, France, to keep migrants from trying to illegally enter the UK). Pissed off at the sheet-metal barrier, a bunch of people started trying to pull it down.
Unfortunately for the protesters, it seemed like whoever built the wall did so with the intention of keeping people from tearing it apart. Failing to make much of a dent, activists instead resorted to banging on it and swearing at police through the little glass windows.
Locals Jake (left) and James
Stuck on what to do next, I spoke to a couple of the people who were trying to get beyond the wall.
VICE: Why are you here today?
James: To have fun.
Do you live around here?
Yeah, I live just down the road. I saw the protesters coming by, and I saw a load of pigs down on the other side of this wall—why can’t they all just drop fucking dead?
Did you know about NATO before, or did you just decide to come down because you saw a load of cops?
Yeah, yeah, I did. I heard about the protest. At first I came up here to start a riot, and then I saw all of these people are fighting for a good cause.
So you hate the police?
Yeah, the second they bring this wall down I’m fighting them.
OK. What about NATO?
With NATO, I think nuclear war’s not a good thing—it’s what they’re all talking about up there. And Palestine should be a free country. What’s wrong with that?
Do you have similar sentiments, Jake?
Jake: Yeah, absolutely. I live just up the road—all of these cops here are a pain in the arse. They’re all around Newport, absolutely everywhere.
Anything you want to add?
James: Fuck the police and fuck NATO. Tell them to stick their own heads up their own arses.
Jake: Yeah, well said.
Before everyone started kicking the shit out of the fence, some local people and a small group of representatives from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Greenpeace, and Stop the War had been allowed to pass through it to deliver postcards and flowers to a delegation sent from NATO.
Meryl, one of the local residents allowed through, had tried to make a citizen's arrest on the NATO delegation. I had a chat with her after she'd got back to the other side.
So what happened over there?
Meryl: When we went through the barrier it was like something from I, Robot. Seriously—helmets, full body armor, shields, guns ready to shoot. Hundreds of damn policemen. It was terrifying: 500 or 600 to protect two people who came down to receive our delegation. I put my hand on their shoulders, each in turn, saying, "I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest for aiding and abetting war criminals." I said, "I’m handing you over to the police," and this high-ranking police officer said, "We’ll decide whether we want to investigate." I was just making a point.
How far did you get beyond the big steel barrier?
It was a couple of hundred yards up the road. We went past all of the houses on the other side of the steel wall. There were police in people's gardens. Vans outside the houses, with armed police with dogs. Police hidden in the woods on the corner.
**So there are people living on the other side of the wall? ** Yeah, it's a community completely divided in half. It's appalling. All of those residents must have been investigated. I don’t know for certain, but maybe some of them were removed from those houses, or maybe police in people's gardens were stopping them from coming out.
Do you think anyone will read your postcards?
They’ll be binned [thrown away] before they get up to Celtic Manor. Someone took some white flowers—they’ll be chucked in the bin. Nobody’ll read them. They don’t give a damn. I also handed in a letter from a Turkish foundation. Turks are very concerned about what’s happening in their country. I told them about behind the wall and they said, "Our police have gone one stage further—they shoot people all the time." Those people need to be heard. So many people need to be heard, but nobody is [being heard] apart from that top 1 percent.
The next stop of the day was Cardiff Castle, where NATO delegates were eating dinner. Stop the War had organized a rally, which was attended by a few hundred protesters. Everyone was expecting Barack Obama to drive past in his motorcade, but he never did—presumably because there are other entrances to the castle and his security detail isn't stupid.
The activists I was following seemed to have their plans foiled by this development, and they didn't appear to have much of a plan B. Instead, they just ran around the crowd in a little huddle, looking very conspicuous as the police kept an eye on them.
The rest of the rally followed a similar theme: People complained that the turnout was poor and insisted something proper would have happened if only more anarchists had turned up.
The following day some people from the camp organized an occupation of a branch of Barclays, protesting the bank's investment in the Israeli arms company Elbit. This was actually a fairly militant action compared with what I'd seen over the previous couple of days; the protesters entered the bank shouting and singing, and then lay down on the floors.
Before the police arrived, four activists had super-glued their hands to desks and weren't budging.
Eventually, the police shooed everyone apart from the super-glued people out of the building, and after about an hour a "de-bonding" kit was brought in and the activists were unglued and arrested for aggravated trespass.
Authorities had expected many thousands of protesters to turn up for the summit. In the end, only a few hundred showed, and fewer still engaged in direct action. There was a palpable feeling among the activists I spoke to—many of whom had been planning the protests for the whole year—that it had all been a bit of an anti-climax.
But hey, at least there still some people out there willing to citizen's-arrest civil servants and super-glue their hands to Barclays furniture in the pursuit of peace. After all, 100 protesters are better than none.
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