Lessons From Act 23 of Yellow Vests

Act 23 leaves the bitter taste of the unfinished. Thousands of Yellow Vests have once again come to Paris, perhaps more than for March 16th during the first ultimatum. Beyond numbers, it is determination that strikes and disturbs the government. Week after week, the population in the street seems determined not to back down. Not to go backwards. However, this Saturday, April 20th, the police’s strategy was stronger than the determination of tens of thousands of citizens. But at what cost? And for what results in the weeks and months to come?

From the beginning of the morning, we understood that this day would in no way look anything like Act 18. The first non-sanctioned gatherings at 10 am did not gather enough Yellow Vests to prevent the police present from encircling and then forcing everyone to disperse (including in the metro). The vast majority of Yellow Vests gathered therefore at 12 pm for the departure of the sanctioned demonstration at Bercy.

Everyone was there. There is determination too. We felt a real dynamic. Except that it was a Bercy-Bastille-République sanctioned protest – the ultra classic route of the union demonstrations. The police prepared the ground and knew exactly how to handle the situation, to the point of taking the initiative to cut the procession into several groups (at least three different). The whole thing, very far from the quarters of the ultra rich and governmental places. Above all, they managed to push all the Yellow Vests to Place de la République – the official place of the end of the rally. It was 3:15 pm, and act 23 in Paris was already coming to an end.

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Because all Parisians know that to finish at République means henceforth to lock oneself in a giant trap. To trap oneself in the proper sense since, like in the past, the prefecture gives the order to block any exit from the square, and this lasted for more than 3 hours!

Not only was it no longer possible to protest, not only could no one in the square leave, but law enforcement allowed themselves the completely abject game of flooding the square with tear gas. Even worse, groups of 15 to 20 police made incursions into the very center of the square, filled with thousands of demonstrators. At the slightest projectile, they charged, with the aim of catching (and hitting) those who will not be fast enough (rarely those who launched projectiles).

We were a long, long way from the maintenance of order. If it was about keeping on top of the situation without spillages, then it was enough to leave Place de la République open and without charging or launching gas. No, the objective of the prefecture (and therefore the government) was to trap thousands of people in the sun, to pack them, compress them, gas them, and to charge at them. For what purpose ? Probably to terrorise them and dissuade them from coming back to protest for the following acts. This is a strategy of terror.

There were many elderly people, many children. Most of them were novices as to the practices of demonstrations, in particular the Parisian demonstrations of Yellow Vests. Several people lost their nerves and started to shout, to scream, to panic. And inevitably, some got upset too. Because it’s a very weird feeling to feel trapped in a space filled with thousands of people with large crowd movements at every gassing and charge. Some really panicked and/or went crazy. Some were ready to put themselves in danger so that they could leave. Others, hitherto peaceful, joined the most offensive Yellow Vests. The longer the day went on, the more panic was felt, and the more the tension became palpable. Hundreds of citizens absolutely wanted to leave, whatever the cost. Several Yellow Vests alerted the police that it could end in a tragedy. We felt that at the slightest spark, a person could really flip. And it was not the most offensive Yellow Vests that were potentially the ones who could have totally gone off the rails under the spell of panic and a nervous breakdown.

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But by being treated like animals, how can one be surprised that some began to act like ferocious beasts? At one time, when you wanted to get rid of a dog, you would annoy it so that it gets angry and bites. One could then accuse it of having rabies, of being dangerous … and to hit it.

The big lesson of this day is that it is no longer possible to deal with the government and its armed wing. In a democratic country, protesting in concert with the authorities makes sense. In a country that flouts fundamental freedoms every day, it amounts to surrender.

Today, trying to accept the government’s rules for demonstrations is to simply facilitate the task of breaking and hurting the movement, including physically. Especially since the government allows itself to abandon its own own “rules”: The Yellow Vests who had received permission for the rally (until 22:00) were insulted and gassed. On April 20th the level of indiscriminate and gratuitous police violence increased, with beatings and completely abusive detentions, including of journalists. Never in the last five months have the reporters who follow the movement been subjected to so much repression.

Faced with this situation, it is becoming increasingly clear that the strategy of sanctioned demonstrations can only lead to the death of the movement: they do not prevent violence, gas, and abusive arrests. But it allows the government to contain the anger. Act primitively, plan strategically. This maxim of the resistant poet René Char is more relevant than ever.

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Because as hope remains in place, the flame burns more than ever: Saturday, in the middle of tear gas and successive charges, hundreds of Yellow Vests started to sing “We are here”, while advancing against the riot police. The police charged, bludgeoned, and gassed. And again: the Yellow Vests came back, sang, and advanced. If the process may seem doomed to failure, it is the created dynamic that matters. And this dynamic is resistant to gas and truncheons.

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