The Night of May 10, 1968 - extract from The Back Dwarf 13,1
In this extract from the first issue of The Black Dwarf, Jean-Jacques Lebel gives a vivid first-hand account of the events of May '68 in Paris
6.30 pm at Place Denfert-Rochereau demonstration called by UNEF and 22 March Group collects 30,000 people blocking traffic for two miles. The crowd is asked by Cohn-Bendit and other leaders where it wants to go. They decide upon the Prison de la Sante, the Ministry of Justice then the ORTF (the French BBC) which has been insulting and disgustingly untruthful in its reporting. While marching at least 5 or 6, 000 more join in. We circle the Sante Prison which is defended by thousands of armed police then turn towards the right bank and the ORTF. By clever stationing of police, we are forced to turn up the Boulevard St Michel instead of down St Germain. This was our big mistake, not to push through there and then. We realised then we were falling into a trap. The enormous demonstration was halted in Boulevard St Michel by gigantic forces—we were encircled.
22nd March Militants begin to dig up cobblestones. Some UNEF people and bystanders try to stop us. Dean of University asks to see representatives, of professors and students. Cohn-Bendit and four others go to se him. They come out an hour later saying, ‘nothing happened’. Decision is taken to occupy the Latin Quarter peacefully, not to provoke police but to defend ourselves if attacked. This was followed to the very end; barricades were defences and all participants merely defended themselves from police attacks. We just wanted to hold the Latin Quarter to show police who had been occupying the Sorbonne for five days that they must leave. ‘ We will occupy the Latin Quarter without bothering the police, until the police are gone’ said Cohn-Bendit. This statement was supported by most of the university staff. It must be clear that what happened on this historical night was totally improvised: no direction, no preparation, very little coordination. It was a spontaneous explosion.
Literally thousands help build barricades (Europe no. 1 Radio reported that more than 60 barricades were built in different streets), women, workers, bystanders, people in pyjamas, human chains to carry rocks, wood, iron. A tremendous movement is started. Our group (most have never even seen the others before, we are composed of 6 students, 10 workers, some Italians, bystanders and 4 artists who joined later; we never even knew each other’s names) organises the barricade at angle of Rue Gay Lussac and St Jacques. One hundred people help carry the stuff and pile it across the street. From then on I was so busy coordinating work at our barricade that I don’t know what happened elsewhere. Witnesses say it all happened at the same time and more or less in the same way all over the Latin Quarter. Our barricade is double: one three foot high row of cobble stones, an empty space of about 20 yards, then a nine foot high pile of wood, cars, metal posts, dustbins. Our weapons are stones, metal, etc, found in street. Of course the majority of people simply look on. We organise a cordon to keep photographers and bystanders away from us.
A great deal of spontaneous help is given from inhabitants of nearby houses who offer water, sugar and cloth as protection against gasses and warn us of police movements.
It is their support which keeps our enthusiasm from flagging in the seemingly endless time of waiting for the inevitable police attack.
It is now obvious that police are preparing a powerful attack. Radio announces we are surrounded and that government has ordered police to attack. (The Chief of Police insisted on the order in writing. ) Some bystanders leave. We continue building up barricades organising supply of rocks and medical centres every 100 yards. I try to coordinate runners between different barricades near ours but we lack time and are caught by attacks before we can get it together. Practically no news from other points of our territory. Someone finds a French flag, we tear off blue and white part—red flag now floats over our barricade. I am told many red and black flags flew on other barricades. In front of us we turn over cars to prevent police from charging with their buses and tanks (Radio said tanks were coming but we never saw any) it also said 15,000 workers were on the way to help us from St Denis but were surrounded by the army. (They never materialised either, although a great many workers were already helping us to construct barricades. ) I must insist again that the general mood was defensive not offensive, we just wanted to hold the place like an entrenched sit-down strike and if we had not been savagely attacked there would not have been any violence at all. After days of occupation of the Sorbonne and surrounding area by heavily armed police it was the least we could do to hold our ground — the Latin Quarter. Police attack on Place de Luxembourg. Their tactics are simple: at 100 yards distance they launch gas grenades by rifle which blind, suffocate and knock us out. This gas is m a c e (Vietnam and Detroit mace). Also small explosive grenades one student near us picked one up to throw it back, it tore his whole hand off (reported in Le Monde), tear gas and phosphorus grenades which set fire to the cars. We defend as best we can and later we find out that practically every barricade withstood police at least an hour, sometimes four hours, regardless of blinding and suffocating gases. The police are slowly advancing up Gay Lussac (crowds are running away, we have a hard time calming them down and channeling them towards exit down Gay Lussac where police are fewer). But then police attack at three points simultaneously: at two extremities of Gay Lussac, at our barricade and at Rue d’Ulm. Casualties are heavy on our side, mostly people knocked unconscious by gas, some temporarily blinded. Thousands of voices shout together: ‘ De Gaulle assassin’, ‘Liberez nos camarades’, ‘Revolution’, ‘A bas l’Universite bourgeoise’. Some make molotovcocktails. I try to dissuade them for fear of police massacre not so much of us but of thousands of onlookers, just standing there, fascinated. The general feeling is of a trance. We feel liberated. Suddenly we have turned into human beings and we are shouting ‘WE EXIST WE ARE’ an incredibly heroic gesture, grabs a red flag and leads us towards the cops through the gas and grenades.
To our utter surprise we outnumber the enemy and they retreat. Crowds behind us cheer wildly. We come back behind our barricade, only one slightly wounded. But gases are our worst enemy, we can’t breath, we can’t see. Finally we are forced back. Our barricade bums. At this point all I can remember is that I fainted from lack of air. I come to in a corridor two girls slapping my face and putting wet cloths on my eyes. Water is the only thing that helps. They tell me a student carried me there. I look outside: police are everywhere, our barricade across the street burning. Yellow gas fumes are so thick you can’t see. I try to run out, thinking to rejoin our forces further down but police are charging from both sides with grenades and big lethal truncheons; we are cornered. We organise inside building at least 60 students, some wounded, others fainting. We try to barricade the door. Some desperately ring door bells inside the house, nobody dares answer. We crowd staircases. Police arrive, break down door, grab a few and beat them to pulp, throw in three gas grenades which are murder to our lungs and eyes
Police leave to come back later. A girl on the second floor tells us to come in, we crowd in like sardines and she gives us water. Outside: explosions, explosions, explosions.
Still fighting outside. We all vote to call Red Cross anyway because one of us is bleeding badly. We are scared of Red Cross because they sometimes turn us in to the police, but other times protect us, you never know. It is a fact that many Red Cross that tried to help wounded or faint students were also beaten by police (see Le Monde for details of this kind, of police armament, gas, etc. . . ) The police are searching house by house, room by room. Anybody with black hands and gas spots on clothes (gas attacks leather) or wounds is beaten and arrested. (More than 500 arrested in all. ) We 60 decide to leave together in case we have to fight our way down the street: Helmets are given to girls. The sun is up. We run into the open in a body: fantastic: what a sight! Smoking barricades everywhere, overturned cars, street unpaved, for half a mile. Painted words on walls: Vive la Commune du 8 Mai, ABAS L'ETAT POLICIER... I can’t help it, I run over to see our barricade. It still stands, deserted; some onlookers, stunned, the unbelievable sight of the empty battlefield. This Rue Gay Lussac was ours all night till about 4. 30 am. o u r s . I ask a student for a piece of his dirty red shirt, we tie it to a stick, put it back on our barricade and run, police are charging on other side of street. I can hardly walk from pain. We circle round to Rue d’Ulm, there to police arresting everybody including those in medical centre. Barricades and cars smoking in every street and every comer. Passers-by warn us where police are; many people in cars and taxies volunteer to take us out of police zone. Everywhere we see enormous police buses full of our people tired, beaten, bloody prisoners. The revolution has begun. If you want to help us there is one way.
DO THE SAME THING.
This extract from The Black Dwarf 13:1 is taken from the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn trust website, where the full archive of BD is digitised.