Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Berlin

I knew there was an Occupy Berlin even before I arrived here two days ago, because I'd seen Dina Rasor's column about it in Truthout and because I'd been greeted at Frankfurt Airport by a map of all the German "Occupies" published in the Oct. 27 issue of Die Zeit. There are lots of them, and Berlin is the biggest (followed by Frankfurt and Hamburg). Based on what I saw today, Occupy Berlin is well on its way to establishing itself as a serious Occupy movement.

Things started out slowly at the first event I attended, which had been announced for 1:00 p.m. on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate. I arrived to find only an older couple holding up a banner calling for a tax on net worth and a young man setting up cardboard signs. This turned out to be one of the main initiators of Occupy Berlin and the webmaster of one of the several currently active Occupy Berlin websites. (Other OB websites can be found here, here, here and here.) For a while the demonstration remained modest in size, with half the 50 or so participants forming a "meditation flash mob" while others went on talking around them. Since I spoke up to offer greetings from New York, I was asked to report on how things were looking there at the moment. Then the organizers explained Occupy Berlin to newcomers, announced several upcoming local events, and took questions from the crowd.

Around 2:00 p.m. things became much more lively. A large march of protesters dressed as billionaires and holding signs praising the virtues of greed and consumption arrived at the Brandenburg gate; they were initially stopped on the far side of it by a line of policemen but then (perhaps because the large masses of tourists out enjoying the late-October sunshine were being stopped by the blockade as well), allowed to pass through. They then began a (pre-arranged) shouting match with the original group of 99%ers that ended with a sort of summit: A man holding a wooden mock-up of the Pope (who complained loudly that the police had stopped him and punched a hole in the water bottle he had rigged up to allow his wooden pope to urinate) recited an excellent parody of the Lord's Prayer rewritten as an ode to profit. Then an Angela Merkel lookalike (sort of) gave a speech ("The future belongs to the rich," etc.) Then we all marched peaceably to the front of the Reichstag, where a General Assembly involving several hundred people took place; in Berlin, GAs are referred to by the Spanish word for "assembly," asamblea, in tribute to the demonstrations in Spain.

It was clear from this GA that Occupy Berlin is still in its early stages: The main business of the assembly, after the explanation of the standard OWS hand signals, was inviting people to stand up and say why they had come to the assembly. A number of the things you would expect to hear (about not feeling represented by one's elected officials, etc.) were said; a man from Greece explained why the proposed bailout of his country by the EU would not help anyone, including the Greeks; a small child stood up twice and performed cuteness; someone sang a protest song translated from the Portuguese; a woman from Mexico reported on successes in achieving certain rights for indigenous peoples in her country. Some of this was inspiring. Overall I'd say that some of the sort of organizing that gives a movement its identity has yet to occur in Berlin. But things are definitely moving along. A number of working groups have already been established. A kitchen set up beneath a tree ("Occupy Imbiss") was serving its first meal. There was even a catchy Occupy Berlin song, "Asamblea weltweit," performed to lead off the march.

There are Occupy Berlin spinoffs as well. One of the announcements made today was that a second Berlin-based Occupy movement, Occupy Friedrichshain, is planning to hold a large demonstration at the Oberbaumbrücke and establish a new camp tomorrow (10/30). The neighborhood Friedrichshain is the Williamsburg of Berlin, so I'm not surprised to hear it now has its own Occupy, complete with website. This will be, as far as I know, the fourth attempt to start an Occupy camp in Berlin. Protesters at the inception of the movement on Oct. 15 - a demonstration that attracted huge numbers of Berliners - first attempted to establish a campsite in the shadow of the Reichstag, but were prevented by police, who in the end resorted to physical force to remove the tents being defended by dozens of peaceful protesters. A second camp was established on Oct. 28 on private land at Klosterstrasse 66 not far from Alexanderplatz; as I write this, it is still standing. Protesters today attempted to start a new camp at the Marx-Engels Forum beside Alexanderplatz itself, but were stopped by police. So far it appears that the same strategy working in New York (establish a camp on private property open to the public) seems to be most effective in Berlin as well.

Something I noticed today is that most of the older people I spoke to at the demonstration and assembly turned out to be East Germans, and all three of them let me know fairly soon in the conversation that they were from the East and emphasized that they had learned from experience how much can be achieved by taking peaceably to the streets. (Remember that the Berlin Wall was breached during one of a series of increasingly large protests that had been taking place weekly in Berlin and Leipzig for months.)

Another thing I noticed was that the Berlin police were both more aggressive and more restrained than the NYPD. On the one hand, members of the Polizei were right in our faces the entire time, often standing close enough to the demonstrators to be able to hear most of what was being said privately as well as via human mike; they also conducted aggressive bag searches, unapologetically profiling people (e.g. of the two women I spoke to who got searched, one had waist-long dreadlocks, and the other was Iranian). In the course of these bag searches, the police tried to force people to give up things like blankets (remember, an outdoor meditation session had been announced, so of course people had blankets). There was a great deal of discussion about this, and several of the gray-haired participants got vociferously involved, making it harder for the police to isolate and intimidate some of the younger people they were picking on. I believe they did succeed in taking a yoga mat away from one young man, but the woman with the dreads got to keep her blanket.

But apparently it is possible to talk back to the German police without getting arrested; this is very different than in New York. And in the video that shows the German police pushing their way through a crowd to take down a tent, they don't seem to be arresting the people who get in their way, they just push them firmly, but not violently, to one side - though two policemen do eventually get inappropriately violent with a pair of seated protesters near the end of the video. In short, even though the German police seemed more intimidating to me overall than the NYPD (because they kept getting right up in my business as I was simply standing on the sidewalk), I saw nothing even approaching NYPD-style transgressions like the casual use of pepper-spray, kicking and dragging handcuffed protesters or the nightstick beatings that were captured on video in NYC (not to mention the rubber bullets and tear gas employed last week in Oakland). I was also briefly part of a crowd that marched from the Brandenburg Gate back toward Alexanderplatz - walking right in the middle of the street Unter den Linden and blocking traffic there - without anyone getting arrested. I'd like to see that happen in New York.

Oh, and the demonstrators in pearls and neckties passed out handbills announcing that as of immediately a daily asamblea would be held at 5:00 p.m. in front of the Reichstag. Yep, sounds like a movement that's quickly picking up steam.


Kevin Lossner said...

Welcome to Berlin, Susan. And thank you for making me aware of what is happening in my front yard. Some people do forget how much was accomplished by the brave, peaceful protests in the GDR. That was not Mr. Kohl's victory. It was a victory of the people. May they prevail again. Here, and in New York and everywhere else.

Gary Winter said...

Thanks for this report Susan!