Blockupy, May 16–20

Outside of the US and England, Germany has had one of the most active Occupy movements, which has persisted with protest camps in multiple cities and a well-organized and long-lived flagship encampment in Frankfurt, directly in front of the European Central Bank and its iconic statue of the Euro symbol. Occurring simultaneously with the student protests of recent weeks in Montreal and Quebec and the continuing turmoil in Greece and Spain, Frankfurt’s Blockupy—like the US protests on Wall Street—represented a demonstration in front of a nerve center of financial power. Here is a firsthand report. –Eds.

Blockupy Frankfurt began with a conference call in December. A small group of activists from a range of organizations insisted that, since protests against unregulated finance were flaring up all over the globe, we protesters in Germany should try to narrow our differences and focus on our similarities. After three or four more conference calls, the time came for a larger meeting. On Sunday, January 22, about 250 activists from various well-established groups met in Frankfurt to discuss ideas. The Occupy movement, which I come from, made up a big part of this, since only a few days before people had gathered in Frankfurt from all the German occupations. Originally, the January 22 meeting was not supposed to bring about any definite decisions, but we decided to meet again from February 24 to 26 to organize joint days of action. Blockupy was born.

500 Meters of Green Filled with Tents

At the second conference on the historic campus of Bockenheim (where the Frankfurt School was born), information sessions and working group meetings considered every possible issue for a joint protest. It was agreed that the event should take a visible stand against the politics of the economic troika made up of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank. The ECB, whose offices are located in Frankfurt, would be the main target. A blockade, that was originally planned in 2010 but was never carried out due to lack of participation, would encircle the ECB tower—just to disturb its operations for one day. Since a blockade would constitute civil disobedience, and not everyone would be ready to face a confrontation with the power of the state, we would plan other protests to occur alongside this main action. We agreed to regular meetings to prepare and coordinate these efforts.

Not Permitted

At the beginning of May, the City of Frankfurt imposed a ban on all of the actions we had announced. This decision was ostensibly the consequence of rioting that had occurred during a protest against capitalism on March 31. But as our events had been planned by entirely different organizers, and were peaceful as a matter of principle, a contest for public opinion ensued between the city and us. Press releases, conferences, and anti-protest propaganda—much of it led by conservative Interior Minister Boris Rhein, who two weeks before had been deprived of his expected succession to the Frankfurt mayor’s office, and couldn’t hide his anger—yielded extensive media coverage addressing a public that frankly, outside of Frankfurt, proved not very interested in these fundamental violations of civil rights. And the courts mostly agreed with the city.

Wednesday, May 16, Day 1: Eviction 

The Occupy Frankfurt camp has existed for seven months, directly in front of the ECB. Despite the addition of as many as 5,000 on-duty policemen per shift, entry bans for potential rioters, and the fact that Occupy is a peaceful organization in its declared principles, someone suddenly decided that we were a threat to the business of the ECB and other Frankfurt banks, and a “forbidden zone” was established in Frankfurt. Consequently, from Wednesday, May 16 at 8 AM on, no one was allowed to stay at the camp. Since we weren’t ready to leave voluntarily, we practiced nonviolent civil disobedience, sitting in plastic kiddie pools filled with warm shades of paint. We would dip each policeman who carried an activist away in color. It was the perfect example of what the following days were supposed to look like: colorful, peaceful, defiant. 

A City Blocks Itself

To get an idea of the atmosphere throughout the city you have to envision the thorough application of the concept of “safety.” Many of the smaller streets leading to the financial district were closed off and guarded by groups of policemen. State power was omnipresent. Convoys of police cars drove in circles around the city. If a crowd hadn’t dispersed after 30 minutes at most, a police loudspeaker van would arrive, declare the assembly to be illegal, and demand its dispersal. If multiple requests were ignored, the participants were carried away, recorded by police or, as happened in a few cases, moved on to a “collection point.” Buses coming from other European and German cities—we had invited people who disapproved of the policies of the ECB to join us from across Europe—were intercepted on the roads, searched, and directed to go back to where they came from. Banks in Frankfurt cut their daily hours of business or shut down completely. ATMs were closed. A few stores barricaded their windows with planks. Bankers were advised not to wear their suits to work and, if possible, to work from home. Two subway stations (Willy-Brandt-Platz and Alte Oper) and one suburban train station (Taunusanlage), were shut down, leaving anyone who needed those stations, along with two tram lines (Line 11 and 12) stranded. The Goethe University of Frankfurt shut all of its four campuses and therewith its whole university enterprise. At the central train station, side exits were closed and the main exits were regulated by identity checks. Individuals with backpacks and other bags that could contain tents, sleeping bags, or camping mats were searched again and again, to identify potential protesters and keep them out of the city. Tents were confiscated even if they hadn’t been erected anywhere. Even a traditional block party in the city—the Fressgassfest—was postponed.  

Thursday and Friday, Day 2 and 3: Banned Assemblies

Since the bans against Blockupy had disrupted the protest program completely, these two days proceeded very similarly. Assemblies were called constantly, and then surrounded by police in no time at all. There wasn’t much to blockupy in this already state-blockaded city. The only goal now was to demonstrate resistance against the restrictions on assembly. The protest directed against the banks faded, while protests for freedom of assembly prevailed. Copies of The Constitution, the German Basic Law, were distributed. In an odd loudspeaker-announcement, the police requested that we “refrain from distributing the constitution.” The Frankfurt Theater cancelled an event with David Graeber at the last minute, at the recommendation of the police (or the German Intelligence Service, it wasn’t clear). But then the event could be held at the campus student center. The atmosphere was reminiscent of reports from the ’68 protests, the last time student-led assemblies in Frankfurt had grown to such great numbers.

One quickly got used to civil disobedience. The fear of transgressing the law passed quickly. We felt like fighters for a just cause who were simple, living representations of democracy and the power of the people. None of us would have our rights denied.

Saturday, May 20, Day 4: The Permitted Protest 

This protest dwarfed all the others of the past few months including those of last fall at the Blockupy’s birth. It amounted to a sea of people one could dive into and swim among, peppered with countless banners and flags used for orientation within the currents. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people were all at once pushing and shoving their way through the Frankfurt financial district. Police patrols were positioned at every street corner to make sure the procession followed the designated route. Considering the limited number of policemen, their presence was more symbolic rather than acting mechanisms of effective, societal control. They were there to keep up the illusion that the forces of order were in charge and that the public was being protected. Who exactly was being protected from whom? Empty high-rises formed a loud, colorful, uncontrollable crowd that had gathered from all over Europe. Afterward, we learned that there had been some back-and-forth between the black bloc and police, but that it never got out of hand. Without any major incidents, everyone arrived at the gathering place for the final rally where a stage had been erected before the Blocupy camp and the ECB building. The usual program was repeated, prepared speeches were recited with little fervor. Despite thousands of us pouring into the streets in outrage, our emotions and our arguments were ultimately still not unified. Why can’t the revolt against current conditions be articulated on an emotional level? In the end, we stood there, lost among the like-minded. Although we were certain that many shared in the expressed outrage of the protests, and we were aware of both the state’s shortcomings, as exhibited over the previous days, Blockupy hadn’t changed the rules in the fight against injustice.  We had tried to express our indignation with our hands and our feet, but once again we hadn’t succeeded in matching it with an articulable language. And then, we all went home.

Translated from German by Anne Schult

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