From 20 to 23 November, leftists from all tendencies assembled in Frankfurt (Germany) for a festival of discussion, workshops and action against capitalism and the Troika.
By Joe Nathan
About 3000 activists with banners and signs are gathering next to the Christmas market at St. Paul’s church in Frankfurt, Germany. A few of them came from as far as Spain, Italy and Greece. It is 22nd November, almost winter, but still quite warm. After a few speeches, the demonstration sets off for the new building of the European Central Bank (ECB) – the organisation partly responsible for the austerity policies imposed on Greece and other European countries affected by the debt crisis.
The slogan under which the activists assemble is “Blockupy”, the name of an alliance formed in 2012 to take the crisis protests into the heart of the European regime – to Germany and, particularly, Frankfurt. In this alliance, different tendencies of the left came together, including: radical leftist groups such as Interventionistische Linke (“interventionist left”, IL); the anti-authoritarian communist alliance “Ums Ganze!” (“everything is at stake”); parties, youth and student organizations, unemployed movements, unions, Attac (a network which supports a financial transactions tax) and the Occupy movement.
This was quite a new thing for the left in Germany, where the Left has been mired in separatism and dogmatism for years. However, the need was clear for a broad left movement against the ruling class’s authoritarian and neoliberal responses to the Euro crisis. Many activists were inspired by the mass movements of the Arab Spring and in Spain, the Occupy movement, and of course the struggle against austerity in Greece.
Frankfurt was chosen mainly because of the ECB, which forms – together with the EU Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – the Troika (a Russian word for “trio”). The Troika imposes austerity policies on European countries that are in debt crisis, such as Greece or Ireland, forcing those countries to privatise state-owned companies, sack public sector workers or cut their pay, and dismantle social welfare and health systems, in return for help with paying government debt. This does not help the population at all, but only the banks that lent money to the government.
These austerity policies deepen the economic crisis and cause unemployment, poverty and lower life expectancy. The government of Germany, as the most powerful EU state, has always strongly supported the Troika and promoted austerity – although it partly caused the Southern European crisis itself with its strong focus on exports, weakening other Eurozone countries.
The first Blockupy days of action took place from 16 to 19 May 2012, greeted by huge police repression. A few weeks earlier, in another leftist demonstration in Frankfurt organized by “Ums Ganze!” and IL, many bank buildings had their windows smashed.
The strategy of the Blockupy alliance was to occupy public squares in Frankfurt to use them as a camp and venue for workshops, discussions and cultural events. The activists were organised in various “fingers”, representing different political issues connected to the crisis, such as ecology, migrant rights, militarization, social revolution, food sovereignty, and gentrification. This also included “CAREvolution”, a feminist campaign focussing on unpaid care work, often performed by women.
This strategy brought together activists from different backgrounds and made clear that the protest was not only against the ECB and other banks, but against the whole system of capitalism and other forms of oppression such as patriarchy and racism that are connected to it.
The police banned all demonstrations and gatherings, and even searched buses and trains before they reached Frankfurt. Nevertheless, the activists succeeded in occupying Paul’s Square and Römerberg, the square in front of the town hall, and disrupted the operations of the ECB and other banks. On the last day of action there was a huge rally of 30 000 protesters, the only event allowed by the police.
During the action there were a total of 1430 arrests. The media could not ignore this repressive police response towards peaceful protesters and so – even in conservative newspapers – the reports were quite friendly to Blockupy and condemned police brutality.
It was clear for the alliance that Blockupy could not be a single event, but that there was need for continuing resistance. So they organised a second Blockupy from 30 May to 1 July 2013. They slightly changed their tactics, to creating a stable and legal camp outside the city centre for better infrastructure and coordination.
On the morning of 31 May, the activists set out from the camp in various fingers to the building of the ECB and successfully disrupted its operations again by blocking the roads and stopping employees from going to work. Afterwards, the protesters spread around the city for other actions – such as blockading the main shopping streets in solidarity with sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, or protesting inside the airport, from where many refugees are deported.
The police tried to prevent the rally inside the airport by declaring that only 100 people were allowed in the airport, and that these people should be named by the organizers. But after the airport’s train station had been blocked, the police agreed to just count the protesters and then let them in. Refugees took part in the demonstration as well and spoke about their personal experiences. Many of them came from a refugee protest camp in Berlin that was established after a protest march from Bavaria to Berlin. Solidarity came from a Frankfurt citizens’ movement against aircraft noise.
On the following day there was supposed to be a big demonstration through the bank district, like the year before. However, shortly before entering the bank district, the rally was stopped and the anti-capitalist bloc at the front was surrounded by police – allegedly because a protester had thrown a paint bomb. But this happened after the police had already stopped the rally. It was clear that they just didn’t want to let the anti-capitalist activists, many of whom wore black-bloc-style clothing, into the bank district.
They offered to let the more moderate parts of the rally continue the demonstration, but they refused and stood in solidarity with their comrades, who were being beaten up and arrested one after the other. So even though the demonstration could not happen as planned, there was a really good atmosphere of broad left solidarity.
In May 2014 there was no central Blockupy event in Frankfurt, but instead decentralized actions were held all over Europe. The opening ceremony for the new ECB building was expected in autumn, which was set as the date for a central Blockupy action. The programme for this “May of solidarity” brought activists from the radical left through to reformist groups together – building democracy from below against the Troika’s authoritarian rule, defending and taking back common wealth, and struggling together in solidarity. In Germany, there were demonstrations and direct actions on 17 May in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Düsseldorf.
The ECB did not hold its opening ceremony in autumn, but postponed it to 2015. So instead of organizing a huge action against the opening ceremony, Blockupy decided to hold a festival with workshops and discussions, but also parties and actions from 20-23 November. During these days, working groups with international participants theorised on issues such as transnational networking, struggles on social infrastructure or the reformation of the extreme right as a weakness of the left.
There were theoretical workshops on crisis theory or the role of animals within capitalism, workshops about strategy such as how trade unions could be better integrated into Blockupy or similar movements, or how social and ecological struggles could be connected. Some workshops were also practical, like working on materials for the rally or learning about different kinds of direct actions.
There were also two panels with international guests. On Thursday, Costas Douzinas from the University of London, Sandro Mezzadra from Euronomade (Italy) and Andrea Ypsilanti from “Institut Solidarische Moderne” (a left think tank) discussed left parties participating in parliaments and governments. Andrea Ypsilanti was received sceptically as she is also a member of the SPD (Social Democrats, the Labour Party equivalent). However, she was quite critical of her own party, though she said she “did not want to lose hope”.
When the first Blockupy action days took place in 2012, protests against the Troika in Southern Europe mainly formed an extra-parliamentary movement. But now in 2014, the movement has also formed political parties such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. It is possible that Syriza could form a government of the left after elections this coming January. The panel guests discussed how this could be successful. It became clear that whilst many on the left agree that it is good when left parties take over the government, this is not enough. We also need a strong movement and self-organisation outside of parliament.
On Friday, Ulrike Herrmann, writer and journalist, and Janis Milios from TU Athens, a Syriza member and economist, debated “seven years of crisis in Europe – controversial explanations and perspectives”. On the role of the ECB, Ulrike Herrmann argued that it had done some things quite well under its new president Mario Draghi, like buying government bonds, and therefore should not be targeted by protesters. She added that Blockupy should protest in Berlin, since the German government is the main agent pushing for austerity. Members of the audience, however, argued that the ECB is still part of the Troika, and the moderator suggested that protests could be held in both Frankfurt and Berlin.
When it came to perspectives to end the crisis, the question arose again how a government of the left in Greece, which would repudiate its debt to ECB and thus end austerity, could be successful. When Janis Milios was asked whether a Syriza-led government would be an anti-capitalist project or maybe just another class compromise, he answered honestly “I don’t know”. A member of the audience criticized Syriza stating that its leader, Alexis Tsipras, already said that his government will be a danger to neither the EU nor NATO. Thus, this comrade argued, we shouldn’t put our trust in Syriza but instead argue for real revolution. There were many questions left open at the end of the theoretical part of the Blockupy festival, and maybe they can only be answered in practice.
But the Blockupy festival was not only about theory, but also action. So let’s get back to the 3000 activists marching towards the ECB’s new building. It is not in the city centre, where the old one was, where homeless people hung out and where the Occupy Frankfurt camp took place. Instead it is on the outskirts of the city, away from disturbing elements. At least, that’s what they hoped.
When the rally reaches it, it is announced through the speaker that the demonstration is now officially over. This is the signal. The activists throw packing boxes over the building fence, labelled with things that the ECB represents, such as “austerity” or “poverty”. This is Blockupy’s participation in the ECB’s moving process. But that’s not enough. About 100 activists climb the fence – the police try to stop them with pepper spray, but soon give up – and run towards the ECB. They decorate its front with paint bombs in the Blockupy colours of blue, green and red. During the last few days, the ECB has also announced the date for the official opening ceremony: 18 March 2015. Some activists in front of the ECB are holding a banner saying “18 March – We’re coming!”. Before the police can arrest them, the activists climb back over the fence to their comrades.
This action today was just a little taste of a big Blockupy action in March next year against the opening of the ECB. It will be an interesting time. By then, Greece could already have a Syriza-led government. It is not clear if this will be a real progressive project, but in any case it will be important to have a strong international leftist movement, to fight against austerity and neoliberalism and for self-organisation from below, and to defend the left (especially in Greece) against attacks from the right.
Joe Nathan is an activist based in Germany who has visited Aotearoa/NZ twice and took part in some Fightback events.