GERMANY: Blockupy – resistance in the heart of the European crisis regime

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.

“Our resistance is THEIR crisis!”

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.

Discussion and action together

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.

Over the wall at the European Central Bank!

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.

More info on Blockupy (also in English) here. Photos courtesy of German Indymedia.

Joe Nathan is an activist based in Germany who has visited Aotearoa/NZ twice and took part in some Fightback events.

Strike Debt – Occupy Wall Streets latest campaign

Kelly Pope

After some months getting off the ground, Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has grown fast in its efforts to alleviate poor communities from debt. The idea of tackling the issue of debt was first discussed at the encampment at Zuccotti Park, and since then has been developed by protesters including those with banking and legal backgrounds. The basic aim the campaign is to buy debt, which is split up, packaged and sold for much less than its’ worth, and forgive it.

Part of the reason for the slow start to the campaign was the consultation which had to be carried out with the tax department and legal advisors. Packaged debt is usually bought by debt collectors, after which the purchasers make every effort to see the debt repaid, with no thought of the welfare and personal circumstances of those owing money. Contrastingly, the campaign’s goal was to buy debt, but not to attempt to recover it, and through a legal loophole the purchase of debt with this intention was possible.

As a trial run, the campaign bought some of the cheapest debt, and wrote off $14,000 worth of medical loans which it had purchased for a mere $500. Organiser David Rees announced the financial viability of the action saying “as you can see from our test run, the return on investment approaches 30:1. That’s a crazy bargain!”

Since then, the movement has grown, and has been targeting communities hardest hit by the recession. With the donations of financial supporters, the movement managed to buy up and forgive further debt to the value of $500,000 by November 14th. This was the figure on the day before the campaign’s biggest fundraising effort.  [Read more…]

“Nazi-Free Zone” : Anti-Semitism in the 99%

Ian Anderson

Many readers will have heard about the fascist vandalism at Symonds Street Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Auckland. Swastikas, 88 signs, and the slogan Fuck Israel[1] were scrawled across the gravestones of people who died before Israel was founded as a state. This was not the first time fascists in this country have vandalised Jewish gravestones; similar attacks occurred in 2004.

The weekend after the Symonds Street vandalism, members of the community gathered in the cemetery to state their opposition to fascism and anti-Semitism. Some associated with the Aotearoa not for Sale campaign played a role in organising this event. Placards bore the slogan, “Nazi-Free Zone.”

The following week, three men were arrested in connection with the crimes. One of the accused, Nathan Symington, spoke to the press denying his guilt, stating “I’ve got all my alibis worked out.” For some, the next shock came when it turned out Symington had slept at Occupy Auckland and marched in the Auckland stretch of the Aotearoa is Not For Sale hikoi.

Symington’s Facebook profile features swastikas, pictures of him performing a Nazi salute, and racist status updates. Whether or not Symington is a vandal, he is a fascist and an anti-Semite. When he attended the Aotearoa is Not For Sale march, he bore a skateboard with swastikas chalked on to it; on Facebook he captioned this, “nationalism is the key.” [Read more…]

Occupy Christchurch Womyn’s group

In recent months a new space has opened up for radical women in Christchurch to hold discussions and organise around social issues.

The Occupy Christchurch Womyn’s group first met several months ago when Occupy Christchurch remained active, but general assemblies had become tense and the safer spaces policy overlooked.

Over the course of the movement, Occupy became a difficult space for many activists to work in with its increasing inward focus, disorganised and poorly attended meetings and individuals dominating the discussion with their own agendas, often unsupported by the group.

For women in the movement, the atmosphere of Occupy Christchurch was discouraging and, at times, openly confrontational.

Though these dynamics were not limited to the movement in Christchurch and were noted by womyn around the country (see  Why Have Women Left the Occupy Movement in the April 2012 issue of The Spark or online at http://bit.ly/HZoOCy), Christchurch activists have worked to create a welcoming space alongside the wider Occupy group to discuss issues specifically impacting on womyn in our communities. [Read more…]

Safer Spaces in Political Organising

“Safer spaces” began in forms such as consciousness-raising groups

Kassie Hartendorp is a Workers Party member, founding activist of the Queer Avengers, and works as a youth worker for a queer youth organisation. This article is adapted from a talk presented at the Workers Party annual conference.

What is a safe space?

As background, safe spaces began in forms such as consciousness-raising groups within the second wave feminist movement. These were spaces which allowed women to openly discuss the discrimination or abuse they were subjected to and strategise ways to fight against issues relating to sexism. The safety of these spaces was important as they provided an opportunity for women to come to terms with issues such as domestic violence or sexual abuse, within a supportive environment. They were also a space that addressed the issue of male domination within wider political groups and as such, often excluded men with the intention to minimise the chances of abuse or marginalization, so that those involved could move forward in their fight against oppression.

Nowadays, safe spaces are often associated with the women’s movement and the queer community. They were formed on the basis that women and queer people were often not physically safe within mainstream groups, and in these environments, people could feel confident expressing their identity or just existing without the threat of violence or verbal abuse. [Read more…]

An oral history of Occupy Christchurch

Byron Clark is based in Christchurch and is the current coordinating editor of The Spark. He has a BA in history from the University of Canterbury. This will be his first oral history project.

Recently I began fundraising for the equipment needed to record an oral history project on Occupy Christchurch, and subsequently publish that project in book which will be donated to Christchurch City Libraries, The Alexander Turnball Library, Archives New Zealand and the Canterbury Museum archive. Of course, copies of the book will be available to the public as well, and the whole project will be published online. The goal is to make the stories of Christchurch’s Occupy protesters as widely accessible as possible.

To raise the funds I am using the crowd-funding platform PledgeMe. Crowd funding provides a platform for projects to raise funds though a large group of people giving smalls amounts. With the money already raised, this project requires just a $5 donation – so long as that $5 donation is made 195 times by 195 people. Crowd funding has been made use of largely by creative people such as filmmakers and musicians, but has also been used for social movements. ‘Occupy the Movie’ is being financed through crowd-funding, as is the documentary adaptation of ‘The Spirit Level’ a book examining inequality.

What is oral history?

A basic definition of oral history is ‘the collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events’. Beyond that, it is a form of ‘peoples history’ well suited to the Occupy movement. I have been asked on multiple occasions what qualifies me to write the history of Occupy Christchurch. My answer is that I am not writing the history but recording it. As someone involved in the movement I could write down my recollections but that would just be one person’s history, I plan to tell the stories of approximately one hundred people.

I have also been asked if I will be interviewing people who opposed the Occupy movement. I am interviewing people who were involved in the movement, this includes people who left on less-than-good terms and will no doubt result in a wide range of opinions being expressed thoughout the book. But I am not going to be interviewing people opposed to the movement from the outset. This could result in cries of bias or an unbalanced history, but I am not setting out to write a definitive history of Christchurch in 2011-2012, merely to add to the historical record.

Whatever voices are loudest in the present will also be the loudest in the history of this time. Opposition to Occupy came from politicians and media pundits- The Press the largest circulation newspaper in Christchurch printed an editorial stating the protesters should leave the camp site (and reprinted it several weeks later when they were still there) The opinions of the mayor and city councillors were also widely reported. Through no fault of historians, our recent history is already biased in favour of the powerful, whose voices are not just louder, they are amplified.

Local stories

I have also been asked why I am just doing this project about Occupy Christchurch, and not Occupy New Zealand. The main reason is the costs involved; the current fund raising target is to cover a broadcast-quality digital recorder and an initial print run of one hundred books. The travel costs, not to mention the necessary time off work, would make covering the whole country overly ambitious.

A possibility is that money made from book sales could be used for a grant to an oral historian in another city to conduct a similar project; of course this depends on demand for copies of the book.

The earthquakes that hit Christchurch over the last two years also make the story of its Occupy protest unique. With the central city uninhabitable, protesters were able to remain in their chosen location longer than other New Zealand occupations, and the housing crisis meant that the Occupy camp swelled with homeless who became radicalised as they mingled with socialists, anarchists and
others.

If you want to contribute toward this project, you can pledge at https://www.pledgeme.co.nz/Crowd/Details/313 there are ‘rewards’ available such as copies of the book, and the opportunity to be listed in the dedication as one of people who made it possible. If you are not in a position to pledge money, you can help out by spreading the word and helping reach people who can.

Review: Occupy This Album (2012)

Byron Clark

Wired magazine journalist Quinn Norton wrote about the music of the Occupy movement way back in December 2011, stating that “A movement goes nowhere without creating culture as it grows.” ‘Occupy This Album’ seemed almost inevitable. This is the closest thing possible to an official sound track that could come out of this loosely organised and non-hierarchical movement. All proceeds from the album go back to Occupy Wall Street activists.

Ambitiously the album was going to contain 99 tracks, playing on the slogan of “the 99%” that the movement has popularised. The CD version consists of 78 tracks, though the download version contains 99. Big names from previous generations of protest-musicians feature here: Patti Smith, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco (singing the union song Which side are you on?), Yoko Ono, and Joan Baez all leant their talents to this project. Even folk legend Pete Seeger- now in his mid-90s appears here, speaking on the track Industrial Park by his grandson’s band ‘The Mammals.’

Alongside those artists are tracks from more contemporary artists. Thievery Corporation and Third Eye Blind are probably the most recognisable names. Leftist punk rockers Anti-Flag, and rapper Immortal Technique are both here, and while the politics is good the heavy punk and hip-hop don’t slot in so well with an album that is mostly folk and progressive rock. Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine, now performs ‘World Wide Rebel Songs’ which makes for a better fit. Another great track is English singer-song writer Lloyd Coles The Young Idealists which exemplifies the album’s mood and musical style. Listening to this album you’ll also be exposed to some songs by lesser known artists such as Build the Sun and Jennie Arnau, as well as the novelty of a cover of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A’Changin’ performed by documentary film maker Michael Moore. [Read more…]

Responses to “why have women left the Occupy movement?”

Our article in last month’s issue (also available online here) looking at why women have left the Occupy movement elicited several responses. They are printed here to continue this important discussion.

As part of our Socialism 2012 conference, the Workers Party will be holding a session on “safer spaces in the left,” concerning how to make left groups welcoming and inclusive. This will be facilitated by Kassie Hartendorp at 11am Saturday the 2nd of June, Newtown Community Centre.

 Still supporting the movement

How do you know they left the Occupy Movement to even start asking the question? Has there been some kind of research done? Occupy Auckland was, after all, in the CBD, so naturally it comes with the regular experiences that come with transients and those who drink and take drugs in and around the city, I had one frightening experience one particular night I was there, but it didn’t stop me supporting the Movement or going back, sleeping in the middle of the city poses its risks, irrespective of whether a person in an occupier or not, it’s all just part and parcel of sleeping rough, though I admit, the safer spaces policy did kind of go out the door during the latter part of the occupation.

-Alison Withers  [Read more…]

Occupy New Zealand: where are they now?

On March 25th the last tent came down at Occupy Christchurch, the only remaining Occupy protest in the country. It would be a mistake to think that the end of these camps means the end of the movement in New Zealand. The Spark went to find out what the movement is up to now its activists are sleeping indoors.

Auckland
In the United States and other northern hemisphere nations the “99%” is regrouping and gearing up towards a general strike on May 1st. Closer to home Occupy Brisbane is regrouping and taking space again in the face of their city administrators. Here in Auckland and across the country we are gearing up for the next spate of purges on the workers, the poor and our environment. April 28th was a day of action against Asset Sales, The TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Off shore oil drilling. The day was the beginning of the ‘Aotearoa not for Sale’ Hikoi. Occupy Auckland participated, bolstered by enthusiasm from watching the “Occupy Spring” taking place in North America.

We joined the fight in support of the future dispossessed residents of Glenn Innes as the demolition of state housing strips people of what have in some cases been homes for generations and pushes the poor further away from amenities and job opportunities in Auckland. [Read more…]

Why have women left the Occupy movement?

Byron Clark, Coordinating editor of The Spark

The Occupy movement began as a movement championing the “99%” united against the 1% of the world’s population that control a disproportionate amount the worlds wealth. A possible flaw in this is that oppression is not as simple as a 99:1 ratio and exists within the working class and even within social movements. A movement that saw an even gender balance when it arrived in New Zealand last October saw the number of women involved dwindle to just a hand full. The Spark asked women currently or previously involved in the movement why they thought so many women left. Their responses are printed here. Some names have been changed for privacy reasons. [Read more…]