Occupy Vs. Ackermann: Protesters Confront Germany's Top Banker
Josef Ackermann was meant to give a speech in Hamburg about business ethics, but then masked Occupy activists stormed the event. The Deutsche Bank chief remained cool and sought dialogue, saying he had waited for just such an opportunity for years. In the end, it was his masked opponents who fell short.
Perhaps he was just pleased to experience something slightly different from the usual. For days, Josef Ackermann has been traveling from one city or financial center to the next: first Berlin, then Seoul, Korea, then Passau in southern Germany and now Hamburg. Each time, the Deutsche Bank chief has had to shake hands and tell the same story -- namely how strong Europe really is, but also how serious the situation has grown within the euro zone. He has also had to address the prickly issue of his imminent departure from the bank -- exactly the kind of developments that might make someone yearn for something completely new and different.
That novelty came on Tuesday evening at 6:12 p.m. Ackermann had just begun a speech in Hamburg before a group of business people. The issue at hand was morals and responsibility, the head of Germany's largest bank told his audience of 400 -- explaining, of course, how much good his company is doing in the world, and how little the thankless German public had honored that work.
Suddenly, shouting penetrated the room. "Ackermann is one of the most unscrupulous bank executives in the world," a group of protesters cried out. Around 15 representatives of the Occupy movement, which is critical of the financial industry, had planted themselves within the crowd. "He wants to give a moral lecture about responsibility. That's cynical," one said. Then eight activists went on to the stage, including two wearing the grinning face masks depicting British folk hero Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the House of Lords in 1605, which have become the symbol of the Occupy movement.
For a moment, the hall was filled with pure commotion. Nervous people ran to and fro. It appeared no one was prepared to deal with the activists.
'I'm More Courageous than all of You'
Not Ackermann, though. The top banker seemed astonishingly relaxed. He told the protesters he would love to speak with them -- but could they please take their masks off? "You have to at least have the courage to show your faces," the banker said. But one young man wearing a mask saw it differently. "I'm more courageous than all of you," he retorted.
"We are the 99 percent," states one of the main slogans of the global Occupy movement. It is meant to express that a small minority from the financial sector and the moneyed aristocracy dominate over the rest of the global populace. In this hall in Hamburg though, a city that is home to one of the highest densities of millionaires in Germany, the proportions are a bit different, and the activists were booed off the stage in a chorus of piercing whistles from the audience. "What trash," cursed one man wearing a dark-blue suit. A woman shook her head dismissively, saying: "Oh my God."
Ackermann then continued with his speech as if undisturbed. He only briefly appeared to lose control later after he was yet again interrupted. "You can say something when you are called on," he snapped at the protesters. "If it has substance, then we will address it. If it is nonsense, then we will tell you." The statement had a whiff of the arrogance that bank critics have accused Ackermann and his colleagues of possessing. Only a few seconds later, though, Ackermann seemed to be back in control.
'Diffuse Accusations without any Substance'
So does Germany's leading banking executive understand what is driving the protesters? As the protesters read a statement with their familiar criticisms, Ackermann barely deigned to respond to them. "Those are diffuse accusations without any substance," the banker said. He also countered the allegation that banks neglect the environment with the seemingly random observation that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently described him as a "visionary."
Nevertheless, Ackermann still succeeded in coming out on top in his bizarre encounter with the protesters. "You are always told during debating classes how to deal with such situations," the banking chief said. "I am now 64 years old and have never before had the chance to try it out in practice. I am happy to have been able to do so now."
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