Outrage against Apathy Occupy Movement Hopes for New Lease on Life
The Occupy movement got off to a great start last fall, but living in a tent camp seemed less attractive during the Northern European winter. Now that spring is back, activists are hoping for a protest renaissance. But the loose-knit group still needs to figure out what it actually stands for.
When Erik Buhn arrives at the tent camp in Frankfurt in the afternoon to resume his efforts to make the world a better place and to foster a more open and friendly society, one in which people are considerate of each another and act responsibly, a man is just unzipping his trousers on the mound behind the euro symbol sculpture.
The man is wearing a suit, and from a distance he might be mistaken for a banker. But on closer inspection his suit looks somewhat worse for wear. He urinates onto one of the two tents that are standing there, a short distance from the rest of the camp. "Hey, what are you doing?" someone shouts from the other end of the tent camp.
Buhn is wearing jeans, a leather jacket and a small hat that makes him look a little like an artist. "You're pushed to the limits of tolerance here every day," he says.
His limits seem to be relatively broad. Two drunk men are shouting next to him. In the large tent where the protesters are supposed to eat together and attend a daily political meeting dubbed the "Asamblea," dirty plates are piled high, and there are people napping in a corner who don't look as if they really have plans to talk about politics later.
The Asamblea is cancelled, anyway, when not enough people show up. Instead, the people who are showing up are those who need a place to sleep, like the homeless from the area around the train station. A Roma family also moved in recently.
Keeping Things Orderly
When Buhn pitched his tent in the park in front of the European Central Bank (ECB) building in Frankfurt six months ago, he was searching for a new political idea. Buhn, a student from the Bavarian city of Aschaffenburg who also works part-time as an electrician, became part of the global Occupy movement.
The movement is called Occupy after the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters who occupied and pitched tents in New York's Zuccotti Park, three blocks from Wall Street, in September 2011, to protest against the power of the banks and the inaction of the political world. Imitators soon cropped up in more than 1,000 cities worldwide, including Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt.
Buhn's tent was given the number 90. In the beginning, the organizers of Occupy Frankfurt wanted to make sure that everything was done in an orderly fashion.
The man behind the euro sign zips up his trousers and staggers away. Buhn doesn't pay any attention to him. He is about to meet with people who, like him, still feel something of the original euphoria. They want to talk about May, when things could get going again, says Buhn.
New demonstrations are planned all across the world for the month. It began on May 1, or International Workers' Day, when Occupy Wall Street staged what they called a "general strike" in New York. There were also Occupy protests in Seattle, where protesters clashed with police after masked individuals smashed storefront windows, Miami and Oakland, California, where there were also clashes with police.
There will be a global action day in mid-May. It will give all the people who took to the streets in 2011 to protest against financial capitalism and the political establishment, occupying public squares from Madrid to Athens to Frankfurt, the chance to show that they are still furious and prepared to stage a rebellion.
It is a popular front of the indignant, a confusing and mutually contradictory throng of millions of people with varying demands, united only in their rage. In the United States, for example, the Occupy movement is calling for the establishment of a commission to investigate how much influence the banks have on political decisions. Many are demanding higher taxes for the wealthy and a financial transaction tax. Some want to eliminate capitalism altogether, while others just want to make it more human. But it is precisely in their inconsistency that the activists see their strength.
In the broad spectrum of all critics of capitalism, the Occupy protesters are the non-ideological rebels. Socialists and communists are at the other end of the scale, while the center is made up of trade unionists, social democrats, critical Christians, Greens and members of the Pirate Party, whose core issues are Internet freedom and political transparency. Now that even business owners, managers and bankers are becoming disenchanted with capitalism, the chorus of voices opposed to the "system" is louder and more diverse than ever before. Long-standing opponents of the system are astonished over the company they are now keeping.
When Camila Vallejo steps onto the stage in a lecture hall at the University of Hamburg to explain to the Germans how to organize a revolution in the 21st century, people in the audience jump up to get a better look at her. They include students and older men with union buttons on their sweaters.
Videos from Vallejo's home country of Chile are being shown on a screen. Chile also saw demonstrations last year, and Vallejo was one of the leaders of the movement there. She addressed hundreds of thousands at rallies and, as the spokeswoman of her country's student association, negotiated with politicians. She has more than 400,000 followers on Twitter.
Because all of the uprisings and protest camps had no real leaders and produced no heroes, Chilean student Vallejo became the star of 2011, the year of protests. She didn't hide her face behind a mask, as the Occupy protesters often do to emphasize that faces are unimportant to them. She appeared on television, recorded videos to be aired on YouTube, and generally made sure that people would become familiar with her face. It is well-proportioned, with large, alert eyes framed by her dark curls.
"Hallo, wie geht es euch?" ("Hello, how are you?") Camila Vallejo asks, reading the German words from a piece of paper. She is a petite woman in jeans and a sweater. When she speaks, her words are clear and focused, making her seem bigger than she actually is.
She is on a 10-day tour of Germany, speaking at universities and union halls. She talks about her country and the high tuition fees in Chile, where even middle-class students can barely afford to attend university. She blames neoliberalism. "They have turned education into a commodity, just as they turn everything into a commodity," she says, "and they'll also try to do it in your country." She holds up her book, "Podemos Cambiar el Mundo" ("We Can Change the World").
Are People Still Indignant?
Vallejo, who is 24, was a geography student in the Chilean capital Santiago before becoming a star of the protest movement last summer.
Erik Buhn, 27, is a student of Scandinavian studies, history and classical archeology in Frankfurt. He missed the last semester because of Occupy.
At first glance, one might think that Vallejo and Buhn were allies, two participants in a big, worldwide protest movement. Vallejo is fighting on the side of the organized left, experienced anti-capitalists who have staged similar protests in the past. Buhn is one of the many new critics of capitalism. "Left, right, we would prefer to put these categories behind us," he says, referring to Occupy, which he hopes will provide him with new answers.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters, convinced of their broad appeal, chanted: "We are the 99 percent." Unlike the labor movement of the 19th century or the student movement of the 1960s, they saw themselves as a movement for everyone. Then winter came to the United States and Europe, and the ground froze under the tent cities in northern climates. In many camps, the occupiers either gave up or were driven away by the police.
Are people still indignant, they are now asking themselves? How many will return in May, and where will their outrage take them? Will they find new answers, possibly even a new political idea?