The Occupy camp in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt was supposed to be a parable of society. The settlement with its colorfully decorated tents featured the so-called "Mountain of Problems," a small hill where an artist staged a hunger strike to draw attention to the plight of the Earth. There was also the "Bank Hygiene Department," a makeshift structure which acted as a symbolic prison for supposedly evil bank bosses.
This utopian mini-state in the center of the German financial capital lasted for 297 days. It was finally cleared by police on Monday afternoon after a court rejected an appeal by protesters against a ban on the camp. The court ruled that the residents of the site could be evicted because they lacked a common goal and that the occupation of the site was not protected by the right to freedom of assembly.
Some protesters left voluntarily, while others were carried away by police without much resistance. Police officers systematically numbered the few remaining tents and dismantled them. They gathered up shoes, pots and wooden pallets, recorded every item and stuffed them into large blue garbage bags. The images appeared to say: This is how the revolution ends -- on the trampled-down grass of a city square, amid mounds of trash.
End of an Era
The Frankfurt camp, just like other camps set up by the Occupy protest movement around the world, was intended to be a society within a society -- a place that would demonstrate to the world just how depraved it is.
"Here is Wall Street, which is sort of the epitome of selfishness," said David Graeber, co-founder of the first Occupy camp in New York, in a recent interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And the most revolutionary thing you can do is creating a tiny community right next to them where people are really nice to each other all the time."
Now, the era of the protest camps appears to be coming to an end. The Occupy camp in New York has long since disappeared, while in Germany, camps in the cities of Kiel, Münster, Düsseldorf and Berlin have already been cleared. On Monday, the same fate befell Occupy Frankfurt, the largest and most symbolic of the German camps.
But the movement that is behind the occupation of public spaces is not dead. It is merely disappearing from public view.
The reasons for the protests still exist in abundance. The Occupy activists continue to see themselves confronted with a world where seemingly all-powerful banks continue to rake in billions while the rest of society carries the can for their mistakes. There is still a yawning gap between rich and poor. There are glaring structural problems in society, and activists doubt whether the existing political system will ever be able to solve them.
From Utopia to Nuisance
But the attempt to construct a better society in front of the eyes of the world has now failed, say regular visitors to the Occupy Frankfurt camp. The anti-capitalist utopia collapsed partly as a result of a lack of money, sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Ultimately the camp could neither afford regular refuse collection nor proper sanitation facilities. Residents were already complaining about bad smells and vermin back in the spring. In the beginning, many locals were sympathetic to the camp, but it increasingly became regarded as a nuisance.
The camp also lost its significance as a location for debate. In its first few weeks, regular assemblies were held where residents and visitors discussed ideas such as how the population can have a greater say in shaping society. But some of the people who were the driving force behind these discussions already left the camp in the spring, says one person who was a regular visitor to the camp. "There was less and less discussion about how they could embody direct democracy, and more and more about who should do the dishes," he says.
The last inhabitants of Occupy Frankfurt claimed the ban on the camp was an attack on their right to freedom of assembly. But there were only around 50 people left in the camp, and some of them were not demonstrators but homeless people. The protest camp had lost its symbolic value.
The clearing of the camps means the movement will be less visible for a while. But the activists are already looking for new platforms. Groups such as the Occupy Money initiative, which meets at locations including the premises of GLS Bank, a German ethical bank, and a Dominican monastery in Frankfurt, are seeking ways to create a just monetary system.
Reviving the Debate
The Berlin-based professor Klaus Hurrelmann, who has researched protest movements, argues that Occupy helps to question the fundamental idea that our society is a meritocracy. That mentality means that "inequality and injustice are simply accepted by large parts of society," Hurrelmann says. "Instead of criticizing the problems with the system, we blame ourselves for not being able to find a way out of our misery."
That mentality may be pragmatic and goal-oriented, Hurrelmann says, but a society needs, in addition to individual crisis-management strategies, solutions that also try to change the whole system. "Occupy has revived the debate about such holistic approaches," he says.
The Occupy camps may slowly be disappearing, but they have already significantly influence the public debate and will likely to continue to do so. The world revolution has failed to materialize. But Occupy is sure to play a role in the gradual evolution of society.