Planning Protests in a Disused School Clowns Rub Shoulders with Anarchists in Anti-G-8 Headquarters

While the world's leaders will be staying at a swanky Heiligendamm hotel during the G-8 summit, anti-globalization protesters are using a rundown former school in Rostock as their headquarters. But while they agree that "Another World Is Possible," their opinions differ on just about everything else.
Von Ulrike Demmer, Gunther Latsch und Marcel Rosenbach

If the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm is famous in Germany for being the "white city by the sea," then the Rostock district of Evershagen, located just 20 kilometers away, is its gray counterpart. Despite some recent colorful renovation work, the neighborhood consists mainly of drab concrete Communist-era apartment blocks.

A decrepit school building from the old East German days stands right in the heart of this concrete sprawl, directly on the four-lane Bertolt-Brecht-Strasse. Numerous banners hang from the facade, the walls are spray-painted with slogans like "Resistance Rocks" and "Nazis Suck," and the red-and-black flag of anarchy flies on the roof. In the fenced-in schoolyard, a group of longhaired young people are trying to piece together some kind of means of transportation from a huge pile of scrap bicycle parts.

Locals still refer to the building, which is situated next to a shopping mall, as the Ehm Welk School. In actual fact, the structure should have been demolished a long time ago -- a company had already been hired to tear it down.

But the G-8 summit in nearby Heiligendamm gave the crumbling old school a brief reprieve from the wrecking ball. Now the building has become the command center for the resistance. Since March, a mixed bag of G-8 opponents have been preparing their headquarters for the protest against global capitalism -- collecting discarded furniture and other reusable refuse in Saturday "subbotniks," as volunteer labor brigades were called back in East Germany.

The old school building serves a number of functions. It's an organizational office, a communal kitchen, a party zone and massive crash pad all rolled into one. But first and foremost it's an alternative media center. During the summit, there are plans to transform it into a studio, with live Internet TV broadcasts every night at 9:00 pm.

The school in Evershagen can be seen as a microcosm of the anti-globalization movement. If the building had a doorbell with a nameplate, there would have to be room for hundreds of first names and dozens of cryptic abbreviations.

Groups range from the "Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army," with its colorful rubber noses, to relatively established anti-globalization movements like Attac, to radical far-left anarchists. In the building's 55 rooms, a myriad of different strategies for forms of action are debated. With so many divergent approaches under one roof, organizers have decided to call the school the "Convergence Center" -- a place to meet and find common ground.

Not surprisingly, the common slogan they have managed to agree on, and which is plastered across the building's walls, sounds decidedly vague: "Another World Is Possible." But how different do they want the world to be? These critics of globalization come from extremely diverse backgrounds and have very different agendas. Some want to spark a revolution and change the system, while others advocate reforming development policies or improving climate protection. Virtually every point of view is represented here.

The only problem is that -- with the exception of the revolution -- all of this has already made its way onto the agenda of the leaders of the eight industrialized nations meeting in Heiligendamm.

Clever summit planning has managed to rob many critics of their issues -- leaving them only with a sense of outrage. Many protestors are driven by a feeling of powerlessness and the conviction that they are on the right side, following in the tradition of Genoa, Seattle and Gleneagles. They are against the G-8 and everything that it stands for politically.

And they want to make this protest visible. In the battle for media coverage, the protestors intend to steal the summit show -- or at least part of it -- from Merkel, Bush and their cronies.

'Unique Solidarity Among the Left'

Chris Methmann is one of the organizers using the school as a base to direct the counter attack to the G-8 summit media blitz. The blond 26-year-old member of Attac's coordinating committee is sitting with his laptop outside the Convergence Center, relaxing in the sun. He has just returned from a TV panel discussion with Heiner Geissler, the former general secretary of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Union, who is now an Attac member.

Methmann, a political science student, says that he wants to "delegitimize the summit." In contrast to many of the other "boarders" at the school, Attac is working on political alternatives and has come out clearly in favor of nonviolent protest in the run-up to the summit. In fact, their rejection of violence is so categorical that it has caused a good deal of grumbling on the leftist political scene.

Attac signed the lease for the school on behalf of all the protest groups -- the anti-G-8 activists only have to pay for utilities. Last Thursday, Methmann gave the landlord -- the mayor of Rostock -- a guided tour of the building.

The mayor saw political slogans and posters on the walls, a cafe with threadbare sofas, mattresses on the floor and improvised desks made of plywood. The experiment of making the school a home base for all anti-summit activists has been a success, according to Methmann. Despite all the obviously irreconcilable views, he speaks of a "unique solidarity among the left" and hopes that this will continue after the G-8 summit. "Now we have to ensure that this dynamic broad-based protest movement continues," he says -- although he admits with a sigh that "dealing with the left-wing radicals is not always easy."

Debates between these diverse roommates repeatedly focus on what is undoubtedly the most divisive issue surrounding the G-8 summit: Can violence also constitute a legitimate means of protest?

In the "info sheet" that new arrivals receive at reception, the basic prerequisite for protestors wanting to use the school is stipulated as a "confrontational attitude," while on the back of the pamphlet it reads: "Aren't we all a little bit Section 129a?" -- a reference to the section of the German criminal code that makes it a crime to support a terrorist organization.

'We Don't Say We Are Non-Violent'

Lea Voigt has a pageboy hairstyle, horn-rimmed glasses and plucked eyebrows. The student from Bremen hasn't forgotten the nerve-wracking discussions on the topic of violence. She is the spokeswoman for "Block G-8" and has set up shop on the second floor, in the tidiest of all the former classrooms, between rolls of toilet paper and empty cookie tins. Voigt says that it took them half a year to agree on a text for the pamphlet. "We are going to actively avoid confrontation with the police," she says -- a phrase that certainly not everyone here agrees with.

Block G-8 alone encompasses over 120 different groups from across Germany. The wording in the pamphlet is not peace-loving enough for the anti-nuclear group "X-tausendmal quer," while the "Anti-Fascist Left Berlin" sees it as far too innocuous. "In any case, we consciously don’t say that we are non-violent," the spokeswoman for Block G-8 is quick to clarify. As a law student, she is well aware of the legal consequences of crossing certain lines.

One floor up is home to a group that calls itself the "Campinski Press Group," a word play on all the protesters camping out in the area and the luxury Kempinski hotel where the G-8 summit is being held. Something in the air indicates that these people want to see the world changed more thoroughly, using more hard-hitting methods. Every non-activist is scrutinized with skepticism. The group's members all have the same names: Carl or Lotta Kemper. The only creatures that don't appear to be on edge here are the seahorses and goldfish -- drawings left on the walls by the last Evershagen schoolchildren.

One of the "Lottas," a 33-year-old woman with black disheveled hair, is in fact called Claudia and works as a nurse in Berlin. She won't say anything else about herself. When a helicopter circles the building, the Lottas talk about the "cops" outside who follow almost every car, sometimes in unmarked vehicles, sometimes in a squad car. And they are convinced that their phones have been tapped. They are angry and feel that they are being treated like criminals.

'I'm Sure I'll Spend a Few Days Behind Bars'

Actually, the G-8 countries are the real gangsters, says the black-haired Lotta, who talks about the 30,000 children who die every day in Africa. "As far as I'm concerned, that's the real violence here." They don't like talking about the violence by anti-G-8 protestors. "Sure, I can light 30,000 candles," says the nurse. "But we can also throw 30,000 bags of paint at the Kempinski Hotel."

This already makes her one of the more militant activists in the school -- but Peter, a slim barefoot boy with curly brown hair and a bit of fuzz on his upper lip, says he wants to go even further. He has been staying in a separate wing of the school that has been closed off to the public, an area that even the mayor didn't get to see on his tour.

"I'm sure that I'll spend a few days behind bars," says the 17-year-old, who is a member of the "Anarchist Federation Berlin." He had a falling out with his parents back in East Berlin. "Old Communist sympathizers," he says with contempt. On May 28, Peter marched in the Black Bloc during the Hamburg demonstration against the ASEM meeting of Asian and European leaders. This was a dress rehearsal for Heiligendamm, and another opportunity to demonstrate against the state that he loathes. In the end, he ducked into a cafe to escape the water cannon.

That evening at the "Red Aid" party -- a fundraiser for demonstrators who land in jail -- Peter sits peacefully next to people like Christoph Heine from the Demonstration Organization Committee, who is old enough to be his father -- and is in fact the father of two children. Heine, 40, was already demonstrating at the tender age of 13, shouting slogans like "Stop Strauss!" in a bid to prevent the conservative Bavarian politician Franz-Josef Strauss from becoming chancellor in the 1980 general election.

Heine sometimes wonders himself why he didn't leave the activist scene a long time ago. He estimates that his political commitments cost him €500 a month, and he has sacrificed four of his six weeks of annual vacation -- he sells toys for a living -- to prepare for the summit. But he says that it would be harder to bear the feeling of helplessness that comes from doing nothing.

A close look at the protestors against the G-8 summit clearly shows that disenchantment with the political system does not necessarily lead to lethargy and rejection. Besides the champions of right-on rhetoric, there are quite a few people who sincerely want to get involved in political issues.

Political Parties Not Offering any Solutions

A conspicuous number of carpenters, plumbers and electricians have made their way to the Baltic coast. A trained locksmith from the Campinski group says that she knows why: "If you work on a construction site, you directly experience the brutality of globalization for yourself. You see the Romanians who are hired by subcontractors for €3 an hour to work like slaves, and sleep like cattle in cramped containers. And you ask yourself how long it will be before they start treating you the same way. You look for ways to take things into your own hands without allowing yourself to be pushed around by the system.”

Many anti-globalization activists say that Germany's political parties are not offering any solutions to these issues -- and they feel out-of-place in large protest associations. Stefanie from southern Germany is one of these activists. She told her arch-conservative parents that she was visiting a girlfriend on the Baltic Sea coast. Once she arrived, she pitched her tent at Camp Reddelich, about 30 kilometers as the crow flies from the Convergence Center, near an observation tower where "you can see the pigs coming from a good distance."

"Pigs" is her word for the police. Stefanie sees herself as part of the radical Black Bloc. She has nothing but contempt for those who have established themselves as international do-gooders. She says that at Attac you "only need to become a member and then you can consume demonstrations and protests just like any other product." She adds that in the radical groups it all comes down to the individual and there are no hierarchies: "Attac has already become just like Greenpeace -- and the careerists are already moving in."

Activists like Stefanie are as far removed ideologically from the fun-loving faction of globalization critics as they are from neo-liberals. Yet even in this school commune, very few activists see things so strictly. After the work is over, people let their hair down and celebrate with beer and organic sodas. There are concerts and even a shop of sorts on the ground floor, with t-shirts from the activist groups, soap bubble bottles and other merchandise. Even G-8 protests are not immune to a bit of consumer culture, it seems.

But the end is looming for this particular center of revolutionary fervor. Once the last summit protestor has left the headquarters in Evershagen, it will be all over for the old school. The wrecking ball arrives on June 15.