Blockupy and the battles to come

March 23, 2015

Some 20,000 people mobilized last week for the annual Blockupy protest in Frankfurt, Germany, site of the European Central Bank's brand new, $1.4 billion headquarters. This marked a new stage for the yearly protest against the continent-wide austerity agenda, inspired, no doubt, by the election of the radical left party SYRIZA in Greece in January and the new Greek government's showdown with the European elite. But as usual, mainstream media coverage of the mass demonstration focused on clashes between a section of protesters and police that left several dozen injured and 300 people under arrest.

In this collaboration, Phil Butland, a member of Die Linke (Left Party) in Berlin, and Kevin Ovenden, writing from Athens, reflect on the Blockupy demonstration and the tactics of the movement as the battle against neoliberalism continues in Europe. Note: The personal references to the protests and the situation within Germany come from Phil.

JUST FOUR days ago, I was reporting with hope about a few hundred people demonstrating in Berlin for Greece on a Saturday afternoon. Yesterday's 20,000 strong demonstration in Frankfurt was in the middle of the week, at a time when many people will still working. Nevertheless, it was 50 times as big. Before the demonstration, the huge Römerplatz and a neighboring square were packed with people listening to Naomi Klein, Sahra Wagenknecht and other speakers from the anti-capitalist movement. We need to work out how we mobilize this energy and size into further actions.

Often, the last people to ask for accurate reports are the people who were there. There were things happening all over town, and where I was, we witnessed no arrests and no more disruption than you'd encounter on an average demo. We did, however, hear all sorts of rumors--first of individual arrests, then of mass arrests. Beyond that, I'm not in a much better position to explain "what really happened" than most other people. I can try, however, to give some context.

Demonstrators face off against police at the Blockupy demonstration in Frankfurt
Demonstrators face off against police at the Blockupy demonstration in Frankfurt

Be clear: If you're going to send every water cannon in Germany to a demonstration, police it with robocops and use tear gas indiscriminately--there was the lingering smell wherever you went--you shouldn't be surprised when things escalate. The real violence is the violence of the state, both in Frankfurt yesterday and in the murderous poverty in Greece and Spain. The real violence is also the wars in Ukraine and the Arab world. Yesterday's damage is minor compared to the damage caused by the Troika to Southern Europe, or indeed to the destruction wreaked last year on Gaza.

As the left academic Raul Zelik wrote on his Facebook wall: If you want to speak about the "violence in Frankfurt" now, when there's 25 percent unemployment in Southern Europe, a million foreclosures in Spain, and when 35 percent of the Greek population have no access to health service, you must be pretty stupid. The left German daily paper Neues Deutschland has also steadfastly called on us to defend the protests against an incipient backlash brewing on the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and on the right.

What we have just witnessed is the crisis of Southern Europe making itself felt in the North. It is an important moment. This was a European anti-capitalist mobilization, yet also overwhelmingly German. That is what people in Athens, Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Lisbon, Dublin and Rome have been waiting for. Frankfurt 2015 seems similar to Prague 2000, which marked the beginning of the last sequence of advance for the anti-capitalist and internationalist movement on the continent. Prague led to the massive protests against the Iraq war and the 300,000-strong anti-capitalist demonstration in Genoa.

THIS IS the context for the urgent and comradely discussion of strategy. Blockupy developed a strategy of quite different groups coming together with a very limited consensus: 1. All action forms are acceptable, even those that we wouldn't use ourselves. 2. Everyone has the right to defend themselves against attacks by the police. 3. Our side doesn't escalate. Yesterday, the third consensus point was unfortunately ignored by part of the Black Bloc.

Cars were set on fire, not just police cars. Bank windows and glass bus stops were smashed. Building materials were taken to build barricades. I don't have any problem with barricades. I did, however, witness a worker driving a truck being threatened so that his load could be "donated." This is not how you build a mass movement, which seeks to organize us all--from the homeless in Greece to German truck drivers--in the fight against neoliberalism.

Escalation is sometimes necessary, but this does not mean that it is inevitably the correct strategy. It is conditional upon advancing a movement which is both militant and mass. That means actively involving working people, immigrants and the popular masses who are suffering from austerity, racism and imperialist war. We seek to build a militant movement of them, not a movement for them--which is a social democratic illusion.

This is not a moral point. Directly after leaving a lively demonstration of 20,000 people, I received text message from a friend in Berlin who had just watched the news asking if I was safe. The media was able to seize upon the escalation to shift the focus to just talk about violence. It always seeks to do that, of course, and the media bears its own responsibility for its propaganda. But our best counterweight to the media lies in our breadth and unity.

If the escalation from our side comes just from a minority, pro-capitalist propagandists will find it easier to divide us. Where possible, strategy should be openly discussed within the movement, so that the movement as a whole can make those collective decisions. That's why we need now to both press on and, as a movement, take ownership of our strategy and tactics.

People asked me if this was the work of agent provocateurs. I am more skeptical than many about blaming errors on our side on agent provocateurs without evidence, even if the evidence from Genoa and elsewhere makes clear that the state is quite capable of deploying them. We don't have information of that at the moment, and searching for it is not a priority. Our defense against state destabilization is radical democratic participation of all wings of the movement and seeking to widen it and act with collective militant effectiveness. That means prioritizing unity and points of consensus over narrow, self-aggrandizing concerns.

THE ROLE played by my party, Die Linke, in both mobilizing for Blockupy and for our success on the day was exemplary. Members of parliament, local councilors and individual activists from all wings of the party were everywhere. Our block on the demonstration was lively and represented the breadth of society. The movement is much larger than Die Linke, but Die Linke has a crucial part to play in the development of the movement--both on the streets and in its theory.

(Die Linke member and activist Mark Bergfeld has also written a contribution to the debate about the strategic perspective for the movement and its tactics following Blockupy.)

SYRIZA also was right and the KKE wrong in their responses to the 2008 youth uprisings in Athens following the murder by police of Alexis Grigoropoulos. Alexis Tsipras and the party took a huge amount of flak for not joining in the vilification by every other parliamentary party of the young people on the streets, whom the anti-capitalist left joined in struggle.

Tsipras and SYRIZA were right. If the radical left--from Podemos to the Left Front in France--want to learn from Greece, then don't vilify the Frankfurt protests. Stand with the young people for whom a lost decade is not some flat-lining of gross domestic product, but a lost third or more of their lives thus far.

The next big street actions that we know of are the traditional union demonstrations on May 1 (in Berlin, we also have the nearly-as-traditional anti-capitalist demo on same evening). For developing theory, there are two important conferences around this time. At the Left Week of the Future at the end of April, speakers like Sahra Wagenknecht, Raul Zelik and activists from other countries will be confronting the problems and chances before us (small personal plug: I, or someone from our Linke Berlin Internationals group, will be speaking at a workshop on international networking). A couple of weeks later, Stathis Kouvelakis, Jean-Luc Melanchon, Bernd Riexinger and many others will be continuing the discussion at the Marx is Muss conference.

The demonstrations yesterday have enabled to go forward and advance our movement. No quarter to the backlash of the CDU and the Troika. Uniting and advancing a mass militant movement requires two things: placing responsibility upon our capitalist enemies for the violence and destruction they are responsible for, directly and indirectly; but also collective, democratic decisions in and by our movement, which, to be effective, must be of and not condescendingly for women, migrants, the old, the very young and...truck drivers.

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