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Lefty Protest, German Style

August 8th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s time for an old-school personal journal entry, the kind I used to write all the time but which I now usually end up privatizing because they tend to get a bit too personal. This one has a strong political element so it definitely belongs on the blog even in its current mostly-political incarnation, so I’ll try to fight the impulse to engage in excessive introspection.

Yesterday, one of my friends—Oliver’s girlfriend Lena—was participating in a demonstration here in Hannover and I was invited to come along. Naturally I couldn’t resist—a genuine European lefty-protest is certainly worth checking out if the opportunity presents itself, and it would probably provide me with something worth writing about.

Well, I’m not really sure how that turned out. I can’t guarantee you’ll gain any valuable insight from this entry, but if you don’t mind long stories with no climax and no particular over-arching point, you might enjoy it. Who knows?

I’ll skip the part where Oliver comes by my flat a few hours before the protest starts while Lena meets up with her friends. I’ll start from the point when Oliver and I get off the tram and walk towards the Hannover Congress-Zentrum where the protest is taking place.

Actually, I need to start even earlier to explain what this whole demonstration was about. Apparently the higher-ups in the German military and the executives from the corporations that make up its military-industrial complex all gather together once a year for something called “La Luna” where they meet at the Congress building and have a jolly celebration together. It’s a bit more complicated than that but the Germans had a hard time explaining it in English. It also has something to do with a nearby military airport which Germany lets other countries use for military missions. And the soldiers are all from the “1st Panzerdivision” whatever that means. I tried to research the event but somehow the English-language media neglected to cover it.

So as the military brass and corporate big-wigs are having their lovely party in the Congress building, German lefties gather outside to yell at them and let them know how evil they are. That’s really all there is to it. The message is basically, “You say the military is good? Well, we say it’s bad! Take that!”

To be fair, you could be sure that some of the people who are responsible for the fact that German soldiers are still in Afghanistan would be attending the event. So at least a part of the message—the “Get out of Afghanistan” part—was a bit more specific than the overall “War is bad” message.

Back to the story. Typically, the tram stops right in front of the Congress-Zentrum but Oliver and I were surprised to find that the particular tram we needed wasn’t running at that time. Either they were afraid the protesters might block the tracks or they just wanted to make it as difficult as possible for protesters to get there—most of the protesters naturally assumed that the latter was the explanation.

So it was a bit of a walk from the nearest tram stop to the protest grounds, and all along the way there were scattered bits of colored paper with slogans like, “Es gibt nichts hier zu feirn” (There’s nothing to celebrate here). The one that really caught my eye was “Soldaten sind mörder” which means “Soldiers are murderers”. I told Oliver that you could never get away with saying that in America. You can protest the war all you like, but if you say anything bad about the soldiers you have crossed a sacred line.

Naturally, the streets were swarming with Polizei. We passed several dozen police officers, about a third of them mounted, before finally spotting the actual protest. When we arrived there was a small group of people—less than a hundred—walking down the street behind a van equipped with loudspeakers from which someone was shouting incoherent babble (even if my German was perfect I wouldn’t have been able to understand it) with horrible metal-music playing in the background. The whole group was completely surrounded by police, who were obviously prepared for a protest ten times the size. They were marching so close that you could almost believe they were participating in the demonstration themselves—apparently the Polizei are anti-military too!

In my solid black T-shirt and khaki pants, I was probably the most well-dressed person there. At least my long hair and beard made me fit in with the crowd, which I don’t otherwise need to describe because if you just picture what a crowd of young German protesters looks like you’re right on the mark. These people were living stereotypes.

There was one guy walking a little ahead of us with messy hair and tattered clothes, sporting a vest with a slogan sewed on to the back: “Ich trinke, Ich stinke, Ich bin der böse Linke.” You can probably guess what it means: “I drink, I stink, I am the evil Left.” All I could think was: You’re not helping, guy. I get it—you are exactly what mainstream Germans think you are (you’re jobless, you never bathe, you buy beer with taxpayer money) and you don’t care. But seriously, that message helps no one. It only reinforces the majority of Germans’ perception of young liberals as lazy drunken scumbags who should therefore not be taken seriously.

After a few minutes of marching, Oliver and I both had to piss and we knew Lena was back at the main protest grounds anyway so we split from the marchers and walked towards the Eilenriede—the city forest—which is right across from the Congress building. We took care of some business there and got back to the road just as the protesters were returning to the main grounds.

We had to cross the street to get to the main grounds—the field right outside the Congress building—and while there were no cars coming Oliver and I waited until the light was green because a crowd of five Polizei were standing right there and we didn’t want to give them any excuses.

Lena was there with a few of her friends and I went up and shook everyone’s hand. There was an older lady with gray hair, a thirty-something guy with red eyes, and a thirty-something woman named Anka whom I recognized from Lena’s costume party last year when I went dressed as Jesus and got completely trashed. Anka is quite beautiful and I found myself admiring her frequently throughout the evening, but I confirmed with Oliver that she does (of course) have a boyfriend.

I learned a bit more of the background of the protest from Lena and also learned that this was not just one group that organized the protest but actually several different lefty organizations that were protesting at the same time and trying to coordinate their efforts as they went. One of the groups was about to take a megaphone-van for a spin around the block, and half the crowd would be going with them while the other half—Anka included—stayed behind.

So we marched a little further and I tried to listen to what the woman on the megaphone in the van was saying. Her voice was much clearer but there were too many distractions for me to give the necessary amount of attention it would have taken for me to understand the German. She was definitely talking about Hindenberg a lot for some reason—I knew about the zeppelin but apparently the guy was a real piece of shit as well—and Lena told me that he was from around here or something. I guess this was the anti-Hindenberg part of the demonstration. Yeah, fuck him and his blimp.

At one point the crowd suddenly erupted with noise. They were shouting at someone walking by, and I tried to peer over the crowd to see who they were shouting at. It was some guy in a soldier’s uniform walking back from the zoo (also near the Congress-building) with his family. They were shouting “Mörder! Mörder!” at him. Wow, I thought. If a crowd of anti-war protesters in America were ever caught on tape shouting “Murderer!” at a soldier and his family, it would be broadcast on Fox News 24/7. The soldier, of course, just smiled and continued on his merry way.

This actually happened several more times during the walk, even with occasional chants breaking out. “Blud! Blud! Blud an deine Hande! Blud! Blud! Blud an deine Hande!” which I’m sure I don’t need to translate.

At one point the Polizei came and stopped a girl a few feet away from me who was carrying a sand-filled hospital glove with red paint on it. They opened it up to see if it was some kind of bomb or maybe filled with anthrax or something, but it was just a clever little piece of symbolism. They kindly gave it back to the girl who was acting like her rights had just been terribly violated.

You might be getting the impression at this point that I was feeling a bit of contempt for the protesters, but that’s not totally accurate. I certainly thought a few of them were not helping the cause (like Herr Trinke Stinke) but I always admire people who get out and make their voices heard. I even confess that I have a slight bit of admiration for the people who go to Tea Party rallies—they may be dead wrong on all the issues and possibly a little racist, but at least they’re doing something. At least they’re making their voices heard in a far more visible way than signing online petitions or blogging.

The irony of this particular protest, however, is just how invisible it was. The Congress-Zentrum is not in a very high-density area of the city. The immediate surroundings are quiet residential neighborhoods, the city zoo, and a giant forest. The Polizei had us bottled in nice and tight, so our message wasn’t really reaching anyone other than the poor citizens who happened to live in that area and maybe some elephants at the zoo.

So we got back to the Congress building as the woman in the van finished her speech and tossed on some Rage Against the Machine. Now that’s protest music. If all we did was stand on the lawn and blast Rage all evening I would have been more than happy.

For the next half hour or so we stood on the lawn and shouted at people as they arrived at the Congress building for their La Luna celebration. It wasn’t hard to tell who the bad guys were—they were all dressed in suits and escorting their wives in fancy dresses. They all got hollered at and called murderers as they walked by. Most of them smiled and laughed.

At this point I have to offer another confession and say that my mind was a bit more focused on all the attractive females around than on the politics of it. Man, there were a lot of good-looking lefty chicks. Is a protest a good place to meet women? Could be. But whenever I spotted someone that I felt the urge to make sweet love to, I thought of the million and a half steps I’d have to take to get to that point, beginning with the most difficult step of all: introducing myself and hoping they speak English. No, the ocean between me and these women was far too vast to try and swim.

One of the good-looking women was going around with an egg-carton passing out what looked like eggs but which I believe were actually filled with paint. I thought, “Oh good, now it’s going to get interesting” but I was mistaken. A few people threw eggs at an effigy of a German soldier they’d erected on the field, but nobody egged any of the military-elites or their wives.

Finally the big van parked on the lawn from which someone had been shouting at the Congress building all afternoon picked up its gear and got moving. We were now going to take the protest away from the Congress building and towards an area where there might be some people. We formed up behind the van and noticed that the crowd had now grown to somewhere between two and three hundred. That didn’t seem too shabby but they were a bit disappointed because they’d been expecting to break a thousand. Certainly the Polizei were over-prepared. The ratio of protesters to police was almost 1:1.

One of the police divisions had strange markings on the backs of their jackets and I turned to ask if anyone knew what they meant. Anka, the beautiful thirtysomething, actually answered me in English but only to say she didn’t know. How wonderful of her to go through the trouble of trying to find the English words. I think I might be falling in love. But what to say next? I guess I can ask her how many protests she’s been to before and start a conversation that way…oh she just walked away and is talking to someone else now. Too late. (That’s when I went to Oliver and confirmed that she was, in fact, taken).

We continued marching down the street and shouting “Mörder!” at everyone in a suit who passed by. It felt like we were just this mob of people walking around looking for people to yell at. If you were in a suit, you were targeted. Doesn’t matter what you do for a living or even if you had nothing to do with La Luna…Suit = Murderer.

A bit of a ruckus erupted behind us a few minutes into the march, as a shouting match broke out between two of the protesters. One of them seemed like he was about to get violent, and seven police officers came to drag him away from the rest of the crowd. The older lady that Lena knew said in German I understood perfectly: “Seven police to one protester! Wouldn’t it be a dream if we had seven teachers to one student?”

When we reached a big intersection half the crowd seemed to want to go straight but the mounted police quickly moved their horses in to block the way. Some protesters starting running towards them, apparently thinking that the fun was about to begin. But instead of violence there was just a big shouting match and in the end the group took a right-turn and went the direction we were apparently allowed to go.

At that point, Lena and Oliver had to leave because they needed to be back in Celle by 9 p.m. and it was 8:00 now. I said goodbye to all the people I’d “met” including the lovely Anka, and the three of us broke ranks and headed back towards the Congress building where Lena’s car was parked.

Along the way she found a discarded sign and figured she’d take it back with her because the placard could be painted over and used for future protests. If it weren’t for the sign, nobody would have been able to know we’d been a part of the protest group, but the sign changed the whole dynamic. The police kept their eyes on us, and as we approached the Congress building and passed within inches of some of these suit-clad politicians, soldiers, and businessmen with their fancily-dressed wives (murderers, all of them) we got plenty of dirty looks. I found I had the urge to start yelling “Blud an deine Hande!” at them, but the police could have cracked my skull within fifteen seconds.

There were a lot more ‘murderers’ arriving now but the protest had moved on to the city so they were spared the bombardment of insults. I said that a much more effective tactic would have been to just slash all their tires, as oddly enough the police didn’t seem to have anyone monitoring the parking lot. I didn’t know any of those people but their fancy suits and dresses seeped under my skin somehow and I just felt this strong loathing towards them. These are the power-elites I’m always railing against. They may be second-rate power elites but they still profit from bloodshed. The fact that they were there to celebrate their ill-gotten success was a tad infuriating.

Hence the protest, which all in all I’d say was a good thing. Yeah, there were a lot of idiots there and it might have contributed to reinforcing negative stereotypes of left-wing activists, but just the very existence of left-wing activists is a good thing. Thanks to their visibility, the political spectrum in Germany is much farther to the left than in America where it seems that the only protesters are the Tea Party crowds on the right. Because Germany does have a radical, left-wing fringe, it provides breathing room for the more moderate liberals to take more liberal positions. “Yes, I think certain aspects of socialism are beneficial to a civilized society, but that doesn’t mean I want to hand over complete control of everything to the state like some of my liberal friends do.” In America, if you so much as suggest that it might be a good idea for the government to maybe provide health insurance for just a few citizens, you’re a radical socialist communist Maoist.

Without frequent, visible left-wing protests, the media narrative is that all of the political energy is on the right. The American left has retreated from the streets to the blogosphere and we’re suffering the consequences for it. Politicians tend to be reactionary types, and right now they’re only reacting to the Tea Party because the left isn’t making its message heard.

So to my fellow American lefties I say: Germans were protesting the war in Afghanistan yesterday. What have you been doing?

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