As you’re probably already aware, last month a series of demonstrations began in New York City.
Dubbed “Occupy Wall Street”, the protests criticize the absence of legal repercussions following the recent global financial crisis and the excessive influence of big business on U.S. laws and policies.
Their rallying cry has become “We are the 99%” — meaning the 99% of Americans who are having their homes foreclosed on, who are facing debilitating student loan debt, and who can’t afford medical care or insurance coverage… while the remaining 1% grow ever wealthier.
The Occupy Wall Street protests have spread from NYC to every state in the U.S., and this weekend similar events were organized around the world in solidarity.
I mention all this in a travel blog because yesterday we attended the (mostly) peaceful protest in Berlin, where we joined 10,000 other protesters in marching from Alexanderplatz to Bundestag, the German House of Parliament.
We were surprised by how broad a swath of “the 99%” was represented — this definitely wasn’t just a protest for punk teenagers sporting chains and mohawks.
Along with hippies singing folk songs and the ever-present hipsters there were also tons of kids, dogs, families, and elderly couples walking hand-in-hand.
The majority of the march was surprisingly tranquil, but the energy level shot up at the end as, with drums beating and flags flying, the front of the crowd raced across the park toward the steps of the Bundestag.
We found ourselves in the front of the crowd as it reached the police line protecting the building and were steps away when, in a sudden frenzy of conflict, a handful of protesters yanked down the metal barricades and drug them back into the crowd.
One minute I was laughing with Kali about a particularly well-worded sign, and the next we were caught in a fleeing crowd trying to escape riot police pepper spray.
Shit just got real.
Since we had no desire to be arrested in a country where we didn’t speak the language, and nor did we relish the thought of being trampled or maced in the face, we decided to get the hell off the front line.
We took shelter in a little nook on the side where, semi-protected by construction fencing, we watched this particular cop repeatedly push protestors back when they crossed an arbitrary (in the sense that he seemed to keep changing his mind about where exactly it lay) line.
After a tense period things finally calmed down, and eventually a huge section of the crowd sat on the ground while others gathered around them in a circle.
This guy started speaking, and after each sentence the crowd would repeat back his words so everyone could hear the message. We later learned that this technique is called “the human microphone” and is employed by protestors to allow everyone in a crowd to hear the speaker’s words when sound systems are prohibited.
After some rousing initial remarks that drew a great deal of laughter from the crowd, we found someone to translate for us just as the speaker got down to the practicalities of organizing an outdoor protest in the not-exactly-balmy Berlin weather.
Having (from what we could tell) only recently made the decision to occupy the park for as long as they could, and fearing that if they left the space now they wouldn’t be allowed back later, organizers were encouraging folks to call their friends and request blankets, tents, and similar supplies.
When the group seemed settled in for the long haul, we wandered further back in the park to find hundreds more protestors playing bongos, sharing food, starting chants, and generally enjoying the atmosphere of solidarity.
Groups of police decked out in riot gear would periodically wander through, but we didn’t see any other skirmishes and, aside from the somewhat-belligerent pusher we photographed early on, the majority of police seemed peacefully minded.
I’ve always been fascinated by riot police, and while watching one of their patrol groups shift to continually protect their backs in the crowd I was struck by the difficult position they must find themselves in.
It seems safe to presume that every one of those police officers is part of the 99%. Some of them might identify with the protests, relate to the movement, and believe that change needs to happen, but they’ve also been tasked with preventing the demonstration from getting out of hand.
Police brutality, when it occurs, is a devastating abuse of the public trust (and unfortunately it has been a well-documented occurance throughout the Occupy Wall Street protests in the U.S.).
Protesters and police officers aren’t necessarily natural enemies, however, and there’s complexity to every issue. I wonder how many of these public officers wanted to be on the other side of the barricade, perhaps joining their friends and families?
Or perhaps I’m just a bleeding-heart liberal who assumes everyone wants to see real change occur.
What do you think?