Preoccupations

Marching to a different drummer

Print edition : August 04, 2017

The culmination of the “zombie march” in Hamburg on July 5. This was a “performance art” demonstration by 1,000 artists dressed in grey clothes and painted grey to convey how capitalism was turning us all into zombies. Photo: Friedemann Vogel-Pool/Getty Images

MEETINGS of global leaders, such as the recent G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, increasingly have a ring of farce about them. The inability to come to an agreement on pretty much anything of significance is leavened only by sideshows and the media obsession with which global leader met with whom for how long, who sat in for which President at the “high table”, and similar trivia. Meanwhile, there is abject failure on the part of these leaders to recognise the pressing need for urgent and coordinated global action to solve many current problems, ranging from the terrible state of the world economy to wars and conflicts, and the instabilities and inequalities created not just by the forces of globalisation fostered by these same governments but their own direct actions.

But such meetings sometimes have at least one positive outcome: they become the occasion for public mobilisation and calls for action around the issues that really matter to most people and thereby help in spreading ideas for a more positive policy agenda. In Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany and one with a long history of Left groups and progressive movements, this was very much in evidence. For several days before the G20 summit as well as during the summit, there were alternative gatherings, processions and protests that were predominantly peaceful and also thoughtful, imaginative and, ultimately, quite inspiring.

The mainstream media have portrayed what happened in Hamburg in early July in a very different light, focussing almost exclusively on violent protests. It is interesting that the authorities predicted violence well before any actually occurred, and so there was a massive police presence that effectively created a lockdown of the central part of the city. To any visitor to the city, the huge show of force well before any untoward incident was startling to say the least: massive deployment of fully armed riot police in black gear and helmets on the streets; barricades put up all over with no apparent reason, even in peaceful neighbourhoods; convoys of police cars sweeping through roads with sirens blaring when there was no apparent reason for it; and helicopters constantly swirling overhead in a somewhat menacing fashion for several days and nights.

The few stray incidents of violence, when they did occur, were mostly about problems at barricades and preventing what started out as peaceful marches because some of the marchers were masked. There was some violent activity by a few dozen members of the Black Block movement, a group of hard Left anarchists that came to prominence in the 1980s during anti-nuclear and anti-eviction movements in the city. Others could even have been the work of agents provocateurs as some participants in the demonstrations pointed out that the authorities needed something to justify their massive and expensive security operations.

Global Solidarity Summit

But these were, in fact, very much the tinier parts of what became quite a moving demonstration of people’s concerns. Discussions, protests and demonstrations were variously thoughtful, creative and humorous, and even the most massive marches were peaceful. A two-day Global Solidarity Summit of activists, people’s movements and members of civil society held just before the G20 summit was an impressive gathering put together by more than 75 different organisations, which in itself was no mean feat. The energy and enthusiasm at that alternative summit were palpable. At the opening plenary session, many of those who came had to listen from outside the hall as it could accommodate only around 900 people. Even at the closing session, which went on until 10 p.m., the hall was still full, as if two long and full days of intense, packed discussions around alternative strategies had only whetted people’s appetite for more.

Outside there were other, livelier events. At the fish market, young people gathered to listen to speakers, musicians and others who came and performed. At another place, a “performance art” demonstration by a thousand artists took the novel form of a “zombie march”: apparently semi-dead people with grey clothes and faces and arms painted grey walked slowly, sombrely and heavily through the streets to imply that this phase of capitalism was turning us all into zombies. At the culmination, they tore off their grey clothing to reveal bright colours below and danced to celebrate their liberation from zombiehood, and to point to better possibilities ahead.

Then there were five separate but simultaneous “rave demos” across the city in which trucks blaring music preceded hordes of young people dancing along on the streets, for hours. The next day, the streets were still full of the confetti and glitter they had left behind, sending a cheerful and even joyous message that could make one smile despite the ominous police cars with their sirens, the lines of armed policemen and the helicopters flying overhead. There were large rallies and gatherings at different places, including the university.

The municipality had refused permission for protesters to camp at the usual designated ground, so organisers of the various events could not put up the people, especially the young, who had flocked to Hamburg. True to a city with its progressive credentials, churches and theatres opened up their doors to house them, while some young people simply shacked down by the harbour and on any grassy bits they could find.

The climax of all these events was an enormous, and peaceful, march of around 100,000 people through some of the main streets. This contained all sorts of people from various walks of life: mostly young, but also some old grizzled lefties (whose views are suddenly finding renewed resonance and traction among the young across Europe); trade unionists and other groups representing different interests; young parents pushing prams; migrants; and so on. The mood was serious but also lively, with lots of positive energy, as the very size of the gathering and its variety allowed participants to draw strength from it.

In her memoirs, the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote about how solitude is a form of death, while participating in and identifying with something greater than oneself gives one life and a reason for that life. So these collective occasions are important because of the wider message they send out of greater hope and the public mobilisation that they might result in. They also provide sustenance to the people who participate, who realise they are not alone and that together they can be a potent force for change.

If something as indicative of the sorry state of the world as a G20 meeting can inadvertently result in public affirmations of the continued power of progressive ideas, clearly all is not lost even in Europe.

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