The perils of ignoring popular protest

Protests like Occupy London need to be heard and acted upon or riots may ensue.

The protest of the Occupy London activists camped outside St Paul's Cathedral for the past view weeks has focused attention on a central demand for economic justice in the world. Much of the media attention was drawn initially by the ongoing discourse between church and protesters. The cathedral authorities seemed to do a complete 360 degree turn when it came to the occupation.

To date, the failure to protest has seen governments everywhere simply shovelling tax payers' money into the coffers of the banks with very little in return. Indeed, for the most part the bankers have said "thanks very much" and continued paying themselves huge bonuses. The wider question, though, is: do these type of protests work? Visiting the St Paul's site there are the usual suspects; seen at road, anti war and environmental protests over the years.

There is a bohemian atmosphere around, with signs reflecting a national and global outlook. So there are "Greetings for the landless of India and Ektu Parishad", alongside "Sex Workers denied decriminalisation and safety rights" and "Giving to the poor is not enough - restructure so there is no poverty."

The site is well organised with a clear programme of events, listed at what is called the "tent university." On a day I visited there were campaigners Global Witness on "the dictator and offshore paper trails, monetary justice and the need for effective protest" and a session on the history of St Paul's with cathedral guide Ernest Woolmer. In the evening the film Battlefield, on the Bolivian revolt at La Paz, was shown. The group run a paper with a 2,000 print run called the Occupied Times.

Those who question whether protest works often quote the march of more than one million people against the Iraq war in 2003. This huge turnout, they argue, was ignored. At face value this was true, but that march and a succession of others around the time did have a lasting impact together with other factors on the political system. There have been other protests since, such as in favour of combating climate change, for the living wage and regulation of undocumented workers, against the government's public spending cuts and the policy of privatising the forests.

What the elected politicians need to remember is that over the years, all of these protests have been bringing in people from different races, classes and backgrounds. Overall, there must be a growing mass of people dissatisfied with how society is being run today.

Failure to respond to legitmate protest will in the long run result in violence. While the political class did its best to blame the riots in August on individual criminality, they were in reality another form of protest. What started as a peaceful protest about the death in police custody of another black man grew into something far bigger and more dangerous. Mob rule took over. What politicians should have looked at is why the riots took hold so easily. Whilst much of the rioting was straight mob violence, it was also a response to a polarised society that preaches consumerism and greed as virtues. The rioters had seen bankers, politicians, the police and the media with their noses in the trough, so thought: why not the rest of us?

There have been other instances over the years where failure to respond to popular protest has resulted in it taking on other forms and ultimately led to violence. The war in the north of Ireland is one of the best examples, with peaceful protest in the form of the civil rights marches repelled in violent fashion. This in turn led to violence over many years becoming the only way of expressing dissent. In the end, talks began and the peace process is now underway in earnest, but there were many lives lost as a result of a totally unnecessary conflict.

It will be interesting to see how those in power in this country respond to the growing protests from groups like Occupy London and climate change activists, to students and trade unions striking over cuts to pensions. It is simply not good enough to bleat out platitudes like "we're all in it together"; there needs to be a rebalancing of society in favour of the common good. Until this happens the protests will continue to come thick and fast, with violence more commonplace if those in power continue to cock a deaf ear to their pleas.

Paul Donovan writes a column for the Catholic weekly newspaper, the Universe.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage