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Send in the Clowns… but it’s no laughing matter

 

***

 

Rostock, Germany:
One evening shortly before I went to Rostock for the G-8 demo on
Saturday, June 2, I had a friendly argument over dinner about political
protestors and violence. That week there had been a protest
demonstration in the northern German port city of Hamburg where Asian
and European foreign ministers were meeting, and the story about it in Der Spiegel,
Germany’s major newsweekly, was headed “Violence in Hamburg Streets.”
The story’s provocative “take out” paragraph declared that the meeting
“had little to do with the approaching G-8 summit in Germany. But the
protests did. Germany’s left got in some valuable practice as the
demonstration turned violent.”

“How come there was so much violence in Hamburg the other night?” I asked my Berlin dinner companion.

“A lot of it is caused, in one way or another, by police agents provocateurs,” he claimed.

I
rolled my eyes in disbelief. “Oh come on,” I said, “next you’ll be
telling me conspiracy theory stories. Anyway, I didn’t read about any agent provocateurs in Der Spiegel.”

“The media!” he snorted. “Of course you didn’t read about it in Der Spiegel. They’re one of the worst.”

As
with similar political conversations I’ve had over the years that don’t
necessarily go anywhere, but allow for the venting of feelings and an
occasional idea, I filed this one away. But now that I’ve been to the
Rostock demonstration and read the morning-after Associated Press
dispatch about it, headlined “G-8 protesters and police battle,” I find
myself wondering more about “provocation”—not so much by a minority of
mostly young anarchist demonstrators, but provocation by both police
and media.

First,
though, some of the background to my meditations on mass gatherings.
Rostock, where the most recent global protest demo took place, is
another northern German port city on the Baltic seacoast, one of the
famous Hanseatic trading towns founded in the late Middle Ages. These
days, unlike prosperous Hamburg, Rostock, in former East Germany, has a
declining and economically-depressed population of two hundred thousand
people, and a sluggish but functioning harbourfront.

Rostock’s
current relevance is that it’s located 22 kilometres east of the beach
resort town of Heilingendamm, where the annual summit of the G-8—the
Group of Eight great powers—will take place this week from June 6-8,
behind a 12-kilometre long, 3-metre tall, razor-wire fence (cost: $20
million), guarded by some 29,000 soldiers and police, plus flotillas of
military helicopters and ships hovering over and off the Baltic Sea
coastline (cost for the whole show: about $200 million). As the city
closest to the barricaded site of the talks, Rostock was chosen for the
kickoff of what will be a week of demonstrations and camp-ins running
parallel to the expensive summit talks.

Leaders
from the U.S., Russia, Japan, Britain, France, Italy and Canada, hosted
by Germany’s conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, are slated to talk
about climate change, economics, poverty, and a roster of other
now-familiar and perennially unsolved issues. But a pall of gloom has
settled over this year’s G-8 summit well in advance of the meetings,
and the dark cloud is more than a metaphor for climate change. Merkel
hoped to get an agreement on concrete measures to check global warming,
including a specific proposal that the G-8 nations commit to reducing
greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by the year
2050. If she succeeded, it would mark an unprecedented promise to do
something significant to avert global catastrophe.

But
Merkel’s hopes for a G-8 climate change plan as the centrepiece of the
summit were pretty thoroughly scuttled by U.S. President George Bush,
who made it clear that he wouldn’t be signing on to the proposed G-8
scheme. Instead, in a Washington speech last week, Bush suddenly and
rather bizarrely proposed a separate set of talks about global warming,
talks outside of the on-going United Nations negotiations to develop a
successor plan to the Kyoto protocol. The details of Bush’s unexpected
proposal were vague and not especially coherent.

In
response, Merkel made polite noises about Bush’s new interest in
climate change problems, as did British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but
behind the scenes, German, British and Japanese officials who had
crafted the G-8 proposal, were appalled by Bush’s ham-fisted refusal to
cooperate.

The leading American paper in Europe, the International Herald Tribune, headlined its report on the U.S. move, “Bush’s climate announcement praised by his allies,” but London’s Guardian
more bluntly and accurately headed its story, “Bush kills off hopes for
G-8 climate change plan.” NGO critics were unsparing. “This is a
deliberate and carefully crafted attempt to derail any prospect of a
climate change agreement in Germany next week,” said Friends of the
Earth leader Tony Juniper. “Bush is trying to destroy the prospect of
getting anywhere.” His remarks were seconded by Philip Clapp of the
National Environmental Trust, who added, “This is a transparent effort
to divert attention from the president’s refusal to accept any
emissions reduction proposals at the G-8 summit.”

This
week at Heilingendamm there will be efforts to salvage the mess with a
lot of face-saving rhetoric and emphasis on other issues, but most of
the players are resigned to the fact that the summit will likely be a
bust, despite the rhetorical flourishes to be delivered at the end of
the week.

Meanwhile,
in Rostock on Saturday, tens of thousands of people from cities and
towns all over Germany and other parts of Europe piled out of more than
200 buses and a stream of crammed trains arriving at the city’s usually
sleepy main railway station. I made the 3-hour trip north from Berlin
on a bus co-sponsored by IGMetall, one of the country’s umbrella trade
union organizations, and Antifa, a small left-wing anti-fascist
political group.

The
demo organization, united behind the hopeful slogan that “Another world
is possible,” was a mix of trade unions, Non-Governmental Organizations
(NGOs), and political parties, most noticeably the recently-formed Left
Party, which currently commands about 10 per cent of the German vote.
As well, there was the familiar clutch of left groupuscules, especially
the dark-garbed and hooded (or is that hoodied?) Black Block, mainly
young anarchists, who are the successors to Germany’s Autonomous
Movement of the 1960s. The environmental, religious, and civil NGOs
ranged from church groups to Attac, founded in France a decade ago, but
now in 44 countries, and currently the most prominent of the
economic-ecological NGO’s.

The
political line of the demonstration, published in the organization’s
street leaflet, was relatively mild. “The world shaped by the dominance
of the G-8 is a world of war, hunger, social divisions, environmental
destruction and barriers against migrants and refugees,” said the demo
organizers. “We want to protest against this and show the
alternatives.” Then comes the punchline: “Another world is possible.”
For elderly cynics who gripe, “Yeah, another world is possible, but
what if it’s worse than this one?”, some groups have slightly tweaked
the slogan to “A better world is possible.” Yeah, but one group’s idea
of “better” may be another group’s idea of hell, complain the carpers.

A
second slogan floating around the demo was “Make capitalism history,” a
play on last year’s campaign to “Make poverty history,” led by rock
musician Bono. Gee, I thought to myself, since we haven’t yet quite
succeeded in making poverty history, isn’t it a little over-ambitious
to take on an even larger project? At which point, it’s best to shut up
and remember Diana Trilling’s cheery liberal call, “My darlings, we
must march.”

Estimates
of how many marched ranged from 25,000 (according to the police) to
70-80,000 (according to the demo organizers), but in any case a lot of
people meandered—you can’t really call it “marching”—through the city
from two assembly points down to the harbourfront grounds, now used
mainly for music events (I saw posters for an upcoming Joe Cocker
concert). Maybe we should split the difference on the numbers question,
at least until the media hires a non-partisan people-counting agency.
Pre-demo predictions were for a crowd as large as a hundred thousand,
so whatever the actual number, it was considerably less than had been
hoped for. Still, as someone standing in the middle of a large crowd,
surrounded by a large number of security personnel, it seemed like a
lot of people were on hand. The crowd was young, with a majority in
their mid-20s and early 30s.

But
it’s the large number of police, riot troops, and military personnel,
and the morning-after Sunday newspaper reports about protesters and
violence, illustrated by front-page photos of rock-throwers and cars in flames, that’s the source of my ponderings.

The
march through Rostock’s Long Street was a colourful, friendly,
intermittently noisy event, probably not all that different from spring
fairs bringing together peasants and townspeople that Rostock had seen
in medieval days of yore. There were oversized paper-mache puppets of
Bush and Merkel, drummers and maskers, marching bands, troupes of
clowns, occasional floats, and lots of red, orange, green and black
flags, including the bright blue lead banner with its “another world is
possible” slogan. About the only thing that struck me as slightly
unusual was the large number of police and police vehicles lining the
route, and the surprising numbers of stores that had boarded up their
windows, apparently at the urging of the authorities and the local
media. Somebody was expecting trouble.

I
didn’t think much about it until we were making a turn in the road down
toward the harbourfront. Rather suddenly, a squad of riot police
materialized on a nearby grassy knoll. They were dressed in
Robocop-style special uniforms, and bulkily if discretely armed. At a
shouted command, they clamped their plastic visors over their faces,
and drew up to clanking attention, billysticks at the ready. The
segment of the demo I was with was only a few metres away from and
below them, in the middle of the road, and I registered a slight sense
of alarm, especially since nothing was going on that required such
imposing riot squad readiness.

But
just at that moment of unease, a half dozen demonstrator-clowns
appeared in their own comic costumes and red-bulbous noses, and began
cavorting around the at-the-ready riot squad. Apparently, the squad was
just practising maneuvers; the street-theatre clowns were funny as they
lined up with the squad; and the crowd pulled out their cellphones and
digital cameras to take pictures. Moral of the story: call in the
clowns.

However
it was no laughing matter a short while later as the streams of
demonstrators converged and milled in their thousands on the
harbourfront grounds in front of a concert stage. At the edge of the
demo, where protesters were still arriving, there was a minor kafuffle,
and suddenly out of the side streets poured lines of black garbed,
shield-bearing, riot squad police. At about the same time, one of
several police helicopters that had been flying overhead began hovering
above the demonstration, and just stayed there, drowning out all other
sounds from the concert stage. There were a few minutes of
to-ing-and-fro-ing, as these murky movements of people are described.

The
speakers at the podium urged the crowd not to be provoked, and
announced that the demo organizers were “negotiating” with the police.
Eventually, whatever had happened at the back of the demo calmed down,
the chopper backed off to a more distant point, and the afternoon
proceeded with the requisite speeches, musical interludes, and calls
for solidarity. But I remember thinking at the time something like,
“Gee, the police seem to be unnecessarily provocative,” and I felt
puzzled by both their aggressiveness and the 20 or so minutes that it
took to get the chopper to another part of the sky, since there didn’t
seem to be much cause for the hair-trigger show of force.

Later
in the afternoon, the violence flared up again, and this time it was
real. Not the sort of thing that clowns can laugh off. Waves of police
waded in to a small patch of stone-throwing demonstrators, followed by
water-cannon trucks, tear gas, and the smoke from a couple of burning
parked cars.

Of
course, nobody knows who throws the first stone in these affairs,
notwithstanding the Biblical injunction not to do so. But what struck
me about the melee and the reportage of it is how revved up the police
were and how they, intentionally or not, had provocatively raised the
level of anticipation of violence. So, if there was a batch of
stone-throwing protesters available, they were sure to be ignited by
the atmosphere of the spectacle, an atmosphere partially created by the
police strategists.

And
there were, as everybody knew, such protesters on hand. In faulting the
police strategists, I should also declare that, like most of the demo
organizers and participants, I’m not a big fan of the so-called Black
Block. They’re fuelled by testosterone, they have a vision of the world
I don’t get, and I don’t quite know what they want beyond the thrills
of combat. But everybody knows this, including the various police
agency heads.

All
of this has more to do with the dynamics of spectacle than it does with
conspiracy, of course, but after all the fine-grained analysis of the
minutiae is finished, the idea that keeps nagging at me is that
somebody wants all the rest of us, demo attenders and the
media-saturated public alike, to believe that a demonstration is a violent act.

Second,
the media both inadvertently and intentionally cooperates with all of
this. Here, I feel surer of my intuition since I’ve worked in the world
of journalism. For a long time, I’ve insisted, probably to the point of
boringness, that no analysis of a political event is complete without
asking, “What’s the media’s role in this story?”

Some
of the media are just out-and-out reactionary and their tactics aren’t
subtle. For example, the front page headline of the local Sunday
morning tabloid in Berlin was, “Chaos-makers hunt police.” The
suggestion of Der Spiegel that the left goes to demos to gain "practise" for violence is at the same dismal level.

Much
of the reporting is more nuanced. The Associated Press dispatch, if you
read it through, turned out to be a reasonable account of the demo that
made it clear that the event was 95 per cent peaceful and that the riot
was strictly a sideshow. Yet, given the “protesters battle police”
headline and lead paragraph, it’s easy to see how the story gets read.
The Globe and Mail ran the AP story, and its “reader response”
to it was filled with raving, ranting anti-demo comments, many of which
were only a bit short of calling for the protesters to be strung up.

Several
hours later, on my way home, the news screens on the underground train
had reduced the demo to a photo and a paragraph about protesters and
violence. By then, my attention had turned away from questions of what
“provocation” really means, and back to the bigger question of whether
another, or different, or better world is possible.

.

June 3, 2007.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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