From Tunis to Berlin

On Monday evening, just before leaving Europe to return to NYC, I stopped by Occupy Berlin one last time to see what had been going on in the week while I was in Poland. When I arrived with a pair of journalist/political scientist friends in tow, we had to look for a while to find the Asamblea in the dark – the lawn in front of the Reichstag is virtually unlit – but were tipped off by a bicycle adorned with a sign reading “The next spring is sure to come.” When we joined the group, I was surprised to hear that the Asamblea was being conducted in French, via a skillful simultaneous interpreter. It soon became clear that the crowd of 35 or so that had gathered for the Assembly included a contingent of young North Africans who were visiting Berlin as guests of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. These visitors, from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, were telling stories of the revolutions closer to home (some of them were key players in their countries’ protest movements) and offering suggestions to the Berlin occupiers.

One man from Morocco who introduced himself to me a bit later told me he had been surprised to find both the manner and the matter of the protests in Berlin so similar to what he’d experienced at home. At the same time, some of the questions asked during the Asemblea brought differences to light. At least twice, for example, North African visitors asked what the demands of Berlin’s Occupy were. Of course, the revolutions of the Arab Spring did come with demands: these protesters were out to depose leaders and topple governments. In New York, on the other hand, the absence of specific demands has repeatedly been cited as a strength, not a liability; lots of people think so, including Slavoj Žižek. My favorite quip about this, overheard on the Internet: “Hijackers make demands; movements get things moving.” It isn’t clear yet what the desiderata of the Berlin protesters will be, and whether or not actual demands will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the Occupy movement does appear to be encroaching on the German mainstream. Newspaper coverage is steadily increasing. I even found an article on politics and the economy in the Nov. 8 Berliner Zeitung that ended with its author, Harald Jähner, tipping his hat to the protesters: “The Occupy movement has so far managed to steer clear of the traditional thought patterns of the old Left and is fighting to save capitalism from capital. This would be doing our democracy quite a service indeed.”

As the Asamblea continued, there was a lot of talk about the encampment at Klosterstrasse 66 (on private property owned by a church somewhere in the hinterlands behind Alexanderplatz) and the working groups currently putting together the Berlin movement’s ideological backbone. Since the ones doing pretty much all the talking were a core group of loud and well-spoken men, one of the visitors, a Tunisian woman wearing a headscarf, spoke up to ask whether it was the custom in Berlin for only the men to talk. She pointed out that in her country, women had protested hard for the right to be heard, and she certainly expected women to have that right in Germany as well. After this, the interpreter (who had somehow wound up running the meeting, which was thus being conducted without the “progressive stack” generally in use at Berlin’s Asambleas) started recognizing more women to speak, including me.

From what I can see, the main order of business in Berlin these days is figuring out what the movement wants to be and what it will stand for. It’s clear that economic inequalities will be a central issue, as they are in the U.S.

Occupy Berlin is also clearly committed – more than its American counterparts – to forging alliances with other Occupy movements in other countries. And translation pays an enormous role in this. Early on, organizers began to incorporate simultaneous interpretation into English, Spanish, and French in their Asambleas, providing areas in which visitors can sit to hear the human mike become a bilingual mike. This is certainly something that might be tried out at Occupy Wall Street as well, though at Liberty Plaza a regular spanish-language Asamblea General is held each Sunday at 5:00 p.m. I look forward to watching Occupy Berlin continue to develop and seeing what else we can learn from international Occupy movements here in New York.
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