Occupy Movement Hopes for New Lease on Life

PHOTO: People gather on a sidewalk during a May Day protest in New York, New York, May 1, 2012. People around the world are gathering for May Day protests against austerity measures and calling for higher wages.Justin Lane/EPA
People gather on a sidewalk during a May Day protest in New York, New York, May 1, 2012. People around the world are gathering for May Day protests against austerity measures and calling for higher wages.

The Occupy movement got off to a great start last fall, but living in a tent camp seemed less attractive during the Northern European winter. Now that spring is back, activists are hoping for a protest renaissance. But the loose-knit group still needs to figure out what it actually stands for.

When Erik Buhn arrives at the tent camp in Frankfurt in the afternoon to resume his efforts to make the world a better place and to foster a more open and friendly society, one in which people are considerate of each another and act responsibly, a man is just unzipping his trousers on the mound behind the euro symbol sculpture.

The man is wearing a suit, and from a distance he might be mistaken for a banker. But on closer inspection his suit looks somewhat worse for wear. He urinates onto one of the two tents that are standing there, a short distance from the rest of the camp. "Hey, what are you doing?" someone shouts from the other end of the tent camp.

Buhn is wearing jeans, a leather jacket and a small hat that makes him look a little like an artist. "You're pushed to the limits of tolerance here every day," he says.

His limits seem to be relatively broad. Two drunk men are shouting next to him. In the large tent where the protesters are supposed to eat together and attend a daily political meeting dubbed the "Asamblea," dirty plates are piled high, and there are people napping in a corner who don't look as if they really have plans to talk about politics later.

The Asamblea is cancelled, anyway, when not enough people show up. Instead, the people who are showing up are those who need a place to sleep, like the homeless from the area around the train station. A Roma family also moved in recently.

Keeping Things Orderly

When Buhn pitched his tent in the park in front of the European Central Bank (ECB) building in Frankfurt six months ago, he was searching for a new political idea. Buhn, a student from the Bavarian city of Aschaffenburg who also works part-time as an electrician, became part of the global Occupy movement.

The movement is called Occupy after the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters who occupied and pitched tents in New York's Zuccotti Park, three blocks from Wall Street, in September 2011, to protest against the power of the banks and the inaction of the political world. Imitators soon cropped up in more than 1,000 cities worldwide, including Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt.

Buhn's tent was given the number 90. In the beginning, the organizers of Occupy Frankfurt wanted to make sure that everything was done in an orderly fashion.

The man behind the euro sign zips up his trousers and staggers away. Buhn doesn't pay any attention to him. He is about to meet with people who, like him, still feel something of the original euphoria. They want to talk about May, when things could get going again, says Buhn.

New demonstrations are planned all across the world for the month. It began on May 1, or International Workers' Day, when Occupy Wall Street staged what they called a "general strike" in New York. There were also Occupy protests in Seattle, where protesters clashed with police after masked individuals smashed storefront windows, Miami and Oakland, California, where there were also clashes with police.

There will be a global action day in mid-May. It will give all the people who took to the streets in 2011 to protest against financial capitalism and the political establishment, occupying public squares from Madrid to Athens to Frankfurt, the chance to show that they are still furious and prepared to stage a rebellion.

It is a popular front of the indignant, a confusing and mutually contradictory throng of millions of people with varying demands, united only in their rage. In the United States, for example, the Occupy movement is calling for the establishment of a commission to investigate how much influence the banks have on political decisions. Many are demanding higher taxes for the wealthy and a financial transaction tax. Some want to eliminate capitalism altogether, while others just want to make it more human. But it is precisely in their inconsistency that the activists see their strength.

In the broad spectrum of all critics of capitalism, the Occupy protesters are the non-ideological rebels. Socialists and communists are at the other end of the scale, while the center is made up of trade unionists, social democrats, critical Christians, Greens and members of the Pirate Party, whose core issues are Internet freedom and political transparency. Now that even business owners, managers and bankers are becoming disenchanted with capitalism, the chorus of voices opposed to the "system" is louder and more diverse than ever before. Long-standing opponents of the system are astonished over the company they are now keeping.

Protest Star

When Camila Vallejo steps onto the stage in a lecture hall at the University of Hamburg to explain to the Germans how to organize a revolution in the 21st century, people in the audience jump up to get a better look at her. They include students and older men with union buttons on their sweaters.

Videos from Vallejo's home country of Chile are being shown on a screen. Chile also saw demonstrations last year, and Vallejo was one of the leaders of the movement there. She addressed hundreds of thousands at rallies and, as the spokeswoman of her country's student association, negotiated with politicians. She has more than 400,000 followers on Twitter.

Because all of the uprisings and protest camps had no real leaders and produced no heroes, Chilean student Vallejo became the star of 2011, the year of protests. She didn't hide her face behind a mask, as the Occupy protesters often do to emphasize that faces are unimportant to them. She appeared on television, recorded videos to be aired on YouTube, and generally made sure that people would become familiar with her face. It is well-proportioned, with large, alert eyes framed by her dark curls.

"Hallo, wie geht es euch?" ("Hello, how are you?") Camila Vallejo asks, reading the German words from a piece of paper. She is a petite woman in jeans and a sweater. When she speaks, her words are clear and focused, making her seem bigger than she actually is.

She is on a 10-day tour of Germany, speaking at universities and union halls. She talks about her country and the high tuition fees in Chile, where even middle-class students can barely afford to attend university. She blames neoliberalism. "They have turned education into a commodity, just as they turn everything into a commodity," she says, "and they'll also try to do it in your country." She holds up her book, "Podemos Cambiar el Mundo" ("We Can Change the World").

Are People Still Indignant?

Vallejo, who is 24, was a geography student in the Chilean capital Santiago before becoming a star of the protest movement last summer.

Erik Buhn, 27, is a student of Scandinavian studies, history and classical archeology in Frankfurt. He missed the last semester because of Occupy.

At first glance, one might think that Vallejo and Buhn were allies, two participants in a big, worldwide protest movement. Vallejo is fighting on the side of the organized left, experienced anti-capitalists who have staged similar protests in the past. Buhn is one of the many new critics of capitalism. "Left, right, we would prefer to put these categories behind us," he says, referring to Occupy, which he hopes will provide him with new answers.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters, convinced of their broad appeal, chanted: "We are the 99 percent." Unlike the labor movement of the 19th century or the student movement of the 1960s, they saw themselves as a movement for everyone. Then winter came to the United States and Europe, and the ground froze under the tent cities in northern climates. In many camps, the occupiers either gave up or were driven away by the police.

Are people still indignant, they are now asking themselves? How many will return in May, and where will their outrage take them? Will they find new answers, possibly even a new political idea? 'The Hibernation Period Is Over'

Erik Buhn walks from the tent camp to the Frankfurt Opera, which is across the street and has declared its solidarity with the movement, as has much of Germany. The country's main opposition parties -- the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Green Party and the far-left Left Party -- have voiced their support, as have the influential Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) and the Attac movement, which opposes neo-liberal globalization. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has let it be known that she sympathizes with Occupy. The Frankfurt Opera offered the camp occupants the use of its toilets and cafeteria.

Buhn greets the concierge and makes his way to a wooden table in the cafeteria, where six men and a woman are seated, the current membership of a group called "Demo Working Group." The group's biggest concern at the moment is not how to change the system, but the more mundane question of how to get at least a portion of the 99 percent back onto the streets of Frankfurt. "People have to see that the hibernation period is over," says Buhn.

The meeting is chaired by a man named Wolf, who pushes sheets of paper labeled "Agenda" across the table. "Obviously May 1 is the beginning," he says. Then comes the anniversary of the "Indignados," the "indignant" who occupied Madrid's Plaza del Sol square on May 15, 2011, inspired by "Indignez-vous!" (published in English as "Time for Outrage!"), a pamphlet written by the 94-year-old former French Résistance fighter Stéphane Hessel. 'Greek Would Be Good'

Indignation is the program of all critics of capitalism. Indignation over the trillions in taxpayer money that had to be used to protect banks and economies from collapse. Indignation over the pursuit of profit of a small number of people that is driving society into crisis instead of serving the common good. Indignation over the fact that governments are seemingly impotent when faced with the vagaries of the markets, and that they have even fueled market activity with their incorrect decisions during the last few decades.

"This will be big. The issue is democracy. There are events planned around the world," says Wolf. "We need a truck." Leftist groups plan to cripple Frankfurt's banking district in mid-May, and some of the Occupy activists are assisting in the preparations.

As they sit in the cafeteria at the Frankfurt Opera, in the midst of actors waiting to appear on stage, the activists brainstorm what else they can do to make a big splash. "Maybe some sort of choreography. Can we do that?" asks Buhn.

"What's the name of that Greek dance? Greek would be good," says Wolf.

The activists feel that the Greeks are being put under too much pressure because of their government's austerity plans, and so they decide to dance the sirtaki.

Feeling of Anxiety

Buhn had never attended a demonstration before joining Occupy. But he too felt anxious as a result of the financial crisis. This is the political price for the trillions in bailout programs: Citizens like Buhn lose confidence in their government.

When an Occupy camp was founded in Frankfurt, he packed his tent and went there. He planned to stay for four days. The people he encountered at the camp talked about banks and the government's bailout policy, and they had the same feelings of anxiety as he did. There were no leaders, and there was no fixed structure. Buhn didn't have to fill out a membership application. All he had to do was stay, and he could also leave and come back. He liked this sense of openness. He didn't sleep in the camp every night, and he kept working as an electrician, but eventually he decided to take a semester off at university.

After that, he started organizing panel discussions, and in early March he invited prominent German politician Sahra Wagenknecht, a member of the German parliament and the deputy chair of the Left Party, to Frankfurt. She sat down with Buhn and two other young Occupy activists in the lobby of the opera building and discussed the crisis with them.

Wagenknecht became a political star during the financial crisis, ever since the political and economic system became a topic of discussion on talk shows. As an economist and Marxist, she has ideas, not about overthrowing the system, but about reforms. "We need a Europe-wide wealth tax, a tax on millionaires, and a stringent one at that," she said at the opera building. The Left Party wants to make the rich pay for rescuing the euro, and it also wants to nationalize banks.

The anti-capitalism of the Left Party is now disguised as propaganda for the social market economy. But it reads like a former platform of their political arch-enemy, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, which it passed immediately after the war. In their 1947 Ahlen Program, the CDU in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia called for a society whose purpose "can no longer be the capitalistic pursuit of power and profit; it must lie in the welfare of our people." (The CDU has since moved to the right in its economic policies.)

Searching for the Swarm "I am very pleased that Occupy also exists in Germany," Wagenknecht said, looking at the men as if she would like to move into the camp with them.

One could vote for Wagenknecht's ideas, but her party is losing votes with each new election, despite the widespread protest mood. The Left Party, which permanently criticizes the system and yet is also a part of that system, existed before the crisis. People are now pinning their hopes on new people and new movements like Occupy, which might even come up with new solutions, or on the politicians of the Pirate Party, even though they have said very little about the crisis to date. In their defense, the Pirates say that they have to get their bearings first before forming an opinion on issues like bailout funds and fiscal pacts. The Pirates, who don't want leaders either, put their trust in the principle of swarm intelligence. They believe that if a lot of people think about an issue and correct each other in the process, they will eventually come up with better ideas. Occupy also wants to be this type of swarm.

The men from Occupy thanked Wagenknecht for her "suggestions," and then she went on her way. Buhn crept under the thick tarp they had stretched over their tents in the winter and went to sleep among the skyscrapers of Frankfurt's financial district.

In his tent, a plastic mask lies on a yellow mattress made of unprocessed foam rubber. It's the Guy Fawkes mask from the graphic novel and film "V for Vendetta", a white cartoon-like face that has become the symbol of Occupy, a movement that eschews symbolic figures. They are the tricksters of a popular front that begins and ends with them, and which hopes to transform outrage into an uprising.

Doing Well

A few days after her appearance in Hamburg, Chilean student leader Vallejo walks into a classroom in the central German city of Braunschweig. The girls and boys in blue sweaters sitting on long benches are only a few years younger than she is.

The classroom is on the grounds of the Volkswagen plant. "Our second-year trainees," says the man from the works council who is giving Vallejo a tour of the plant.

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which is affiliated with the Left Party, and the Education and Science Workers' Union paid for Vallejo's trip. Other union members contacted the organizers. They, too, longed for a little revolutionary glamour. Many have also been strong supporters of Chile since Salvador Allende governed the country in the early 1970s. Allende, a leftist president who did not become a dictator, was a good, democratic socialist. The Chileans came to Braunschweig through a man from the IG Metall metalworkers' union.

"Are you doing well here?" Vallejo asks the girls and boys. They all nod. Do they stand a chance of getting a good job in the plant in the future? They do. Do they have to work a lot? Thirty-five hours a week, including the hours they spend in school.

How much does the training program cost them? A few of the boys start to giggle. They pay nothing, they say. In fact, they earn €700 ($930) a month, or about two-and-a-half times as much as a worker earning the minimum wage in Chile, the equivalent of €283 a month.

"Wow," says Vallejo. Taking Revenge on the Chicago Boys

She doesn't stay in the classroom very long. She's had a headache since she stepped off the train in the morning, and she asks the organizers if she can take a break at her hotel.

She feels better that evening, at an event in the union hall. It wasn't the shock of her visit to the German working world that made her feel unwell, but rather the fact that she hadn't slept much in the last few days.

"We don't want to improve the system a little bit. We want to change the entire system," she says. She raises her fist alongside her head.

Vallejo is a communist. She joined the youth organization of the Communist Party at the age of 19. She liked the structures and the clear answers the party gave her. Her parents, who are also communists, named their daughter after Camilo Cienfuegos, a Cuban revolutionary who fought alongside Che Guevara.

After overthrowing Allende in a coup, the dictator Augusto Pinochet transformed Chile into a model country for the neoliberal economic theories conceived at the University of Chicago, where economist Milton Friedman taught. Friedman believed that the state should leave the markets as much freedom as possible. Most of the men who rebuilt the economic system in Chile had studied at the University of Chicago. Known as the "Chicago Boys," they privatized everything they could, opened up the financial markets and abolished the right to strike.

New Ideas, Old Leaders

Vallejo grew up in a country in which neoliberalism had been ruthlessly implemented. Is she now supposed to move into a tent and muse over reforms at her leisure? In Germany, people are constantly asking her what she thinks about Occupy, and about all the new critics of capitalism who could be her allies. Protesting against the system is always good, she says. However, she considers the individualism that is so important to the people of Occupy and the Pirates to be a harmful consequence of the system, an "individualization." A loosely defined swarm in which everyone does as he or she pleases is not her idea of a decent political organization. She believes in "the collective," and in well-organized groups that need leaders.

They don't even have to be new leaders. In April, after her visit to Germany, Vallejo traveled to Cuba, where she met with Fidel Castro at his house in Havana. There is a photo of Vallejo standing next to the old man, wearing a floral-patterned summer dress with spaghetti straps. She is holding Castro's left arm and looking up at his face, which has become gaunt. Castro is still "a great visionary," she said after the meeting.

What is her idea for a better world? The general secretary of the youth organization of the Communist Party of Chile, who accompanied Vallejo to Germany, answers this question.

"Our ideal is a socialist state, later perhaps even a communist society, but we understand that we are still very far away from that," says Karol Cariola, the general secretary. Vallejo doesn't give any interviews on her trip without Cariola.

"To begin with, it's about the struggle between neoliberalism and democracy," says Vallejo. The first thing she wants, she says, is a government that pays for good schools and hospitals, and that guarantees good working conditions. If she didn't constantly begin her sentences with "to begin with," she could just as well be a German social democrat.

How does she feel about the social market economy in Germany?

"We don't believe in a humane form of capitalism," says the general secretary. Perhaps, she adds, Germans don't see "the exploitation of people by other people" quite as clearly. Fresh-Faced

The fact that Vallejo became the star of the 2011 year of protests was probably more of an accident than anything else. She is an attractive Chilean student, someone who calls for even more democracy in her tweets, and who comes across as contemporary and fresh.

But she has no answers for the rest of the world, and she also has little interest for the questions that people in Europe and the United States are asking, such as: How can capitalism be tamed once again? She believes that capitalism ultimately cannot be tamed. It's a clear position, at least, which puts her a step ahead of the Occupy people. She doesn't have to search for new ideas, because she simply assumes that the old ones are still valid.

At the moment, the "system" gives many people reason to call it into question, almost the way it was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when economist John Maynard Keynes wrote: "Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone."

But today, in contrast to the time of the Great Depression, the hope that a different system could be better for the common good is even more remote. That's why the activists are sitting around in tents, hoping that in doing so they will be able to make the system more humane. Those who have informed themselves about the theory of revolution know that revolutions come about when those at the top become increasingly incompetent while those at the bottom become increasingly dissatisfied. So far, the only thing that's clear today is that those at the top, the politicians, are becoming increasingly inept.

Old-Fashioned Ideas

"Personally, I feel that the social market economy is a good compromise," says Erik Buhn in Frankfurt. In their group tent, in the cafeteria at the Opera House and in their Internet forums, the Occupy activists have spent months discussing the system and its weaknesses. Now many of those who can be found in and around the camp are no longer searching for something new. In fact, they actually yearn for something that's decidedly old-fashioned.

They rave about family-owned businesses in which the owner feels responsible for the employees, and about the more generous social benefits that existed before former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a member of the Social Democrats, pushed through the Agenda 2010 reforms, which introduced the widely unpopular Hartz IV benefits for the long-term unemployed.

There are even people who liked Schröder's ideas about reforms, like Wolf, the head of the Demo Working Group. Schröder wanted to make it worth people's while to work again, instead of being on benefits. That made sense to Wolf. But then German companies started paying low wages and making greater use of poorly paid temporary workers, which meant that many people found that they weren't actually much better off working after all.

Democracy has to become more democratic, the activists say. They dream of politicians who take the time to effectively explain decisions and who always keep their campaign promises.

Friendly Capitalism

Except for a few radical leftists, who ritually call for revolution on May 1 every year, hardly anyone in Germany wants to eliminate capitalism anymore. Capitalism has many critics, from the center-right CDU to the far-left Left Party, but hardly any opponents anymore.

How do the Occupy activists intend to make capitalism friendlier?

There are ideas that are frequently discussed in the camp, including the Left Party's plan for a wealth tax and the unconditional basic income that the Pirates now support. Other ideas include the minimum wage, a tax on financial transactions and more referendums.

Those who expect more after only a few months haven't understood the Occupy principle. They need more time.

Erik Buhn eats a large plate of french fries in the Opera House cafeteria before putting on his hat and walking back to the tent camp. He wants to return to the university soon, and he hopes to attend classes two days a week, he says. He is taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Occupy. The world will not change if only a few people still want to participate in Occupy events. The freedom that Buhn liked so much about Occupy at first is also its biggest problem, because it makes the movement a bit arbitrary, something for people who don't like to pin themselves down. It's very contemporary, and also very moody.

Time to Harvest

When Buhn returns to the tent camp, for the second time on this day, twilight has descended on the tents, and now two dozen people are sitting on benches and old upholstered chairs on the mound behind the euro symbol sculpture. They're not drunk and no one is shouting. Instead, they are watching a screen. It's video night at Occupy.

A woman is watering the primroses that are growing in donated soil in boxes. "You can already harvest the chives," she says. A man plays the guitar while images of New York move across the screen.

The images are of Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti Park. The trees are still green and people are wearing T-shirts. Their faces are glowing. That was how it all began last September, which isn't even that long ago. The people in Frankfurt, who have survived the winter and are now looking forward to May, hope it could happen again.

Whenever people ask him questions about Occupy and what he still wants here, Buhn turns around and asks them his own question: What would have to happen to make you spend one night here?"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan