This Saturday, June 1, was not just the day of the breakthrough of protest in Turkey, with the police withdrawing from Taksim Square and thousands of protesters occupying it. On the same day, tens of thousands of protesters marched throughout Europe. In Frankfurt, thousands demonstrated against a central financial institution in the heartland of neoliberal Europe, a day after actually blocking it. For the second year in a row, a sizeable, militant Blockupy action was held in front of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt.
The choice of target is as significant as the name of the action. Together with the EU and IMF, the ECB is part of the so-called Troika of foreign lenders, who together impose stringent austerity policies in return for bailouts. Simply put: the Greek government owes billions to Western banks; the Troika loans billions to the Greek government to pay back its creditors; the Troika then demands that the Greek government lowers pensions, attacks social security, lays off workers in the public sector — all to save some money to pay the creditors.
The same happens in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, and where else in the future…? The ECB, as part of the Troika, is rightly seen as centrally responsible for this socially devastating bailout-cum-austerity package deal. Austerity in Europe is condemning millions to poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Unemployment in the eurozone as a whole now stands at 12.2 percent, youth unemployment at 24.4 percent. These are averages. In Greece, no less than 62.5 percent of those of 25 years of age and younger were unemployed in February.
Austerity is pushing the economy into chronic recession: people who don’t have money cannot spend it in shops; consumption markets are drying up; ever more people lose their jobs. From a mainstream economic point of view, austerity “is not working”: it actually makes things worse. But from the view of bankers and creditors wanting their money back, it’s working very well. And from the view of capitalists and governments, who want to get rid of as many taxes and social security provisions as possible, it’s working splendidly — thank you very much!
But the whole austerity program is provoking enormous anger — and the Blockupy protests are both an expression of that anger and an expression of solidarity to all those suffering and fighting back. This is why the name is so significant: it signifies an escalation of the Occupy movement, which previously limited itself mostly to occupying public place. This action does not just occupy; it actually – if only temporarily and symbolically – intends to block one of the central institutions of European capitalism. Of course, the state reacts in its usual repressive manner.
On May 31, there was an actual blockade of the ECB building in Frankfurt. Demonstrators, several thousands of them, blocked the entrance streets to the bank building. “Humanity above profits” was one of the key slogans. There was plenty of police at the scene, fully prepared with pepper spray and water cannons. A police helicopter kept watch overhead. There were scuffles, and a number of arrests. There was a demonstration near the airport as well.
On June 1, the next Blockupy action took place: a demonstration in Frankfurt. The march started peacefully – until riot police blocked the route. Fighting broke out, with a demonstrators throwing objects at police, and with police kettling demonstrators and attacking them with pepper spray. Exact numbers are not clear, but the Turkish news site Zaman mentions 7,000 protesters, signs reading ‘Make love, not war’ and ‘IMF, get out of Greece’”. Dutch media speak of “thousands of demonstrators”, which, translated back into the reality-based community, probably means many thousands.
However, it was not just the protest in Frankfurt that was important. Protesters rallied in Portugal, Greece and Spain as well – three countries where austerity and impoverishment have struck hardest. June 1, although slightly overshadowed by the spectacular events unfolding in Turkey, was truly an international day of action against capitalism and the many anti-social ways in which it tends to solve its crises.
Compared to last year, the Blockupy action seems to have been a step forward in terms of strength and organization. Last year, riot police practically made demonstrating impossible through mass preventive arrests and an overwhelming presence in the streets. Back then, people jokingly said that there was an effective blockade of the ECB: by the police itself, whose exaggerated presence was more effective at blocking traffic through Frankfurt’s financial district than the organizers of Blockupy had ever dreamed of achieving themselves.
This year, it seems that there was much more of an actual blockade by the demonstrators themselves, marking significant progress. Hopefully , the activists will be back in stronger force next year — and maybe much, much sooner.