It turns out that you can launch a protest after just arriving in a new country even if you still can’t tell one straße from another and haven’t figured out how to do your laundry yet. You need a network, some red paint, and people who are already ready to march.
Berlin had its first casseroles protest yesterday on June 6th, 2012. The casseroles protests have been spreading worldwide in solidarity with the general student strike in Quebec and the tuition hikes, anti-protest laws, and indifference from mainstream Canada they have been combating. Casseroles are based on el cacerolazo, a form of protest pioneered in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay under dictatorial regimes in the 1970s. It consists of everyday citizens banging pots and pans as they walk in the streets. People lean out of windows and bang pots. They stand on balconies and beat muffin trays. They wheel their bikes on the sidewalk and ring their bike bells. Every Wednesday, Casseroles Night in Canada, a loose web entity, as well as other Quebec-based groups have called for International casseroles in solidarity for the situation in Quebec.
So on June 6th, we marched. There were more than fifty of us, the required number of people to break the anti-protest law in Quebec. There were people from Canada (both from Quebec and from other provinces), the USA, Iran, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Mexico, Germany, and France. We had mic checks in English, French, and German. And, with some luck and many emails, the next Casseroles Night in Berlin will be next Wednesday, organized by student groups in Berlin rather than members of Occupy Wall Street.
The media (or the media that bothers to cover the casseroles) is increasingly saying that the Quebec protests are going global. I would add a friendly amendment: around the world, people are joining casseroles protests, not only in solidarity with Quebec students and their allies, but also to protest the same issues in their own country.
There isn’t a speck of Casseroles Berlin that is not International– in fact, the flavour of what happened yesterday in Berlin gives “International” a specific meaning that is different than the all-sorts-of-countries-joined-in version usually used in the media. First, a Canadian living in New York and visiting Berlin spearheaded the protest. I acknowledged the likelihood of banging a pot at an intersection by myself when I created the Facebook page. But because I am in Berlin to “participate” in an activist community “curated” by the Berlin Biennial (that’s another story), I had an opportunity to share my desire to do casseroles at an open action assembly full of activists from around the world. Soon a Spaniard and I were banging out the details.
Antonio asked me, “what does the red square symbolize?”
“It’s the sign of the Quebec strike.”
“Yes, but what does it mean?”
“Um, it can be sort of a pun to mean ‘we’re squarely in the red.’”
“What about the belt and the scissors?”
“In Spain, the scissors symbolize cuts, and the belt is this [he mimes tightening his belt until he can't breathe].”
From that discussion, a new symbol was born:
“The square is stronger than the scissors!” “Rock beats scissors, Squares beat cuts!” We banged our pots with scissors until they broke. “We broke the cuts!”
This morning I woke up and noticed that the Quebec-based Casseroles Night in Canada had adopted the scissors and square symbol.
Though there were many Canadians on the march, and even a troupe of Montrealers on vacation joined us and mic checked a sassy French protest poem, the main message of the protest was not just about solidarity with Quebec. Germans marched “dur solidaritat” not because they have student debt (they don’t) or high barriers to education (they don’t), but because they have more in common with 20 and 30 years olds in Quebec, Mexico, England, Poland, Chile, Iran, and Spain than they do with elite parties in power in their own countries. None of our governments are supporting us or our futures. We are all facing active repressions of freedom of expression, protest, and alternative ways to engage in politics. Capitalism and its trappings have eclipsed other forms of economy. In the words of Occupy Wall Street, the split between the 99% and the 1% is everywhere.
Tellingly, at the end of our march, which lead us to Kanada Haus (the Canadian Embassy), the Polizei came. “Does anyone speak fluent German?” “Non.” “No.” “Qua?” One undergraduate student from Humboldt University, a Canadian, spoke German. The power of language was immediately evident: she was identified as a sort of leader and was under the most threat for being fined or taken away (word of advice: next time, do not produce a fluent German speaker). It turns out there is a law in Germany that you cannot protest without telling the police 24 hours in advance. People who do not hold German passports are not allowed to protest at all. “Does anyone hold a German passport?” “Non.” “No.” “Qua?” Our Canadian German speaker told the police we were protesting in solidarity with students of Quebec. Where they aware of how the police treat those students? That they beat them? The answer in German: “We do that here, too.” We are more nervous now. After fifteen minutes or so, we convince the police that we didn’t know about the law, that the protest is spontaneous (this is the loop hole in the law), and that we are leaving now. Maybe they are not convinced. It is raining. They will have to levy fines in at least three languages. Tourists are starting to take photographs. One police officer tells another to drop it.They drop it.
A point I want to reiterate before I sign off is that this was not a cross-national protest. It was not just people in Berlin banging pots for people in Quebec. It was deeply international, or perhaps even post-national, in that it is impossible to separate the Quebecois from the Spanish, the Iranian from the New Yorker, the student from the tourist from the full-time activist. There are many, many differences between us. These differences inform our struggle. Yet they also infuse our politics with a certain je ne sais quoi, a type of electric partnership and productive collaboration that changes what we formerly considered (im)possible within our own countries. I hope the powers that be are nervous.
Some notes on logistics:
- You need a network to get a casseroles (or any other form of protest or coordinated political action) going. This is not just because you need to get the word out, but because this network gives you currency. There were many questions of affiliation we had to clarify before people were comfortable joining or forwarding our call. “Occupy Wall Street,” “Canadian, American, Polish, Spanish, and Indian citizens” and other forms of affiliation that made us legible were more crucial than I could have anticipated.
- Your protest has to resonate with the people around you. These folks were ready to casserole.
- We went to a second hand store, found a red felt IKEA cushion, and cut it up for red squares to hand out. We made extra signs. We had fliers in English and German to give to people we met on the way. These visual and literary bits added to the energy of solidarity– we looked the same, had similar phrases in our heads and our mouths, and many felt welcomed because we had anticipated their arrival with gifts of red tags and signs.
- learn about the protest laws in new countries, and think of the best ways to use language differences to your advantage rather than your disadvantage– our main German speaker was both targeted by police and was in full control of our message to the police, yet she was not one of the point people with all the information.
- Oh my goodness, use human translators for your literature, not Google translate!
- One of the main friendly criticisms we’ve received is that we should have tapped into student organizations in Berlin. Yet they lie outside our network.This is a huge hurdle I am still working on.
- Max L.