The In/Formality of Protest Camps in Berlin (Part 1)

Protest Oranienplatzby Tshanda Mbuyi  and Martin Schinagl

Over the past 15 months several tents and camps have been build up in the district of Kreuzberg, Berlin, by different groups of people that protest for very different reasons and goals. Compared to what we have seen and still experience around the globe, starting with the “Arabellion” in 2011, and many other protests from Tharir square, to Bloccupy, from Brazil to Istanbul and Gezi Park we are talking about protests that are on a much much smaller scale. But what is highly symptomatic for all of them is the appropriation of prominent public spaces be it by tents or the permanent presence of protesters. The tent poses so to speak a symbol of a new form of protest that is globally recognisable, understandable and replicated.

It is striking that so many of the protests aim to occupy and take over urban public spaces, places, squares and buildings. If not for longer, at least for a certain time. The permanent presence and visibility of protest and contestation are one of the characteristics that many of the movements that we referred to and as different as they are by there means and claims have in common. What they indicate is a deeply rooted unhappiness with the current conditions and developments around the globe that cause very local problems and seemingly lead to an emergence of a new form of protest.

Protesters at Oranienplatz Berlin

Protesters at Oranienplatz Berlin

We  are looking on the subject of protest and resistance by the means of claiming public space. It is just how these appropriations can take place in legally very unsure situations. Protest camps and spontaneous occupations of public spaces and protest without permission are not allowed. Nevertheless the tents and camps in Berlin still exist.  How do processes of formalization and informality interact to maintain certain structures in these spaces? On what formal(ised) and informal(ised) networks of support are these spaces and their actors relying on? By what and who are they contested? It is, that at some point, the links to the state and city authorities, and the executive are crucial. What is interesting about such a field is the incredible large variety of actors in it. What you have is a continuity of very precarious protesters and occupants, some of them without residence and work permits, some that have a long history of migration and deprivation, some that can no longer afford to pay the rents of where they have lived for all there lives, some that don’t have a regular income, some that are opposed to state authorities and so on to law enforcement, building controls, police officers, mayors, politicians, scientists and journalists. To us all of them are different in terms of accessibility, sympathy, knowledge and willingness for research and collaboration. Due to the complexity of the field and its protagonist’s relations, we chose a methodology that includes online and media research for a start to find out about the pros and cons, the official supporters and contestants. We approached the field with participant and non-participant observations, getting to know people and interviewing human rights activists, adolescents, supporters and strongly involved protesters. We than mapped the spatial and social forms (i.e. networks, supporters etc.) of the protests.

Mapping of networks, supporters and opponents of the movement

Mapping of networks, supporters and opponents of the movement

In Berlin, specifically in the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, you can find something like a small “cluster of protest”. What you have is once the so called Gecekondu from the activist group Kotti & Co.. It’s a small wooden hut on the edge of the big roundabout at Kottbusser Tor, where neighbours and Berliners express their frustration on the topic of rising rents, gentrification and displacement of the poorer, the (former) working class and descendants from the first generation of Turkish “Gastarbeiter” (contract workers that have been called by the German government in the 1960ies). The hut at Kottbusser Tor has been erected rather spontaneously over night last year in June in the muddle of festivities. Gecekondu is the Turkish expression for informal settlements that are usually build “over night”. Since June 2012 it has been there, transformed from a tent to a container to a wooden hut. Crossing the street while passing a tent and long benches on the pavement, where activists exercise solidarity with the protests in Istanbul and Gezi Park, it is just another 500 meters from there till the Oranienplatz. This park along side the arterial road from Berlin Mitte to Berlin Kreuzberg, has been occupied by a group of refugees and asylum seekers that have come in October last year after a 500 km walk from Würzburg to Berlin showing their anger (not only) over the German and European politics on asylum. Now, in the middle of Berlin, they have come to visibly protest for their demands – ranging from the abolition of the food stamp system for asylum seekers, against degrading conditions in the camps and broader a legalisation of the living situation. It is mainly men living in the tents of the “refugee camp”, but they are socially and politically linked to the Irving-Zola-Haus nearby. It is a squatted former school, now inhabited by women and children and other asylum seekers mainly from the African continent.

(Part 2 to follow)

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