Rite of Passage

They call themselves ‘concerned Germans’, ‘German nationalists’ and ‘patriots’; to everyone else they are Nazis, neo-Nazis, fascists. In recent months Germany has seen a huge rise in right-wing extremism, objecting to German immigration policies. PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes) (Patriot Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) regularly hold demonstrations in Dresden and have spawned many offshoot movements throughout Germany. The laws in Germany concerning freedom of speech and freedom of assembly mean everybody has the right to publicly demonstrate even if this is not a view shared by the majority or is seen to be hateful.

I recently joked that as a rite of passage to becoming to real German, you must demonstrate about something. It’s not that far from the truth because with the surge of right-wing extremist activity, the left have answered in even bigger numbers.

On October 3rd 2015, I took part in an anti-Nazi demo in Jena, Thuringia. A student city, Jena is home to a large left-wing populous, and neo-Nazi demonstrations are always met with fierce protestations. A branch of ‘Die Rechte’ (The Right) party intended to walk through the city. The role of the anti-fascist demonstrator is to stop them, to anticipate their intended route and get in their way by literally blocking the route. It was intended to be a peaceful protest but I was slightly alarmed when my boyfriend recommended I wear flat shoes suitable for running, and that I wear my glasses, not contact lenses, in case I got pepper- sprayed.

A large group of anti-fascists protestors met up in a car park close to Jena city centre at 8am. It was a cold but bright morning, and while I was tired, I couldn’t help but be affected the atmosphere and anticipation of what was ahead. People stood in small groups, while German rap was pumped from speakers attached to a car roof. This car would later lead our procession to the city centre accompanied by police also there at that time. It struck me for a moment as farcical to be standing in the cold at 8am while German rap thumped into my head. I really wanted a coffee.

We soon set off, walking at a slow pace behind the music-blasting car, after hearing instructions as to where to go, and what to do.

We gathered at another point in the city centre where the neo-Nazi walk was expected to pass. After standing there for about forty minutes with no sign of them, our group branched off in different directions to try and intercept another part of their route. There was a commotion when some of our group tried to escape through a police barrier. They were trying to make a run for where the neo-Nazis were, finding the quickest way possible. I suddenly felt as though I needed to sneeze. The feeling in my nose became sharp and I felt a choking sensation in my throat. This, I was told, was pepper spray that the police had just used. It had floated through the air to me and I uncomfortably wondered what it felt like to get a full direct hit.

The ‘guidelines’ are to take part in as much or as little of the events as you wish. If you don’t feel comfortable trying to break through a barricade, then you shouldn’t and that’s ok. Parents had also brought their children along so a sense of solidarity was more prevalent than that of intent for violence.

The co-ordinators of our group knew exactly what route the neo-Nazis would take. There was a quick discussion as to where to go. You have to consider how quickly you can get there, and how many other people will also be there, as numbers matter. The neo-Nazis were apparently at the main train station in Jena. My boyfriend grabbed my hand and we ran, less a romantic gesture I imagine and more his fear I would get trampled on or get lost. But my heart was pumping, and not just from the running. It was genuinely uplifting to be sprinting through the city centre streets in the middle of a crowd. I congratulated myself on having just recently bought some comfortable flat boots that were now having their initiation. You really do need a basic level of fitness before taking part in a demonstration.

When we arrived at the train station, we could see the neo-Nazis already standing on a platform. However we moved on again after a short while as there was no sign of them moving. When we reached another point in Jena where the neo-Nazis were expected, we formed a road blockade. In other locations in the city, similar things were happening as the initial larger group had splintered off and more demonstrators had joined.  We were now about 50 or 60 people sitting on the tarmac on a narrow residential road.  Motorists tried to pass and as we moved out of the way for them, any slight guilt I felt at having inconvenienced them disappeared when I realised that they were completely unperturbed, clearly something they are used to in their home town.

Our group broke up again; some to stay where we were, some to move further uphill. I was reticent about moving, I had managed to find a comfy position for my bottom on the tarmac and an uphill walk, or more likely run, in the afternoon heat did not appeal. But fifteen minutes later we found ourselves on a leafy, quiet residential road on a hill over-looking Jena.

The neo-Nazis intended to drive their van through an intersection of the road so we took positions to block their path. On one side of the intersection stood the neo-Nazis and our group on the other side, with police standing in between. As every person in Germany has the right to demonstrate, the neo-Nazis therefore had the legal right to be there, and it was us, the anti-Nazi demonstrators, that were being legally and physically obstructive. The police were there to intercept any violence and to allow the Nazi walk to continue. Simply put, the police wanted us out of the way and we were asked, or advised, over loudspeaker to leave. An organiser of our group then addressed us over loudspeaker: we would be staying put, until we were moved by the police or until the Nazi van diverted its route. For a couple of hours we sat peacefully in the sun with accompaniment from a small brass band to keep us occupied. People were chatting, music was playing, we even enjoyed snacks and coffee in the sun. It felt like a street party, if you could ignore the close distance of police and neo-Nazis. It was pleasant and peaceful.

The peace was suddenly disturbed by a group of far-left activists who, from the back of our group, threw glass bottles across the tops of the heads of those sitting on the ground, in an attempt to reach the police on the other side. With children, babies and elderly people there, this behaviour was especially not accepted and the culprits were berated.  Most of them had their heads and faces covered and I saw a girl, after having thrown something, visibly shaking from adrenalin or maybe fear. This small group were herded out and disappeared. Violence is absolutely not accepted.  It is impossible to always stop this happening but when there’s a strategy in place, violent action is unwanted and unnecessary.

The police gave warnings that we should leave or we would be removed, and I wondered what exactly ‘being removed’ would entail. A representative of Jena City Council responsible for city demonstrations arrived to decide whether we were being unlawful and, unsurprisingly, we were.

At this point, the police were entitled to remove us. I now know that this could have been carried out by simply walking towards us in an effort to disperse us, or running towards us with batons, and using them. But it never got to that point. The numbers of police present were no match to the amount of anti-Nazi protestors. The neo-Nazis were forced to abandon their route. Our peaceful obstruction had worked.

With a few jeers to the neo-Nazi van as it drove away, we quietly dispersed. When we reached the city centre, there was a party atmosphere where everybody gathered to celebrate our success. What we had achieved was obstructing the neo-Nazi route and forcing them to abandon it.

I had never taken part in any kind of demonstration before this, and going into the day, I was curious what it would be like. On one hand I wanted to see some action, on the other I didn’t. I didn’t know the protocols. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I didn’t know if anything was expected of me. There was a lot of waiting around and at times I was bored, tired, or wanted coffee. I wondered whether I, one person, being there, actually made any difference. But the Nazis’ plan was foiled, and it was numbers that won. It was every, single, human body there that caused this to happen, that made me see what I, what we, had done.

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Dilemma

You have a dilemma:

Your neighbour contacts you and tells you that they have been burgled during the night while they were asleep. Their most treasured possessions have been stolen. Items of high value, their computer, their TV, are gone. Items of deep emotional value, photos of their family, old cuddly toys that their children once fell to sleep with, are gone. Not only that, but the thieves have wrecked the place. Windows have been smashed, a plug was put in the bath with taps running and now the house is flooded, electrical cables have been cut so your neighbour can’t even keep warm.

Your neighbour asks you a favour: can they stay with you for a little while? Just until their house is habitable again.

You feel sorry for them. You would hate if that happened to you. You thank your lucky stars it was them, not you.

You consider letting them stay with you for a while. But you think about the inconvenience this would cause you. You have your own stuff to deal with. You finish work late everyday and you like a bit of peace and quiet when you come home. You think about the fact you have your own household issues to deal with – the leaky tap in the bathroom that has been dripping for months, the small crack in the kitchen window that really needs to be replaced before it gets worse, the wonky handle on the front door that you can only open when you put your full body weight against it and force it. The pile of ironing that has been growing for weeks and you’re too tired to do it when you get home in the evenings.

You think you will tell them they can’t stay with you. You are too busy and you really need to deal with your own stuff. You also wonder why they can’t ask someone else whether they can stay with them. Why do they have to ask you?

It creeps back into your mind how awful you would feel if you were in their shoes. You’d hate to rely on the kindness of others but hopefully somebody would help you out. You remember the pile of ironing, the wonky door handle, the dripping tap, the window crack. Are you actually going to fix these things anytime soon? If you’re completely honest with yourself you know it’ll probably be months down the line before they get sorted. In fact, you think, maybe if your neighbour stays with you for a little while, they could help you with some of these jobs. You think, maybe it might be nice to come home after work and have someone to ask how your day was. You think, maybe you might make a friend.

Think about it.

written in response to refugee crisis

Ireland’s Same-Sex Marriage Referendum 2015

This post was originally published on my Facebook page on May 22nd 2015, the day of the marriage referendum in Ireland. I have slightly edited it here.

Today, the people of Ireland may make history by becoming the first country in the world to pass the motion of same-sex marriage through public referendum.

It can be difficult to understand the position of the No side – this referendum seems like a simple case of equality. Who in this day and age would be against this? I believe it can’t possibly come down to a case of homophobia for the majority of No voters. I sought to understand their viewpoint.

Spokespeople for the No side delve into deeper issues such as marriage and the family. The No side say that every child deserves a mother and a father. We already don’t live in an idealised world of the ‘traditional family’, where it cannot be realised through marriage or relationship breakup, bereavement, adoption or fostering.

Another argument from the No side surrounds the issue of surrogacy and adoption. The Children and Family Relationships Bill was recently passed by the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament) and extended the right to cohabiting couples and civil partners to be able to adopt. So that’s seems simple, nothing changes there. Then we come to surrogacy. This extremely complex ethical issue will soon come up for public debate before draft legislation is drawn up. “The law does not establish a constitutional right to access surrogacy for anyone […] the Oireachtas has full powers to restrict surrogacy in the best interests of children and will continue to have such powers regardless of the outcome of the referendum” said Mary O’Toole, a lawyer for the Yes side. That seems simple too.

The No side insist that voting Yes on same sex marriage will affect the issue of surrogacy. Currently, the birth mother has the legal right to the child even if the fertilised egg is not hers. So the genetic parents must adopt their own child. The No side’s argument is that every child should have the right to a mother. So if a male couple uses a surrogate and then adopt their genetic child, the child would not legally have a mother. This seems to be where the crux of the No side’s argument is.

Having a legal mother is much a less important issue than whether a child should have a legal right to loving parent, regardless of their gender. Having loving same-sex parents where the choice to have a child was thoroughly considered, rather than to have, for example, an emotionally absent, or violent, legal mother is clearly better.

There are some deeply unsettling additional undercurrents to this. According to the No side, are every married couple therefore obliged to have a child? If every child is entitled to a mother, does that mean that I as a woman am doing my potential future child a disservice by not creating it in the first place? If a birth mother dies, should the father of the children immediately remarry in order to give his children a mother? Kevin Mills, a spokesman for Mothers and Fathers Matter, on the No side, said “Not only will the referendum redefine marriage, it will redefine the family”. It’s about time that the ‘family’ was redefined.

Where the No side have gone wrong is their overly emotive posters with slogans such as ‘every child deserves a mother and father’ and ‘she needs her mother for life, not just for 9 months’, that are just serving to simply shock and don’t properly explain their position.
Where the Yes side have gone wrong is tearing down these posters. This is anti-democratic: the No side are entitled to express their view. Furthermore, the Yes side have the removed the right of everyone else to be equally as appalled.

Another place where the No side have gone wrong is using Senator Ronan Mullen as an activist. He who advocates the importance of children and the family was once a spokesperson for Archbishop Desmond Connell who according to the Murphy report into clerical abuse failed to report his (Connell’s) knowledge of child sexual abuse to the Gardaí.

While this referendum is a simple issue of marriage equality, I don’t believe the concerns of the No side have been fully addressed by the Government. In addition, Kevin Myers, a prominent Irish journalist raised the issue of consummation. The passing of the referendum would create a loophole where the marriages of same-sex couples could be annulled as, under the legal definition, they would never be consummated. This should have also been addressed. The seemingly simple issue that Irish people have been asked to vote on has raised many questions.

The only thing to do is to consider the issue as the simple one it is presented as. This is a chance to make history if the referendum is passed, and for future generations will have been the most obvious choice for a modern, equal society.

It is important to be fully aware of the opposition’s argument. Only then can you be completely clear in your own convictions.

Tá for Grá (Yes for Love)