Protesters set cars on fire and clashed with police officers on Wednesday as they marched toward the European Central Bank’s new headquarters, in a demonstration against austerity and capitalism that took on a markedly more heated tone than past protests.
The rally, organised by a group called Blockupy and German workers’ unions, drew thousands of people as the central bank inaugurated its new tower. In the morning, as a group of roughly 400 demonstrators tried to cross a bridge over the Main River and head toward the tower, they were blocked by the police. Smaller groups burned police cars, furniture, trash and bikes nearby. Hundreds of police officers in riot gear guarded an area around the bank, and officers sprayed tear gas at protesters who had been throwing rocks.
More than 200 demonstrators were injured by police bats and tear gas, Blockupy said, and the police said 94 officers were injured. “The violent acts of some activists were neither planned nor wanted,” said Frauke Loew, a Blockupy spokeswoman.
The size and intensity of the protests sent a strong signal that the German Blockupy movement was back after an earlier wave of activism petered out in 2012. But in contrast to the earlier, mostly mellow protests, there was a distinctly violent element on Wednesday, reflecting the political polarisation that has built in the eurozone after four years of harsh cuts in government spending and astronomical unemployment in Greece and other troubled countries. Activist alliance
Blockupy is a left-wing alliance of dozens of activist groups from across Europe. Its members include one of the largest German labour unions, the United Service Union, known as Ver.di, and Syriza, the left-wing, anti-austerity Greek political party that is now leading the government in Athens.
The European Central Bank is one of Greece’s main creditors, and it is part of the so-called troika of international organisations that are supervising the Greek bailout program that the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is trying to renegotiate. The central bank, along with the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, are widely blamed for imposing austerity measures on countries that have needed bailouts.
Rosina Sfyridou, a German of Greek descent who lives in Frankfurt and was among a small group carrying a Syriza flag near the Main River at midday, said she wanted to fight for democracy and social justice, and not only in Greece.
“The troika is making life difficult,” she said. “Schools are closing. Greeks can’t get proper health care. I have family there; we’re closer to the problem.”
Panagiotis Tsianakas, another German of Greek descent, headed to a central square to hear a speech by a Syriza representative, Giorgos Chondros. “The European finance ministers are brushing democracy to the side,” Tsianakas said. ‘Battle for all Europeans’
Antagonism has been growing between Greece and Germany, Athens’ biggest European lender. “Our battle in Greece is a battle for all Europeans,” Chondros told a cheering crowd of about 8000. “We need a European organisation against austerity, and that organisation has started here today.”
Employees of the central bank began moving into the new headquarters, which cost about $1.6 billion, near the end of last year. Away from downtown Frankfurt on a parklike site overlooking the Main River, the 600-foot-high tinted-glass tower is a more potent symbol of central bank power than the generic gray high-rise in central Frankfurt that it previously occupied.
The inauguration ceremony on Wednesday was scaled back in response to the protests. In addition, some European Central Bank employees were encouraged to work from home on Wednesday, though a central bank spokesman said the institution was “fully operational.”
Mario Draghi, president of the bank, acknowledged in a speech inaugurating the headquarters that European unity was being strained and that “people are going through very difficult times.”
As a European Union institution “that has played a central role throughout the crisis, the ECB has become a focal point for those frustrated with this situation,” Draghi said in prepared remarks. “This may not be a fair charge – our action has been aimed precisely at cushioning the shocks suffered by the economy. But as the central bank of the whole euro area, we must listen very carefully to what all our citizens are saying.”
Since 2012, activists have occasionally handed out leaflets in front of the central bank’s headquarters, but there had been little organized protest in Frankfurt until Wednesday.
The previous headquarters was the focal point of protests beginning in October 2011 as part of the global Occupy movement. The following year, an estimated 60 to 100 protesters encamped in a grassy area below the building until the police cleared it in August. The eviction took place without any major incidents.
On Wednesday, many businesses near the headquarters shut their doors, and residents watched the action on the street from their windows, coffee and cameras in hand.
One protester, a woman from Denmark who would give her name only as Sara, said she arrived on an overnight bus with about 80 others to show her disdain for the way the capitalist system enriched some but impoverished others.
“I believe in fighting against the system,” she said, taking a break in a bakery. “It won’t change if you don’t do something. I am here for solidarity.”
The New York Times
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