A sign saying ‘Man kann nicht mit Geld spielen…’ (Man can’t play with money) was thrust into my hand minutes after I arrived at Alexanderplatz, where the Berlin rally for Global Change began. Since I was on my own, and on foreign terrain, I took the sign more readily than I might normally have done. I guess I felt a little better holding something. Nevertheless, even with my rudimentary German, I began to wonder about the meaning of the statement I was carrying. Man can’t play with money? As in - it always ends badly when he does? It didn’t feel quite right somehow. I kept looking around to see if there was a twin to my placard that would complete the statement, turn it into a sentiment that made more sense. There wasn’t. But there were people ready to offer hypothetical alternatives to my (only in the sense that I was holding it) stunted message.
‘Might be better if you said. “Man can’t play with other people’s money”,’ one woman offered, her orange hair flaming against a pure blue sky. I replied that she was absolutely right. ‘Even better,’ she went on, ‘would be “Man can’t play with other people’s lives”.’ I nodded. I can understand a lot more German than I can speak, and how much I can speak seems to diminish when I am in slightly pressured situations or talking to strangers.
I’m just wondering if holding the sign is really a good idea when a grey-bearded fellow pauses mid-step on his way past me and says, ‘I’m not sure about that.’ I quickly interject that I didn’t write it, but he doesn’t seem to hear. ‘There’s nothing wrong if people want to play the lottery or bingo or a betting game. The private interest,’ he goes on, ‘where the consequences of how money is used just has private implications, I don’t think it’s up to us to interfere there.’ I’m having to concentrate so hard to follow him in German, that my mind has no spare capacity to come up with an answer. ‘The sign,’ he continues, ‘should say something like “The government can’t play with the people’s money”.’ I didn’t write it, I repeat. He looks at me as if to say ‘well then why are you holding it?’ Why indeed?
I start moving through the crowd, the sign now lowered and held inwards so that it’s rubbing against my right leg. I need to find a place where I can leave the damned thing. I manage to drop it by a bench and continue walking around, testing my German skills on all the other statements being brandished on umbrellas, sheets, cardboard, t-shirts and tarpaulin.
The End of Capitalism
We are the 99%
United for Global Change
Better to control bankers than passengers (held aloft by a man wearing a train inspector’s hat)
Capitalism is Organized Crime.
A group of Goths are swathed in a sheet dripping with red paint that warns: The Russians are Coming. There’s always the fringe who bring their own agenda to every demonstration. Some people march with placards about climate change, while a few are dressed as if for a love parade, ironically demanding ‘Finance my Heels’. This being Germany, nakedness has to feature somewhere, and is actually used to make a strong point about the system stripping us bare. The only lack, I felt afterwards, was a good speaker to acknowledge the crowd and remind us why we were there, and, more importantly, that we had to be prepared to return again, and again, and again, to make our point.
As I joined thousands of protesters to walk down Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s main boulevards, I realized that I didn’t need a placard or anything to legitimize my presence at the protest. I gave the right sign just by turning up, because this movement is all about solidarity, about joining with our fellow citizens to take a stand against injustice. Over the last few years, all of us have felt angry as we read or heard stories about bank bailouts, banker bonuses and poor banking regulation. All of us have felt the effects of this impinge on our lives in some way or other, and felt helpless. The protests by citizens around the world have reminded us that we are not alone and we are not impotent. Together we are a force that can’t be ignored. Rosa Luxemburg, a great heroine of resistance, said ‘those who do not move do not feel their chains’. We are starting to shake the chains that bind us to a system that is immoral and undemocratic. We will shake them until they break.