Chapter I: The Protest
Last month, Marc Creus, a fellow activist from the Catalan activist group ANC Basel (I like to call ourselves revolutionary buddies), sent me an exciting proposal:
We have 40 seats for an official visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on October 21st, 2019, including attending a plenary session from the Parliament balcony! We can use the chance to organize a small protest. Will you and CDR Heidelberg join us?
My decision to attend took about 5 seconds. It took me 1 further minute to start asking further people from our activist network in the Rhein-Neckar-Main region. There was not much time left to register for the visit, and the European Parliament required our full names, nationality and addresses, that is, the visit would not be exactly anonymous…
Why did we want to protest at the European Parliament? Because human rights, freedom of expression, the right to self-determination, and the democratic rights of more than 2 million Catalan voters are being threatened by the Spanish state.
The most intriguing part had to do with the “small protest”. What could we do? Protests inside the European Parliament are forbidden. You cannot wear clothes with letters, or political symbols, and during plenary sessions you cannot take pictures. Maybe we could organize a traditional street demonstration after the visit. The prospect did not sound very exciting with only 40 people, but I did not care much. I was certain that the experience would be worth it. We would enjoy the company of our activist friends from Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Frankfurt, and surroundings, and we’d meet new interesting people from Basel, Zürich, and Strasbourg!
It sounded like a beautiful plan, whatever the plan would be at the end.
The plan started to take a clear form just after we crossed the Parliament security area on Monday, October 21st. We went to the lavatories in 2 groups, used the chance to place a few protest stickers with “Freedom Political Prisoners” labels here and there, and started to undress, and change clothes…
We put on yellow T-shirts with one letter each, to form the sentence Free Catalonia when ordered in a row, we brought a few yellow balloons, and color pens inside our pockets, in order to inflate them later on, and we hid the yellow T-shirts under our original clothes.
Our performance was planned to take place at the Parliament balcony during the plenary session on October 21st, 2019 starting at about 17:00, where they were discussing possible changes to the planned agenda of the European Parliament.
Our own protest plan stood:
- On cue from one member of our group, we would inflate the yellow balloons, label them with creative protest sentences, for example, “For a solidary, ecologically intelligent Europe of the Regions”, “Freedom for political prisoners in Europe”, “Free Catalonia”, “Meinungsfreiheit in Europa!”, etc. and send them floating down to where the MEPs were seated.
- We would then stand up, take off our clothes, and form the sentence Free Catalonia with our yellow T-Shirts…
- All this should happen within 1 stressful minute, before the Parliamentary ushers would probably urge us to leave the balcony for disobeying the parliamentary rules. An unspoken question crossed our mind: Would they arrest us, or call the police? In any case we were ready to assume the risk.
The plan worked pretty much as designed…
The Parliamentary ushers came over one minute after we stood up for Catalan rights, and made us sit down, and take-off our yellow T-shirts. Our oldest protest fellow, an 80+ year old Catalan who lives in Strasbourg since ages, started to rant in perfect French:
“The hell I’ll sit down! This is not a democracy! I have the right to speak up!”.
One of the Parliamentary ushers in awe answered him that he certainly has the right to speak up, but rather from the hemicycle, as a Member of European Parliament.
In the meanwhile some Members of European Parliament from down below took a few photos of our protest, and published them on Twitter later on (see Tweets above).
Our protest was planned independently of the Parliamentary agenda, but it was destiny that it took place on the day, and very moment, when the Green and Left parties of the European Parliament proposed to include an additional issue to the Parliamentary agenda, which was directly related to our protest:
A vote to debate about human rights, and political prisoners in Catalonia, and the need to solve political conflicts with political means, rather than with repression. The shameful sentence of the trial against the Catalan political prisoners had been made public only one week before, on October 14th, 2019:
Sedition with a total of 100 years of prison for starting a democratic process, and organizing a referendum of independence. We had time to witness the Spanish boycott after the proposal of debate was made. They said something along the lines of “This is an internal conflict which can be solved internally because Spain is a full democracy with separation of powers…”, ignoring that the European Parliament is, and should remain, a democratically autonomous entity, not subject to the whims of the member states.
Unfortunately the majority rejected the debate about Catalonia. The EP President, Mr. Sassoli, saw us standing up and protesting from the balcony, and urged the Parliamentary ushers to make us sit down.
The ushers accompanied us out, and noted the name of our group. They already had our names, nationalities and addresses, because this information was required for the visit registration. They might have written down our names in a kind of black list. We don’t know for sure. In any case we were banned from the European Parliament with our mission accomplished.
Chapter II: Flammkuchen and happy end
Once we were outside under the light rain of a late afternoon, we wanted to take a photo in front of the entrance, technically within European Parliament premises. We asked a police officer for permission, and he agreed. When he saw us undressing to show our beautifully labeled yellow T-shirts, and unpacking our Estelada freedom flags, and yellow umbrellas, he got angry, and changed his mind:
“Stop it! You cannot do that! You’re lucky that we are more tolerant than Spain!” The policeman said.
“What the hell, this is not fair! You gave us permission!” Ranted our 80+ year old in revolutionary French.
We smiled to each other in sympathy, observed our 80+ year old hero making peace with the police officer, and decided not to further disobey, leaving the European Parliament premises altogether in order to take a photo near the entrance in peace.
Afterwards we went to eat a Flammkuchen, a kind of Alsatian pizza, at a nice place nearby, introduced to each other in detail, and exchanged our political activist plans for the near future. It was a very constructive, and pleasant evening. During dinner, those of us who had taken photos asked the rest of us for permission to publish them on social networks. Everyone agreed, but later on we noticed that not all of us were present when the question was asked.
One or two hours later we said goodbye to each other with promises of getting in touch, and we went home with a great feeling.
This could have been a happy end, but clouds were gathering… A tempest was brooding.
Chapter III: Conflicts get solved with openness, dialog, and good will
Our activist groups gather people of all ages, nationalities, and interests. Some of us are more active, and better connected on Twitter than others. Without marketing and visibility, protests make certainly no sense. We sent a summary about our protest to a newspaper (we were actually a bit too late), posted a few tweets, and retweeted the tweet from the MEPs that took photos during our performance. Our marketing strategy was pretty modest, not to say quite lousy.
One of our activist friends, S, had good connections with a very successful Twitter account with the pseudonym CNICatalunya, who incidentally deleted his/her account voluntarily a few days ago for reasons fully unrelated to our protest. S asked CNICatalunya to publish the photo we took outside of the parliament. This happened directly after the protest, when we were pleasantly having dinner. This photo shows our faces very clearly. CNICatalunya was nice enough to agree, and published the photo almost real-time with a small comment. S wanted to report about our protest in real-time with the best of intentions.
Another activist in our group, unaware of the agreement with CNICatalunya, found the Twitter post, and was a bit surprised that CNICatalunya, who was not present at the protest, had published our photo before any of us, present at the protest, had the chance to do it. There was also a petty lie by CNICatalunya stating “I took this picture!” following an accusation by a Twitter user from outside our group who stated that “CNICatalunya was not present at the protest!”. These few concatenated misunderstandings, each of them harmless in itself, originated a wave of anger, and a small crisis in our activist group.
We decided to do what we preach, and addressed the conflict with openness, honesty, and dialog. Human relations are subject to conflicts, also among activists of the same group, and a shared world vision.
One of our lessons learned is related to defining a more efficient press and marketing strategy next time. We also had an interesting discussion regarding privacy and anonymity. Some of us are in favour of showing our real names, and real faces. Others are a bit more careful. Both strategies make sense, and need to be considered when planning how to optimally distribute roles in public protests.
As an intermediate step I volunteered to write a blog with the truth about our European Parliament protest. Here you are!
All’s well that ends well.