With dancing in the streets, the lefties and the left out take on the “fat cats,” the financial crisis and other sins of globalization
It was the last Saturday in March and a stunning early spring day. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, and a few courageous bees had ventured out from wherever it is they go during the winter.
"A perfect day for a protest," I thought to myself.
"We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis," was the name of the demonstration organized by the Viennese branch of ATTAC (a French acronym which means "Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens). Some 20,000 people had shown up on what was the warmest day of the year so far, to protest not just the financial crisis and G-20 meeting set to take place in London the following week, but also to make the case for a new, socialist-leaning economy.
I ambled through the crowd, taking in the festive scene. This was a raucous, joyful movement – nothing even remotely violent in this motley crew of left and centre-left organizations. The largest contingent came from the RSO, Austria’s Revolutionary Socialist Organization, followed closely by the OeGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) and its youth organization, the OeGJ. They had rented a flatbed truck that was being "pulled" by a legion of "faceless workers" – people dressed in work clothes wearing white masks. On the back of the truck stood several "fat cats" in pinstripe suits straight off the monopoly board, throwing (fake) €100 and €500 notes into the crowd and at each other.
The anarchists had also shown up with a truck of their own, to which they had strapped a generator and PA system. People took turns sitting in the passenger seat to read some complicated and hard to understand political message (god knows how they managed to organize all that).
But it wasn’t just lefties at the protest – there was also the noticeable presence of Austrian kindergarten and schoolteachers, as well as the Union of Catholic Workers. Even the SPOe had sent a small contingent of four, with a large banner urging us to "Tax the Wealthy."
As the protest snaked its way down the Mariahilferstrasse to the Ring, it became more and more over the top. A woman dressed as "Austria" (a black suit, a mask and a large Austrian flag on her chest), was being led around on a leash by a pig-man with a hat made of Euro notes. A massive tractor with another pig – this time out of giant Styrofoam – attached to its trailer somehow made its way through the crowd without inflicting any damage or even bothering anyone. And everyone was having a great time.
Maybe too good a time. By the time we reached Parliament, everybody’s energy level was fading. A German band played a catchy song about how we should all declare bankruptcy and get bailed out, but got only a tepid reception. They were followed by a couple of incomprehensible and barely talented singer-songwriters.
In a final flurry of energy, a member of the teachers’ union gave a talk about the importance of education in our society, and rallied against the government-proposed increase of teaching hours and slashing of the education budget. Pointing out that the situation in the schools was already bad enough as it was, she asked how it was possible that there are €15 billion available for the banks, but €380 million are too much to spend on education. Good question.
"We are prepared to strike," she said, "because I know that if we allow this (dismantling of the education system) to happen to us, then it will only be the first step of many."
The sun was starting to set behind the Parliament, setting off the roof top statuary in the golden pink glow of a late afternoon sky – a breath-taking sight on an exceptionally beautiful day. But now it was getting colder, the wind was picking up, and there was not much left on the program. A Turkish socialist called for solidarity and economic change, a talented singer-songwriter from Kärnten played some pretty great songs, and the crowd was gradually getting thinner and thinner.
Perhaps a quarter of the original crowd was left, when it seemed like time to call it quits. It had been a long day – we had walked a lot, stood a lot, and danced a lot. But the message had been sent, I think, loud and clear.
But as I left, it dawned on me that it was Saturday, which meant that there wouldn’t have been anyone in the Parliament that day to receive it.