From the back rooms of cafés to old movie theatres and Neukölln WGs, the movement against America’s 45th president has tentacles everywhere. Cameron Cook spent a week immersed in the Berlin resistance.
On March 8, thousands of people waving purple balloons converge on Hermannplatz in Neukölln. Despite the biting cold, the square is so packed you can’t get phone service. In past years, Berlin’s annual International Women’s Day demonstration was a mostly-German affair, but now, pink “pussy hats” and English-language signs permeate the crowd: “Make Feminism Great Again!”, “Pussy Power, Impeach Trump” or, simply, “Nasty Woman”.
Diego Rivas, chairman of Democrats Abroad Berlin, is there, leading a contingency in solidarity with America’s “A Day Without A Woman” campaign – the group was supposed to meet at a nearby McDonald’s beforehand, but so many people showed up that the police told them they had to move.
Marching near Rivas is Pam Selwyn of the independent progressive group American Voices Abroad, who says Berlin’s outcry against Donald Trump outmatches the fervor against George W. Bush that existed when she started her group in 2003. Whether Clinton or Sanders supporters, socialist or moderate, the city’s leftists – a large number of them women – have rallied to oppose the populist president like no other before him.
THE FIRST GENERATION
A week before the march, about 25 people met at Café Daddy in Schöneberg for American Voices Abroad’s monthly Stammtisch. The theme of the evening was “Science” in anticipation of the Science March on Washington, scheduled for Earth Day, April 22. Many of the members present were US academics, and their brand of activism seemed to be focused on discussion, facts and education. The night ended with a talk by Adam Wilkins, an American professor at Humboldt University who has just written a book on the evolution of the human face. It may not seem political per se, but in an era of climate change denial and de-funding of scientific organisations, almost anything fact-based can become ripe for discourse.
After the meeting, two other founding AVA members stayed behind to chat: Isabel Cole, an author and translator from New York; and Ann Wertheimer, the group’s acting matriarch, who has been involved in activism since moving to Berlin 46 years ago and boasts of being surveilled by the US Army in the 1970s.
“When we started in 2003, it felt sort of like now,” explains Cole. “We were going to demonstrations, we did our own little vigils, until we figured that standing on the corner with candles and trying to convince Germans that the Iraq War is a bad thing wasn’t really working. At some point we got more into discussions and education. When Obama took office we kind of held off on criticism for a long time. Then we started protesting against things like Guantanamo, when it became clear that it was never going to close, or the Snowden affair.”
While most AVA members are Democrats, the group claims independence from the party, and a more progressive agenda than the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad. “We’ve had a lot of overlap with them, though,” says Wertheimer. “They’d send people to our events when it was stuff that they couldn’t officially support, like the Guantanamo protests.” Opposing Trump was something both groups could agree on. Says Cole: “Since Trump, we’ve seen a lot more people coming to our meetings.”
THE NEW ACTIVISTS
Honestly, I was hesitant about the title ‘Pussy Grabs Back’ because it related to Trump. I wanted to be like, ‘Fuck this!’
The day after the AVA meeting, a younger, more international crowd gathered at the Delphi, a former silent film theatre in Weißensee, for the queer-focused performance event Pussy Grabs Back. The night was a sequel of sorts to an impromptu demo organised by American performance artist Oly Stash the Saturday after Trump’s win. “Although honestly, I was hesitant about the title ‘Pussy Grabs Back’ because it related to Trump. I wanted to be like, ‘Fuck this!’”, Stash says, dressed in a medieval nun’s habit adorned with loops of heavy chains. Beneath the theatre’s cavernous dome, attendees listened to the experimental soundscapes of an artist named Collective Anxiety, as a silent auction to support a Polish abortion aid organisation played out on the side of the room.
Co-organiser and Delphi tenant Brina Stinehelfer looked on approvingly. The thirty-something New York City native is bubbly yet determined, exactly the kind of American who stumbles into an abandoned Weimar-era silent film theatre one day, and begins staging her own play there the next. While she attended local demos in the past, Stinehelfer has only recently taken on the handle of “activist”. “Immediately after the election, I was inconsolable. The first thing that I wanted to do was to take to the streets,” she says. “That Saturday, I ended up speaking at Pussy Grabs Back. I introduced myself to everyone afterward, and that was sort of the beginning.”
Not long after that, she began hosting informal anti-Trump discussion nights at the Delphi for friends. “Those were basically just getting people who were interested in doing something together in the same room,” she explains. “And that’s how The Coalition was born.”
The Coalition is exactly that: a coming-together of Berlin-based activists from across the left-ish spectrum, from progressives to socialists to even the odd moderate or two. It’s a nebulous organisation, with not every member of every Berlin group involved, and its goals, as stated on its website, are equally vague: to “coordinate effective responses in Berlin to events in Germany, across Europe, and in North America.” While The Coalition’s monthly meetings are in English and many members are Americans, people of many nationalities attend, including native Berliners.
One co-initiator is Julia Damphouse, a 20-year old Canadian who studies political theory at Bard College Berlin. An avowed socialist, she’s involved with the International Working Group of Die Linke, and hosts a reading group for the leftist magazine Jacobin. She’s also an organiser of The Coalition’s meet-ups: “Social events are really important because they keep up morale and help people from getting burnt-out. It’s great to get to know the people you’re working with on a personal level, so that everyone can make sure that everyone else is taking care of themselves.”
THE FRACTURED LEFT
With the get-togethers comes the challenge of reconciling hardcore socialists like Damphouse with more moderate types like Cole, Wertheimer and Rivas, all of whom would have been happy with Hillary Clinton as president. “People have stood up at meetings and said: ‘I feel like people are making fun of the moderate position.’ It’s been a process for us to find a way to make sure that everyone is okay with the things we do as ‘The Coalition’. We all have different ideas about what the best way forward is, and we’ll see which one gains more traction,” says Damphouse.
True to her word, the 20-odd attendees at The Coalition’s monthly catch-all meeting (held March 9 at Neukölln bar B-Lage) ran the gamut from Democrats Abroad and AVA members to Kathleen Brown, a Coalition founder and the only American in this article who voted for Jill Stein. “It is ineffective to simply vote for centrist parties and hope things get better,” she says. “They’re in part to blame for the rise of the right, by implementing social cuts and holding down wages. Unfortunately, there will be pressure to elect Democrats in 2018, regardless of their political positions, who they get their money from, or how they’ve taken on Trump. But sustained struggle is the most effective way to make changes.” She’s quick to clarify that her personal political choices do not represent The Coalition at large. During the hours-long meeting, just about every member was given a chance to voice his or her opinion on a myriad of topics. Wasser ist Leben Berlin, an anti-Dakota Access Pipeline group, talked about divesting from big banks; Brown led a discussion on the Trump administration’s renewed travel ban, and how those in Berlin can mobilise against it. At one point, someone brought up an upcoming demonstration at Schönefeld airport, organised by the anti-deportation group Welcome2Stay, and while everyone at the meeting agreed it’s a worthy cause, there were major disagreements on exactly how to partner with them, and whether the two groups’ talking points aligned. After well over 30 minutes of debate, a vote was held, and the issue was finally put to rest (they decided to attend the March 18 demo). Instead of an explosive clash of ideals, it was more a slow, low-tension boil, where people were very pointed and meticulous with their words and viewpoints. Perhaps this is the result of The Coalition being such a new organisation – members are still sussing each other’s positions out, learning where everyone stands, and trying to locate a common ground.
But also, it’s fascinating to see an organisation like The Coalition in its infancy. “Based on the growing numbers of people joining Die Linke, the Greens, even the SPD, I think there is an awareness that right-wing nationalism is gaining traction in Europe,” says Brown when asked what The Coalition, who are majority English-speaking and non-German, wishes to accomplish abroad. “We are people who do not want to see Europe go down that path. So we’re responding to events in the United States, as well as stopping the rise of the right in Germany. We plan to mobilise for the Science March here in Berlin and protest the AfD in Cologne the same weekend.”
READING TO RESIST
What if your brand of activism is quieter, more introspective, happening in WGs with groups of friends instead of out on the street? Alissa Rubinstein, a playwright from Los Angeles who recently completed a master’s degree in public history at the Free University, was looking for a way to get out of the “Facebook hole of bad news” after Trump’s win. She and her friends began meeting in each others’ apartments to discuss books that pertain to American politics. They’ve just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s collection of optimistic political essays Hope in the Dark, because, says Rubinstein, “No one wants to read The Handmaid’s Tale right now…”
Alissa happened to be in Germany both times Obama was elected; when she was studying abroad in 2008, and again once she had relocated to Berlin in 2012. “I remember walking around this tiny little college town in southern Germany and random people were hugging us, welcoming us back into the fold of nations who don’t have horrible leaders.” She pauses. “This time was slightly more horrible. I’m Jewish, I have a friend who is half-Jewish and queer, and another friend who is queer and Native American, and we were all sitting on the couch going, “Oh no.” She started what she now calls “Team Book Club” after spending too much time “getting really depressed about things,” as she puts it. “I was feeling very connected by social media, but also there was a distance because I couldn’t actually do anything. I took Facebook off my phone and decided to start reading more books, made of paper, in my hands. Then I decided that maybe it would be cool to see people in real life as opposed to just supporting people when they yell at their conservative relatives online.” Team Book Club found itself in a therapeutic role for the roughly 15 people who came to its first meeting. “We’re like a sort of Sad Americans Abroad,” Alissa half-jokes.
If there’s a common thread between all of these groups, it’s the idea that fostering a sense of community is integral to the left surviving the next four years. If there was ever a city that could shelter American progressives from the proverbial storm, it’s Berlin. Wertheimer has been here since the Nixon administration; Selwyn, since Reagan; Stinehelfer moved to the city nine years ago, during the Bush years. And undoubtedly, there is a new wave of Americans on their way, ready to pick up the torch. After the election, Stinehelfer returned to the US for the Women’s March on Washington. “It was very difficult to come back to Berlin – it felt like leaving my family while the house is on fire. But then I realised that we’re going to need the resistance here just as much. Again, it’s this idea of wherever you are and whatever you can do, do it for the resistance.”
By the time the Women’s Day march reaches its endpoint at Oranienplatz, some of the crowd stays in the park for an impromptu dance party fueled by a DJ truck, while others disperse fairly quickly to escape the freezing drizzle. But even as the crowd thins out, a crackle of tension remains in the air, a call to resist that will continue to magnetically draw these groups of people together, regardless of age, race, gender or nationality, probably for years to come.