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Stuttgart:S21, citizens rebellion

The intended demolition of a beloved railway station and the uprooting of ancient park trees has led to a rebellion and calls for a new kind of governance.
Every evening at eight o’clock for the last three months thousands of indignant citizen in this industrial hub, home of Mercedes, Bosch and Porsche, shout, whistle, blow their car horns or beat pans and pots in protest against the cartel of politicians and financiers who have made a mockery of democracy.
 And on every Monday evening at six o’clock for months tens of thousands of these protesters have gathered in the central city park, the Schlossgarten, to demonstrate against the demolition of the city’s landmark Central railway station (Hauptbahnhof) and the felling of 283 park trees to make space for a lucrative new development project known as Stuttgart21 or S21 - the proposed date of completion in 2021).

The anti-S21 movement might have been dismissed as just another local grievance had it not coincided with a wave of citizen protests across Europe, all directed against the high-handed manner of governments who squander the common wealth and welfare with private decisions made in virtual secrecy.
At a time of global economic contraction when architects advocate mini-development projects or the upgrading of existing facilities the 4.5 billion Euro S21 project has enraged not only the citizen of this industrialized city but has caused furore across Germany after the regional Baden-Wuertemberg state government and Stuttgart City Council signed unilaterally onto a mega-project that will change the heart of the city - without consulting their citizen.
Snubbing democratic practice in favour of profits has become common practice. In Stuttgart the regional government refused to accept a referendum to decide whether the controversial project grandiosely marketed as ‘the future heart of Europe’ should go ahead or not. (This prompted the slogan by S21 opponents: “No heart can work without lungs” a reference to the 283 park trees condemned to the axe.)
‘Whose interest do our politicians represent: That of the common wealth or that of the values of the shareholders?’’ asked one of the thousands of angry written thoughts people stuck to security fences around the Schlossgarten.
The main barb of these scribbled messages, often expressed in juicy Swabian dialect in which dogs and pigs are symbolic for fools and bosses, has been directed at elected federal and local political oligarchs accused of hijacking democracy to serve the profiteering of an elite.
This very sentiment is at the root of discontent across Europe and much of the world today as ordinary citizens realize they are paying the bill for the greed, blunders and speculations of the privileged. The real beneficiaries (and villains) of modern politics are protected and bailed out by politicians who sit on the Administrative Councils of major banks and concerns and earn fat bonuses for their “lobbying.”
The anti-S21 movement is buoyant on this wave of indignation about a democracy that no longer functions as it was intended.
Today the Schlossgarten has become a hive of activity, a virtual populist barricade. Citizens are trained to passively resist police raids using ingenuity and bravado instead of firearms and pitchforks of the old days. The main aim is to stop chain saws and bulldozers from demolishing the south wing (the north wing is already down) of the beloved Hauptbahnhof and the park’s 283 trees, many of them giants well over a hundred years old.
Everywhere people talk, debate or read the latest addition to the messages stuck up on the construction fences. Volunteer guides take tourists and visitors on strolls around the park to explain the purpose of the protest. A hearty few protesters live in tree houses up condemned trees already tall when Charles Darwin wrote his “Origin of the Species.” Others have been assigned individual trees to which they will be chained if the demolishers roll into the park. Public and commercial generosity contributes food for the shifts of park occupiers.
The protest has turned into a happening. Outsiders are bussed in and prominent actors, intellectuals, entertainers and singers give guest performances.
“The blockade has brought together young and old in the battle against S21. Even people who had no contact with each other now get together socially and demonstrate together to decide their future,” says Hannes Rockenbauch, city councillor for the environmentalist SOS party.
He is one of the organizers of a citizen movement that denounces its political leaders for having sold out to corporate interests while paying only lip service to environmental concerns -- or the folkloric love of Stuttgart’s residents for their Hauptbahnhof, their ancient trees and their famous mineral springs, now also endangered.
On September 30 the vilified leadership of the State of Baden-Wuertenberg struck back, ordering police to use pepper sprays and water canons to disperse protesters who, alerted by mobile phone messages, rushed to the park to stop bulldozers and chain saws from felling the venerable foliage giants. For 27 of the trees the rescuers came too late. But the rest were saved in a pitched battle between police and demonstrators. Dozens were injured, some serious, by high-powered water cannons and baton charges. Many of the wounded were students.
Today a ‘tree cemetery’ with 27 crosses marks the ‘tombs’ of the felled trees in one corner of the park.
The result of the heavy-handed action was not as expected. Rather then frighten away protesters the rebellion escalated – and so did popular anger taking 100,000 into the streets.
The catalysts for similar protests in Europe are many: In France it was the increase of the retirement age to sixty-two (while other countries in Europe had already quietly accepted retirement at 68 with the argument it was necessary due to the longevity of modern humanity). In Greece and Italy the triggers were salary cuts and rampant unemployment. To make the matter worse draconian new work contracts swept away, with the stroke of a pen and no more then a whimper, the rights workers had wrested from employers during often sanguine strikes and street battles over the last century.
(In Italy FIAT workers were given the choice ‘sign or lose your job’ and trade unions were told ‘accept overtime, reduced lunches, reduced salaries and additional work loads or we will close down and move our plant to Serbia where we can enjoy these conditions.’)
In Stuttgart the catalyst was more banal - the demolition of the city’s landmark central railway station (to be moved underground) and the planned felling of those venerable old trees, the lungs of the city.
The protest started nearly a year ago with a handful of concerned citizen. It gradually attracted more and more incensed citizen. The main boost came in July when 3000 protesters yelled their opposition on the Market Square in front of City Hall. After the vicious police action 100,000 people marched - one in three grown-up Stuttgart citizens - as clamour grew to scrap S21 and sack those who signed it.
In the current global economic crisis protests are like sparks that quickly turn to flames. The daily one minute noise protest known as Der Schwabenstreich (the Swabian Coup) has been adopted by other towns and cities throughout the province and lately across Germany, even in the capital Berlin. Citizen now gather at a pre-arranged rendezvous point to make bedlam for one minute. (There is a boast here of a Schwabenstreich even in New York)
Walter Haebe, a retired Youth Houses (Jugendhaus) executive and activist who daily blows his protest whistle is one of those who argue that the government has been stupidly intransigent. He feels many protesters would have been satisfied had the authorities allowed the referendum. Now the Christian-Democratic government, though visibly shocked by the escalation of the movement and fearing a negative fallout in imminent spring elections, agreed to halt further demolition ‘temporarily’ and allow a moderator to negotiate “a deal” with the protesters.
(The moderator, Heiner Geissler, a Jesuit-educated former Christian Democrat and converted environmentalist, immediately enraged political parties by announcing the time of unilateral government decisions ‘is over’.)
Yet even a referendum may not placate the tempers of more engaged citizen who feel the momentum of the protest must be channelled into a program for political changes. They argue every industry is encouraged to find improvements to existing systems but not so democracy. In fact, critics of the way our societies are run argue democracy has deteriorated into a party-run plutocracy in which the elected follow directives from parties and factions, directives that only benefit party interests and party coffers rather then the welfare or interests of the majority of the public who voted for them.
In the opinion of most political scientists democracy has become a formality and our societies live already in the era of “post-democracy.” Surveys found one third of the public no longer believes in a democracy that makes impenetrable decisions and negotiates deals behind closed doors. American Roland Senett called our current governing system “soft fascism” and Noam Chomsky labelled present day democracy “a modern form of totalitarianism.”
With the bulk of the electorate excluded from the democratic process, the realization of having been downgraded to mere stooges of political parties has germinated into a potent potential for rebellion.


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