We’re exploring the deep reasons that drive people to rally around important social and political issues, and highlighting those that do. Evelyn has interviewed several activists about their personal motivations for being involved in protest movements, and the methods they use. Next up, Impolitikal contributor Karin Louise Hermes.
Karin is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin with an MA in Pacific Island Studies from the University of Hawai’i. Karin has written for Impolitikal about the Manua Kea protests in Hawai’i.
What is your idea of protest?
My idea of protest is articulating discontent with an issue in whatever form is suitable: writing, creating artwork, direct action in the form of going out on the street and calling attention to what has to be changed. Social media and the internet are a great development here, because all the information about writing petitions or articles, drawing posters and murals, or planning a protest at a strategic location can be disseminated quickly across the globe in a few seconds.
I would also like to point out that in the case of indigenous land “protests”, there’s an explicit saying of “we are not protestors but protectors”, since environmental and indigenous activism often revolves around protecting land and water, rather than protesting something in particular.
Do you protest in support of a particular issue?
I protest in support of several issues, the main factor being a personal connection to them. I’m Filipina and living in Berlin, so I have been involved in Filipino political matters from here. My first protest in the streets was in Manila in 2001, for what was called the People Power Revolution II or EDSA II, against the corruption of President Joseph Estrada. I saw the inauguration of – similarly corrupt, but that’s a different story – President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that same day from the highway the protest was happening on. My parents took me there when I was 13, but that’s honestly the only protest I’m aware of them attending.
Other than that, I protest online and offline for indigenous matters in the Pacific – West Papua and Hawai‘i and climate change – and in North America with similar contexts. Aside from the Filipino concerns, I have gone on the street in Berlin for anti-Trump protests, against the North Dakota Access Pipeline, for Black Lives Matter, and for women’s rights. I stay away from general mass protests, of which there are a lot in Berlin. One, because I’m not that fond of huge crowds of people like at Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership protests, and two because I avoid protests where the majority is white and male. Instead, for example, I joined the international/migrant women’s march for Women’s Day. Three, beause it’s probably also a bad idea for me to show up at an anti-Neonazi rally, being Filipina.
For what purpose do you protest? To show solidarity?
It’s definitely to show solidarity, which means I tend to support issues that aren’t that widely-protested and need more awareness to be effective for change to happen. Both because I have a bit of a different personal and academic background than what would make the typical Berliner/German protest, and because I think the big stuff like TTIP has sufficient solidarity, while I take a break to recuperate!
My social activism over here started with the telescope project on Mauna Kea. Since that is very much tied to indigenous sovereignty, I’m in solidarity with a broad range of indigenous land issues. I couldn’t sit the NoDAPL protests out, when there was direct action happening in Berlin for it, so that was me acting in solidarity with Mauna Kea protectors, who are well-connected with Standing Rock protectors. That first NoDAPL protest at the US Consulate in November led to planning a protest down Friedrichstraße in February and speaking about NoDAPL at the “Gala für Alle” protest against Ivanka Trump’s participation in the W20 in April. I usually tie in Hawaiian and Pacific matters, like having my sign say “#DeOccupyHawaii” at the Brandenburg Gate protest right after the US elections and at their consulate, or talking about military occupation and racism in Hawai‘i and Guam at the “Gala für Alle”.
Do you feel connected to other resistance movements?
I would say, to resistance against all the troubles in the world. In general, it’s resistance against imperialism and a call for decolonisation that motivates my protests. I guess my point can be underlined with a slogan I read on German friends’ protest banners once: “The only good system is a sound system”. Change won’t come from conceding at the get-go and working within the system. Giving in to the same structures of oppression by trying to make things better for some people, but not all, is not real solidarity. You have to be radical and idealistic in your demands for social change, or you won’t get anywhere. It’s demanding a 1.5-degree cap instead of 2 degrees for the Paris Agreement, or minimum wage to be at $15 in the USA rather than $12, since the other side will – at best – only meet you halfway there.
What are some forms of protest that you think are effective?
I actually really appreciate social media and hashtags for protest. “Slacktivism” and signing online petition after petition can be boring, but hashtags go viral and media has a field day with covering Twitter and trends nowadays. Then something like #NoDAPL hits the news globally, or petitions are brought in to politicians and hearings to underline that there is a strong backing for whatever cause. And that was with the help of a whole lot of people, who did little more than click around on their electronic gadgets.
When it comes to protesting about “right wing” issues I stick with online activism. I’m very vocal about a university professor who is an active politician in the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party at the University, but I keep away from the big street-based protests, because I don’t want or need to meet his friends. I would never go to an anti-Neonazi protest. I once saw the Monday PEGIDA march from my former apartment in a less leftist part of Berlin, and that was terrifying enough to witness from my window.
I do find some forms of protest ineffective, but that’s more because of tactics based on selfishness rather than altruism. I don’t think that shutting down a highway is selfish. People may complain about not being able to get to work on time, but this shows a narrow prioritisation and lack of empathy, because for many other people, protesting against systemic racism and white supremacy is a matter of life-or-death. It’s having the privilege to not have to care, since it doesn’t affect your daily life or existence. I do think protesting the system by, for instance, vandalism and shoplifting is selfish, because in many cases a store owner or employee will have to account for it and perhaps lose their livelihood. In cases like that, the protest methods intended for big corporations completely miss their target.
“It’s having the privilege to not have to care, since it doesn’t affect your daily life or existence.”
A lot of erasure happens in protests, which is often tied in with economic and systemic problems. Who can protest against something, and who has to protest for something, while others complain about not getting to their jobs on time, is indicative of how intersectional and how safe a protest is for those it really affects. For those with health and safety concerns, online activism is real activism, and nothing less. All in all, I think education is key to protesting. It’s a good idea to learn about “both” sides, so you can argue more strongly for your cause and dispel misconceptions. From an academic standpoint, educating yourself and others in social justice matters is a form of activism, since you’re spreading awareness and knowledge on something that has to be changed.
Karin Louise Hermes is a Berlin-based academic with an MA in Pacific Island Studies from the University of Hawai’i. Read more by Karin.
Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland (NZ) and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.