And musings on mass psychology
21.11.2013 - 21.11.2013 7 °C
The protest was called for 3pm. We (which is to say I, my roommate and her boyfriend) emerged from the Samariterstrasse U-bahn station at 3:30pm to find everyone still standing around waiting. Demonstrators were clustered in the street holding flags and banners, and crowds filled the sidewalks. Most people were young, clad in black, and smoking. Police stood around looking disinterested. A small van with large speakers on the roof alternated between playing music to keep the crowd energized and brief speeches expressing political positions towards or sometimes off the left end of the spectrum.
For example: “Twenty-one years ago today, Silvio Meier was brutally attacked and murdered right here in this U-bahn station by Nazis. There are still Nazis active today. They are marching in towns all around Germany. It is just as important to gather together now as it was twenty one years ago to show them that we will not put up with their Nazi sh*t!”
Or: “This is an international struggle. We must show solidarity! Last week, Antifa protesters in Sweden were violently stopped by the police and some were imprisoned just for expressing their opinions. We are all in this together, with our comrades around the world who are also standing up for human rights and standing against abuses of power by authority!”
A song booming from the sound system chanted the lyrics, “You gonna die for your government, die for your country – that’s sh*t! That’s sh*t!” It grew colder and darker (this time of year, dusk comes to Berlin around 4pm). The woman on the loudspeaker explained that we were still waiting because a core group of Antifa’s had just taken part in a counter-protest to Nazis and were coming by bus from another part of the city. The crowd maintained a medium energy level; by no means losing steam, just waiting for the action to begin.
Finally, towards 4:30, a large black bus with tinted windows appeared on scene; ostensibly the protesters, who were hailed as heroes as they descended. A few minutes later, the crowd surged forward. We were on our way. As we began moving through the streets, people stood on nearby rooftops waving flares and sending up firecrackers against the now dark sky to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd. Banners with the anarchy symbol unfurled from windows. Chants broke out spontaneously in a fluid progression of blending ideologies:
“In Deutschland nie wieder!” (Never again in Germany)
“No border, no nation, stop deportation!”
“No nation, no border, fight law and order!”
In my undergraduate “Intro to Psych” course taught by professor/celebrity Philip Zimbardo (or “Zim,” as I think his license plate read), the unit on social psychology mentioned a series of experiments involving elevators: The subject would enter an elevator with several other men who – unbeknownst to him – were part of the experimenter’s set-up. Everyone else in the elevator would then do something a little odd, like turn around to face the back wall, or take off their hats all at once. Nine times out of ten, within the short stretch of time sharing a closed space with the group, the subject would follow suit , for no reason than that everyone else was doing it. Sometimes the hidden camera revealed a moment of indecision, confusion or discomfort, but you could almost see the wheels turning: The subject ultimately deciding that it was a harmless little thing to do - to ride facing away from the door or remove his hat - and not really worth the discomfort of rebelling, so he did it. And so it was that I found myself feeling just about compelled to shout along with the crowd’s slogans regardless of whether I concurred the content. Of course, me being me, walking along and thinking about social psych elevator experiments and such, I tried to make sure that the words coming out of my mouth were actually in accordance with beliefs I hold or can at least stomach.
After an hour or so we stepped out of the march and headed for home. No particular reason, other than it had been enough. As the protesters went on without us we saw a procession of police dutifully trailing behind. The silent counter-protest of law and order.
I have to say, there was something strange about having this moment in Germany. Although the raison d’etre for this march was anti-Nazi, it embodied the very mob mentality I associate with the Nazi rise to power. Moreover, much as I like the idea of joining other conscious citizens in protesting neo-Nazi activity and hate crimes, there is a [very sizable] part of me that does not like being part of any large crowd, no matter the purpose. I don’t trust crowds. Your voice becomes not-your-own. You may, for example, want to protest Nazis (great), find yourself advocating for immigrant rights (good), and end up as part of a crowd shouting for socialism or outright anarchy (...huh?). At which point it becomes irrelevant what you actually think. Your body is present, to all outward appearances you have voted with your feet, and no one other than you - not even your friend right next to you in all this noise - knows whether you are saying the words or not.