Divided But United Against Davos

On Saturday, January 25 a demonstration was scheduled to oppose the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.  Activists from across Switzerland and from neighboring countries prepared to converge on this small Alpine resort town where the leaders of the global economy have made a tradition of discussing their strategies of exploitation behind closed doors amidst lovely white-topped, sunlit mountains.  But just days before the protesters were to come disrupt the pleasant meeting, the local governments revealed the first of a series of measures designed to fragment and debilitate the protest: all demonstrators would have to pass through a security checkpoint in Fideris, a village in the narrow mountain pass that leads up to Davos.  In the security checkpoint, police would not only check bags for weapons, but would watch for the faces of anyone who had caused trouble in past demonstrations and would be free to refuse them access to Davos.


As frustrating as it was to many, the refusal of free access to Davos was not in itself a great problem for the demonstration.  If demonstrators had been completely closed out of Davos, they could have rallied together in a nearby town, in Zürich (three hours from Davos by train), or in Bern, the national capital.  But protesting groups were faced now with a dilemma: they could accept the conditions of the checkpoint and proceed as planned to Davos (possibly minus a few of their members), or they could refuse and be forced to move their protest elsewhere.  Although the primary organizers refused to accept the conditions from the outset, complications immediately arose.  Participants from the center-left Social Democratic Party of Switzerland agreed to cooperate with the police at the checkpoints, and though most protesters came together by train, smaller groups in cars and buses might decide individually how to deal with the checkpoint.  On top of this, a couple hundred activists were already in Davos before Saturday, having organized an anti-WEF forum there.


On the morning of the demonstration, the police stepped up their tactics of obstruction and repression—but again, if they had only been consistently repressive, the demonstration could have used the fact to its advantage.  While the main group of protestors waited at the train station of Landquart, along the route to Fideris and Davos, word came that at a bus of protestors had been stopped and denied passage earlier along the same route.  (We were told later that the buses had stopped intentionally, in order to block the highway in protest of the police measures.) Just when sentiment was growing that the demonstration should move back to express solidarity with the stopped bus, word came back from a delegation sent to the checkpoint to negotiate with the police: the police would agree to do away with the identity control if they were allowed to check bags for weapons (while individuals could cover their faces, if they so chose).  After some debate, the demonstrators decided to accept the offer.  The first delegation went on to Davos, along with buses of unionists and Social Democratic youth who had until then blocked the highway in protest of the police tactics.  Trains were prepared for the people in Lanquart, but there was not enough room for the approximately 3000 people there, and the trains were packed so tight that it was nearly impossible to move inside.  When the first train arrived at Fideris, the police claimed that in such conditions they could not conduct any check at all.  At the same time, they would not let people off the train during the check, because they might then be difficult to control.  Such were the rumors, in any case, that filtered back to those still waiting in Landquart, while all the principal organizers were now in Fideris or Davos.


After some twenty people had passed through the checkpoint, the train in Fideris decided to turn back, while those still in Landquart began to mill about the train station, where they were completely surrounded by police, police-made barricades, and, in strategic locations, barbed wire.  At some point the stopped bus had been allowed to proceed all the way to Davos, apparently without an identity check—probably just when the police realized that the largest part of the demonstration would not make it to its destination and would attempt, if allowed, to join those left behind.  At this point there were about 2000 people in Landquart, 1000 in Fideris, somewhere between 500 and 3000 in Davos, and no one knows how many individuals were turned away at various points, or were discouraged enough by police tactics that they stayed home.  A demonstration that attracted 4000 to 6000 people, and that had the potential to attract twice that many, never had more than 3000 in any one place, and for most of the day had no more than 1000 in its planned location.  If the strategy of the police was not entirely premeditated, with its rapid changes of direction, then their blunders were uncannily convenient.  It is more likely that they rely on the invisible hand of spontaneous law enforcement as much as the WEF participants rely on the invisible hand of the free market, which apparently demands quite a lot of conference rooms, plenary sessions, and protection by militarized states.



Throughout the afternoon, as planning and communication disintegrated, frustration and tension grew, breaking out in several confrontations with the police.  The first confrontation resulted from a move by several people to block the highway near Landquart.  Before they drew near to their goal, the police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water sprayed from special vehicles brought in from Bavaria.  During the next couple of hours the police passed through their own barricades several times, attempting to corral the demonstrators into one or another part of their already-small corral.  Demonstrators responded with snowballs (which they had been throwing all day), and with a growing numbers of rocks, dirt clods, and bottles of beer.  Several people were injured, but sources differ as to how many and how seriously.


Just before sunset, after the group from Fideris had come back to Landquart, trains were readied to take people back to Zürich, where another large police force waited, surrounding train station and blocking access to the nearby bank headquarters.  About 1000 to 1500 people decided to continue on to Bern, where they expected the police to be less prepared.  In fact, the police were expecting them, having turned off the electricity of the tram network in anticipation of their use of water to disperse the protesters.  According to news reports, there followed several confrontations that resulted in 30 arrests.  But the wide range of social movements that had gathered in Landquart had for the most part gone their separate ways.


Meanwhile, the demonstrators in Davos had realized the need for unity with the protestors who had not been able to join them.  According to an article on the web site of the coalition that planned the demonstration, about 1000 demonstrators decided to return to Landquart, while another 2000, declaring that “Everything is backwards,” decided to march backwards to the city hall to give back their permission to demonstrate.  All this took place after the demonstrators in Lanquart had already left for Zürich, but the expression of solidarity was important.


The police succeeded in dividing, obstructing, and physically intimidating the demonstrators.  But the political result of their tactics has yet to be decided.  With the exception of the Social Democratic Party, nearly all participants in the demonstration remained united politically, if not geographically.  The media of the right, no doubt, will attempt to portray the event as small, disorganized, and filled with unreasonable, uncooperative youths.  But the movement against global capitalism may emerge having gained more from this event than the police.  On the one hand, we can take this opportunity to show to what lengths the ruling classes of the global North will go in suppressing social movements.  On the other hand, the movement has shown its ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, spreading its protest from one corner of a country to another in the course of hours, sometimes chased by and sometimes chasing the police.



Joseph Grim Feinberg
is studying this year in Slovakia.  He spent the past week in Switzerland, participating in the “Other Davos” anti-WEF forum in Zürich, and in the demonstrations of Saturday.

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