At first, nobody took the warnings very seriously. There were demonstrators outside the hotel, we were told, protesting at the gathering of a bunch of real estate fat cats who were intent on pushing through brutal rent increases and destroying the social fabric of Berlin life. For the evening dinner in a well-known hostelry in the nearby neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, we were advised, it might be wise to lose the tie and the pinstripe suit to avoid any unnecessary provocation. But otherwise, no need to worry.
By the time attendees at last week’s Handelsblatt annual real estate gathering in Berlin’s Ritz Carlton were assembled in the lobby to depart in the bus to the restaurant, it was clear that the temperature outside had risen a couple of notches, despite a sudden downpour of rain. The demonstrators out front had mysteriously disappeared. Like a band of pop idols avoiding their fans, we were smuggled out the back of the hotel to the waiting bus, where the demonstrators materialised. Cohorts of armed police in full riot gear cleared a path to allow us to board the bus, while others held the now swollen group of demonstrators back from blocking the bus’s exit from the parking lot.
As we inched our way forward through the Berlin traffic, the throng of demonstrators grew visibly, many swirling around our bus on bicycles, others banging on the bus with fists and placards. Ahead, fresh swarms of demonstrators rode at snail’s pace ten abreast to impede the bus’s progress. We ground to a halt as a tramcar up ahead was paralysed by the demonstrators’ sit-down protest and bicycle barricades. Our police guard steamed in to disperse the crowd, exercising commendable restraint in the face of the crowd’s mounting venom.
With our driver trying an alternative route, by now at least twenty special police buses were disgorging hundreds of helmeted and batonned-up officers, who took it in turns to jog along beside us defending our flank, while their colleagues grew increasingly physical in manhandling the jeering and by now aggressive mob, who had slowed our progress to a crawl. The mood in the bus had shifted from initial mild entertainment to unease, and now serious discomfort. On instructions from the front of the bus we drew down the curtains, desisted from taking photographs, and buried ourselves in our mobile phones.
Here we could follow the demonstrators’ live-ticker, as it spewed out instructions and commentary to anyone who fancied showing up to humiliate the hated class of capitalist running dogs, crammed like sardines into an embattled tourist bus, and about to be deprived of their evening meal...“Send those property pigs home hungry!” or ”Turn those property sharks into fish fingers!” were among the more polite of the exhortations by the demo organisers to their increasingly rabid followers outside our bus.
Arriving at our destination after two hours, the huge police presence was in full-scale containment mode, lined up in a human wall three-deep to hold back the screaming protesters. As we descended from the bus, safe behind the police cordon, nobody felt triumphant. Some were philosophical, others bemused, but a number of our group were visibly rattled, and found ways to absent themselves from further proceedings. It certainly set the tone for the evening, and remained the foremost topic of conversation the following day as well.
What it did not do, however, was trouble any local Berlin newspaper editors, who barely mentioned in their next day’s editions what had been for some in our group a traumatic experience. Berlin business as usual, it seemed. Food for thought there.
We’ve been asking ourselves, so far unsuccessfully, what - if anything - can we learn from this? Four weeks ago, at the ZIA property gathering in Berlin which was attended by many more senior people from the German real estate industry, there were mild disturbances outside by a motley group of demonstrators protesting against rising rents in Berlin and the gentrification of their neighbourhoods, which is driving them out in favour of new arrivals with higher incomes. But it was nothing like on this scale. In those four weeks, the demo organisers managed to rally a great deal more support for their cause, and will doubtless have taken satisfaction at the disruption caused to last week’s event.
It would be naïve, now, to believe that this disruption will be a one-off happening, which future property conference organisers in Berlin will doubtless have to bear in mind. It seems fruitless to point out that very few of last week’s attendees have any- thing to do with residential housing conditions in Berlin, or indeed anywhere else, being largely involved in commercial property instead. The demonstrators neither know, nor could care less. They are angry at rising rent levels, and are feeling abused by property-owners, who look and act a lot like the kind of people cowering inside that bus. There will be more of them the next time round, that’s for sure.
It’s hard to know how much of what we witnessed is a Berlin thing, or whether it’s a harbinger of a wider protest movement against ‘locusts’ and other perceived bloodsuckers – hints of which were much in evidence a few years ago in successful protests in the cities of Freiburg and elsewhere against rampant privatisation of housing - which is often seen in Germany as a ‘social commodity’.
Berlin’s left-leaning traditions and its long recent history of providing affordable social housing mean the city is a prime candidate for protest against what is seen as excessive profiteering in residential housing. But with property demand and prices rising as fast as they have been, non-owner-occupiers in Berlin (and that’s about 90% of the population) are likely to find more to feel aggrieved about in the coming years.