Asking for permission

At Davos, “Registered” Protests Mildly Perform for the World’s Media

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“I think … they are somewhere there,” says the police officer, pointing in the opposite direction from the strictly fenced Congress Center in Davos, Switzerland, where the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting is being held. “Or they were there, but I don’t really know where they are going.”

It takes minutes of walking until the sounds of rebellious punk are heard. A group of around 30 people, officially registered for a “Zombie Walk,” have gathered to demonstrate on Saturday, the WEF’s last day, at the opposite end of the small town. Their request to march was submitted the previous Monday and approved by the town hall on Tuesday. During the approval process, it was not even clear which political group was in charge of the request, says Davos Mayor Tarzisius Caviezel.

In Davos, it has become difficult to spot the anti-WEF protests. Like changes in the economy, they come in cycles. In the past, as part of the anti-globalization movement, they could turn violent, but the demonstrations have now lost teeth. Previously, even local “Davosers” marched on their main street, which is decorated with luxury brands and outdoor shops and flanked by the well-known mountains. Protesters say the WEF is not worth it anymore and don’t even make their way up the Swiss Alps.

“There is nothing to argue anymore about globalization. They [the protesters] could pick up new topics,” says the mayor. Also, the trend toward increased security, fueled by rising terrorist attacks around the world, has hampered the appeal of marching, which has been restricted to limited areas at a distance from the main event. The remaining passion is used to garner attention from the huge media crowd drawn by the WEF.

Demonstrations against the forum used to be massive; thousands of activists would flock to Davos. Sometimes, the protests escalated into riots. In 2003 protesters even got “blocked” by police on the train to Davos. Instead, they traveled to Bern, where the demonstration ended with injuries and arrests. The following year, more forceful protests were planned but were banned in Davos.

This year, the municipality received only three requests for permission to protest. One was from a group of Ukrainians who wanted to gather in Davos to demonstrate against their government because of the violence now erupting in their country. Another came from the organizers of the yearly Zombie Walk. And one was for an “intercultural exchange of ideas,” a sort of sober after-party following the walk. Where did the revolution, or rather the revolutionaries, go?


David Roth, president of Switzerland’s Young Socialists, was in the forefront when the Occupy movement came to Davos in 2012. The Occupy activities were pretty peaceful and mostly consisted of posting anti-capitalist messages on igloos, which were built with the support, and even participation, of WEF organizers, such as Managing Director Robert Greenhill.

Roth confirms that the police would raid trains going to Davos and kick out “young people that looked like they would participate in protests.” Activists can’t be bothered making the long and expensive trip to Davos if they risk not being allowed in, he says. He adds, “The World Economic Forum is no longer as important; the people that go there are not as important as they used to be.”

Femen, the Ukrainian feminist group that stages topless “sextremist” demonstrations, dominated the protest scene in 2012 and 2013. Being small in numbers, it was able to get very close to the heavily guarded security zone. Appearing almost naked in the cold of the Swiss winter helped get the necessary media attention.

This year, though, Femen chose not to show up in Davos at all. Inna Shevchenko, Femen’s leader in France, explains that the group is busy “planning to target other events with the same enemies as in Davos.” Russia’s Vladimir Putin has already been the target of Femen’s “new interpretation of nudity,” so we can expect the group to rally against dictatorship at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games.

Greenpeace is another group known for its civil disobedience activities during the WEF. But this winter Greenpeace chose to keep its protests on the streets rather small. Four people dressed as oil-soaked polar bears briefly appeared outside the Congress Center’s gates. The group’s executive director, Kumi Naidoo, was inside, attending the WEF meeting for the fourth year in a row. In a Huffington Post article he wrote, “I put on a brave face and go where I must—not where I like.”

Outside the Congress Center, Greenpeace hosts the Public Eye Awards. Bern Declaration, the partnering nongovernmental organization, became internationally recognized by stirring up the debate about commodity trade in Switzerland. To get media attention, the awards are announced during the WEF. The announcement is made in a local church, and there is no need to request approval by the town hall. The awards name the most irresponsible company of the year for a Hall of Shame. The four oily polar bears appeared in “honor” of this year’s winner, Gazprom.

Student Reporter / Sunmin Kim

Greenpeace action didn’t stir much action, though it was staged right in front of the Reuters outpost during the WEF.

Radu Dumitrascu, communications manager at Greenpeace, exclaims, “I want mass protests too! But we need to consider, Whom are we protesting for?” In the end, it is all about capturing the media’s attention, he says. “The business elite does not care if we stand outside the Congress Center security zone screaming. We need to consider what will make them change.”

One person who seems to be a committed local protester is Jürg Grassl, 31, who has marched in the Zombie Walk for 14 years. “They used to be small, then they got big, and then they got small again,” he says. A couple of years ago, when the protests in Davos were the most extreme, police sent the demonstrators letters telling them to leave town during the WEF. They stayed. Today, Grassl says, “there is simply no place to protest now that the WEF is so big. All big spaces close to the Congress Center are within the security zone.”

With the Congress Center barely in sight this Saturday, the sun is shining on the Swiss alpine village, and many of the protesters are drinking beers and chatting with each other. They don’t seem too upset. “It doesn’t matter how many people protest,” Grassl says. “It is just important that someone protests.”

Student Reporter / Patricia Nilsson

Jürg Grassl, 31, is a local Davoser joining the Zombie Walk for the 14th time.

Tim Lehmann contributed reporting to this story. 

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