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Civic Movements between Peaceful Protest and Outbreaks of Violence (August 5, 1977)

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Getting on One’s Nerves

How can this microcosm be differentiated, classified? Most helpful is still the study conducted a few years back by the German Institute for Urban Studies, which examined 1,400 citizens’ initiatives. Of those, 16.9 percent were concerned with environmental protection; 15.8 percent with daycare facilities and playgrounds. Traffic issues were the focus of 11.8 percent, followed by schools (8.1%), urban development (8.0%), and marginal groups (7.1%). There were even some purely commercial initiatives (2%). Citizens’ initiatives active in environmental and urban planning issues have proved to be particularly controversial. Most of the other subjects, however, have only limited potential for provoking conflict. Regarding the construction of daycare facilities and playgrounds or assistance for marginal groups, there is sometimes some trouble with the administration or with party politicians, but a reasonable dialogue is usually possible and is often sought by both sides.

So there is a large group of citizens’ initiatives that should be of no concern to even the most fearful advocates of representational democracy. These are the social self-help organizations, which make up at least one third of all citizens’ initiatives. Anyone who checks them out a little will be reminded of the grassroots democracy in the United States: when self-assured citizens become active right at the points where the large state organization failed or created undesirable developments. In these initiatives, one frequently comes across intelligent and assertive women, often with ambitious professional training.

Of course, now and then these initiatives get on the nerves of the established institutions – because of their doggedness or their expertise, sometimes also on account of a certain group egotism and a know-it-all tendency. All in all, though, they are as necessary as they are helpful. A public administration that tries to regulate every branch of the welfare state will quickly come up against its financial and organizational limits, as recent years have shown, and it will suffocate humaneness. Wherever citizens’ initiatives take up such tasks that cannot or should not be completely resolved by the state, then actually we can only be grateful. No unsolvable, fundamental problems arise. Nonetheless, even these citizens’ initiatives have their troubles. Even they are touched by suspicions that they could be part of the new, violent popular movement. The mood toward citizens’ initiatives has become hostile, and it is getting more difficult for them to work together with the administration and parties. Patrons and donors have withdrawn.

The organizations doing social self-help are very far removed from using violence, and they are certainly not a popular movement in the sense that they are united by a common, major goal. Many other initiatives as well, which are fighting a freeway or urban planning, campaigning against this or that local or regional problem, can hardly be considered a popular movement. Of course, their indignation toward the administration and the established parties is so clear that one could indeed speak of a unifying, shared political motivation.

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