I arrived in Hamburg on Wednesday 5th July, having been warned that the previous couple of weeks had been slightly surreal and often inconvenient for the inhabitants of the city (pop-up traffic jams and street blockages by the police, delays, ID controls for people living in and around the Red Zone and even elsewhere in the city centre). I had also heard reports that there were something like 20,000 police in the city; and I had met volunteer paramedics who were preparing to travel hundreds of miles to be there for the demos, presumably to patch up the injured that we all knew would be there.
The question that everybody was asking was: why have the G20 in Hamburg? Merkel’s answer was that that here there was the infrastructure (transport links, enough hotel beds, media stuff, etc.) and that they wanted to show that Hamburg is an international city, open to the World, where such events could and should take place. For others, it could be seen as a direct provocation, a show of strength by the powers that be, and even an opportunity to strengthen laws against demonstrations and oppositional currents in the future (perhaps with an eye on the German elections coming up in September).
Anyway, whatever the truth, it was clearly a set-piece: heads would be cracked, bottles would fly, watercannon (of which there were 48 in the city for the weekend) would be used on protestors, a new prison had even been built for (something like 400) arrested demonstrators. It was not a surprise that events unfolded as they did.
Hamburg is a city with a Red-Green coalition government and a strong radical (squatting, leftist and anarchist) tradition especially in the districts of St. Pauli and the Schanzenviertel. The Messehallen (the International Conference Centre) is just a few hundred metres away. Whatever the rhetoric of the politicians – Hamburg’s mayor Scholz had promised “safety for all” and suggested that most people would not even notice that the G20 had happened – it was clear from the police preparations (and the 20,000 police from all over Germany, Austria, Denmark, etc.) that they thought something might kick off.
The city council and police had declared a city-wide ban on camping in the city’s parks, and had even cleared some protestors out (with violence and tear gas) over the previous couple of days), leaving thousands of protestors without anywhere safe to sleep. Therefore, I spent Wednesday evening at the SchausSpielHaus Theatre near the main train station in the city centre where a number of employees had (with the management’s blessing) invited protestors in to sleep in the building, even while ‘nomal life’ (and theatre) was taking place. The police had even been told to go away by management the previous evening when they had come to clear the place out. This situation was perhaps not as weird as it sounds, as they had, a couple of years ago, also had refugees sleeping there at the height of the ‘border crisis’ of 2015, and the SchauSpielHaus is a very large, relatively experimental theatre, with a strong radical tradition among workers there. The mood there was good, a party (of theatre employees) was in full swing, and, with a few clearly agreed rules in the sleeping area for demonstrators (no booze, noise to a minimum, drinking water available, emergency phone numbers, etc.) a safe space was ensured for a few dozen people to stay.
Thursday 6th July was a glorious Summer’s day and, walking down to the River Elbe to the Fischmarkt in the early afternoon, there was a buzz of expectation in the air. Hundreds then thousands began to gather around the Fischmarktplatz, with thousands of riot police fully tooled up along the start of the route of the Welcome to Hell demo. Die Goldene Zitronen (local punk legends) played a strangely ‘anti-pop’ set on the stage, followed by some speeches that were hard to follow (poor sound, boring delivery, too long, and irrelevant). This was not a good start, but perhaps typical of ‘lefty political demos’. If you will allow me to rant for a minute here: we should learn from the professional media and keep it short, sweet, positive, entertaining and inclusive. This is not Cuba in the 1970s where maybe a charismatic leader could get away with hours’ long diatribes for the party faithful. We know why we are here (we are at an anticapitalist/Black Bloc demo against the G20, remember!), and if we want to understand more about the workings of capitalism, the evils of imperialism, the arms trade or whatever, this is not the place. The speakers harangued us like religious evangelists on street corners. Those of us who have an understanding of what the G20 means will not have learned anything, and those who perhaps are new to this kind of politics will sure as hell not have been convinced or converted by this show. OK, so if the people on stage have anything new to tell us (either about the demo or other political updates), we will listen. But otherwise, a few buzzwords will suffice. And another thing: why do some people think that chucking rubbish and smashing glass around where people are sitting on the floor is somehow cool or antiauthoritarian?
There was more music, some hip hop (not sure who) plus more speeches, as my group moved around the area to see what else was afoot. The police were lined up and ready along the start of the demo route as well as having hundreds of vans and watercannon lined up on the Breite Strasse. We took half an hour out to eat something and fetch some water (Demo essentials: eat, drink and piss whenever you can!)
As we came back down past the St Pauli Kirche (amusingly with a “Welcome to Heaven“ banner hung in the rounds) from Hein-Koellisch-Platz and the Koelibri Info Point, we could see that the police plan was already being implemented.
The demo had begun along the St-Pauli-Fischmarkt street, with several hundred black-clad, masked and sunglasses-wearing Black Bloc at the front. According to German law, it is illegal to cover your face on a demo. So, inevitably, a couple of hundred metres down the road, the police blocked the road, with the Black Bloc hemmed into a 30-metre-wide road with 2 or 3 metre high walls on both sides, as well as hundreds of police in helmets and riot gear all along the route. The demo was stopped, the news filtering down to us, now back along the demo-route, that the police were refusing to let the demo continue unless the Black Bloc removed their masks and uncovered their faces. And therefore we would have to disperse among and around the thousands of police in the streets all around the demo area, including numerous watercannons, vans, cars and helicopters overhead.
As an aside, what would have happened if the Black Bloc had said: “OK, masks off then!” Would the police have withdrawn and allowed them to exercise their democratic right to demonstrate? And, to be honest, what would the Black Bloc and the rest of us have done? The point of this demo (I think) was to demonstrate our opposition to the workings of global capitalism, the arms dealers, etc., and to be noticed by the media and the powers that be, so peacefully walking round the city was never going to make much of an impact. The democratisation of the media via new technology means that we can get other voices and opinions out there, but the mainstream and mass media still belong to the rich and powerful, and they still have the largest reach.
We didn’t have long to wait until the riot police waded in, batons waving and initially separating the Black Bloc at the front from the rest of us. There are reports of teargas being fired by police, as well as a couple of smokebombs coming from the Black Bloc. Whatever your political perspective, I think the sight of armed cops indiscriminately beating people, even from a hundred metres away, is pretty horrific. Of course, when it happens in other parts of the world under ‘undemocratic’ governments, we shake our heads, condemn the dictators and thank our lucky stars that we live in the free West. Here in liberal democratic Bundesrepublik Deutschland, riot cops smashing heads and arresting people trapped in an inescapable blocked street is about protecting our freedom and democracy.
This was then followed by an implementation of ‘salami tactics’ where the police, using water cannons and riot batons, split the demo up and chased smaller groups of people up side streets and away from the ‘kettle’ down by the river. It worked. We didn’t know what to do, so, mostly in small groups with an eye on the police behind us, we headed away from the river and up to the Reeperbahn. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of police vans from all over Germany, plus maybe 25 from Austria, the police for the most part with their faces covered, many with helmets on (!). We saw small groups of black-clad demonstrators running around, playing hide and seek with the cops, but it was clear that in terms of tactics and weapons, the cops had completely controlled the situation. A smaller demo of ultimately a couple of thousand people convened at the junction Reeperbahn-Holstenstrasse-Koenigstarsse-Pepermolenbek, fenced in on all side by blue flashing lights and tooled-up riot cops. Every so often, there was a big movement of cops, either on foot or in convoys of vans with sirens blaring, but I suspect that this was mostly a show of strength and completely unnecessary. I suppose someone was going to have to justify the inflated security bills, as well as the bad media profile that even the most conservative outlets could not disguise, given the violent and unprovoked attacks on protestors. Tactically, the police knew exactly what they were doing and, in the light of the bad press that ensued, they also had a clear plan for the following day’s events. Everyone had predicted that Hamburg would burn this weekend. It was just not yet clear – to us at least – which bit.
The next morning (Friday 7th July 2017) was an equally beautiful Summer’s day, perfect for cycling across a very peaceful and relaxed city (very few cars, lots of people walking on the streets). We decided to go across to the University to Cafe Knallhart (one of the info points), where I knew a couple of people who were cooking for the demos in the activist kitchen there. Failing to get through the Police blockades on the NW side of the Karolinenviertel, we cycled back through the Schanzenviertel to the University, which was, apart from the regular helicopter fly-pasts, a model of peace and harmony, with delicious vegan food (for a small donation), coffee, sunshine, smiling faces and much talk of tactics and what we mean when we say we want to ‘reclaim the city’ or make genuine difference. Given the numbers of police in Hamburg, I suggest that being almost anywhere else in Germany or Europe might be a good (and revolutionary) idea. If we are here, even in big numbers, but in one place, the police still have control (and plenty of weaponry to back it up).
Fed and refreshed, we cycle back along car-free streets – this really is how the city could be – and call in on the Schanzenviertel, and specifically the info point at the Rote Flora (the famous autonomous social centre on the Schulterblatt). People are drinking coffee and beer, eating meals on terraces at Turkish resturants, and the atmosphere is charged but peaceful. A few people have moved big rubbish bins into the middle of the street, and occasional flurries of people run through. There is a police presence at the Northern end of the Schulterblatt, and at one point, a few bottles fly from protestors; there is a police chase round the back of the Rote Flora, and it all again fizzles out. The police retire to a safe distance, but we keep a wary eye out for snatch squds who are on the move.
It now being early evening, we retrieve our bikes and head back home for a bit of food and respite. Already the streets are crunchy with broken glass (not ideal for the revolutionary tourist on a bike!), and there are even a couple of small barricades (bins, rubbish, building materials) on the Schulterblatt and down into St Pauli.
We eat felafel on the Reeperbahn (some might say that business was booming for the small business community in this curious climate of protest), listen to some of the live music that is being played on stages and soundsystems along the Reeperbahn, and observe masked grous of police linedup in front of banks and the police station on the Reeperbahn. We decide then to return to Wohlwillstrasse where most of the excitement seems to be taking place. Towards the Neuer Pferdemarkt at the junction of Schulterblatt/Schanzenstrasse/Stresemannstrasse/Budapesterstrasse there are literally thousands of people and thousands of police, on foot and in vans.
There have been a number of demonstrations that afternoon and evening, and they have coincided (or been corralled) into the Neuer Pferdemarkt. There are vans with blue flashing lights along the Budapesterstrasse and helicopters overhead, but the atmosphere is friendly, celebratory even, at least on the south side of the junction. Having previously been in St Pauli for football matches, you could say that the streets were slightly busier, the pubs just as full, the corner shops doing a roaring trade, and the mood equally joyous and full of expectation (or more so, given FC St Pauli’s last season!) Among my acquaintences, there is more talk of ‘reclaiming the city’ and you could conclude that, at least for able-bodied adults who like a beer on a warm Summer’s evening, this is it! We need no cops, no security, no other rules than ‘enjoy yourself, do no harm to anyone else, and let’s party!’
However, just up the road, things were not going quite so smoothly. The police, with water cannon, helmets and batons had blocked the demo at the Neuer Pferdemarkt. On the St Pauli side the crowd continued to chant (“A-Anti-Anticapitalista”, “Ganz Hamburg hasst die Polizei”, etc.), although I did see a few people looking not quite convinced that all Hamburg hates the police.
And then these particular police gave us reasons to hate them: they waded in once more with batons thrashing, dispersing groups of frightened onlookers and demonstrators, and then chased some individuals with ‘snatch squads’; they opened fire with the water cannons, fortunately without hitting their target for most of us. The water cannons could not reach all of us behind the trees and the wagon containers on the corner, and realistically, they could not come much further down the street in vehicles either, given a building-site barricade and the numbers of people in the smaller streets, unless they were looking to provoke a complete riot. So, we had reached something of a stand-off, with the police making occasional attempts to attack demonstrators, and the occasional bottle being thrown from the crowd.
On the Schulterblatt (North of the junction), things were, by all accounts more complicated – and violent. If you have seen film of burning barricades, it was probably from there. There are accounts of people taking molotov cocktails up into the scaffolding and then trying to entice the police in, as well as talk of a laser beam being shone in the eyes of a helicopter pilot overhead, rioters threatening locals. I didn’t witness any of this, so I don’t know the truth of any of it.
We decided to head up Neuer Kamp and Sternstrasse and cut back on to Schanzenstrasse to see what was happening. The first thing I noticed was the stinging teargas in the air. Secondly, the crowd was more dispersed and far more wary of gangs of police coming round corners. People were friendly and excited and wanted to talk about what they had seen: looting of shops, constant teargassing from the police, the searchlight from the helicopter above focusing on the Schulterblatt. We saw people running away with looted laptops and the like, and one guy, very worried, came up to us looking for a taxi – presumbably to get away as fast as possible. We told him there were none. He disappeared into the night.
Further round the area, past the S-Bahn station, we passed more burning debris and mini barricades, and a ReWe supermarket being looted. A bloke came out carrying bottles of whisky in boxes and dropped one, but we decided to leave it for someone else, and moved swiftly on We passed groups of people on street corners drinking beer, a group of presumably ‘plain clothes’ police or police informers gathering and sharing notes and information, more small barricades, and finally we came out at the five or six road junction on Max-Brauer-Allee/Stresemannstrasse where the railway line crosses overhead. Here again the party was in full swing, with barricades burning, beer being drunk, pizza being shared. Water cannon lorries sped past (presumably to refill, though I heard talk of someone having ‘spiked’ the refill station) to be met with a light rain of bottles. A fire engine came the other way, and asked politely through their loudhailler to be allowed through, and people made way and moved some of the debris out of the way. It’s amazing where good manners can get you!
Overall, the mood across the city appeared to me to be genuinely excited and optimistic, even in the face of potentially devastating violence from the police. I think the numbers of people out and taking part in the demos helped, as we felt safe in numbers, but also it did genuinely feel like something was happening, somehow we were making a difference, reclaiming the city or something.
Heading home, people were open to chat, if a little wary. One guy, claiming to be from New Zealand, was decidedly confused when I greeted him in Maori (‘Kia ora’) but perhaps it is always best to be wary of strangers, especially if you are black-clad and looking for directions to the Rote Flora! Anyway, we went home, exhausted from all the adrenalin (and the cycling and walking), but with plenty to think about.
Saturday 8th July and once again, the sun was shining and the news programmes on TV were on a loop of images from the night before: lots of sexy shots of fires burning in the streets and people throwing bottles stuff, the occasional image of the police ‘doing their duty’ as they waded into fleeing crowds, blue flashing lights, water cannons firing at crowds and at individuals who dared to dance in the streets in front of them, and so on.
Today’s big demo was ‘Grenzenlose Solidaritaet statt G20’ (‘Solidarity without borders instead of G20’), starting near the main station. We, somewhat ‘hungover from the adrenalin (and a couple of beers) of the night before, joined the demo at Millerntorplatz (overlooked by the huge statue of Bismarck) and chatted and danced our way down the Reeperbahn and then doubled back through the smaller streets towards Millerntor. This demo was huge, with banners and sections from all over the world, and music trucks and a variety of groups and interests represented. However, it became bogged down and boring in the small streets of St Pauli, with occasional shows of police strength around the Millerntorplatz, but perhaps more of an attempt by police to show their ‘human face’ (fewer face masks and helmets). We call it a day, and head out of the city, only to be annoyed by the constant flight of helicopters overhead who are evidently refuelling a the Airbus airport Southwest of the city.
The German media for the following weeks has been dominated by questions about what happened and why. I have a some questions of my own:
Why hold the G20 in Hamburg? We all knew (police, demonstrators, medics, Black Bloc, Joe Public, etc.) that it would be expensive, destructive, violent and that people would be hospitalised and arrested. What was the point? Was it just a show of strength by the police and the State? Was it a training ground for new repressive tactics by the police? Is it a chance for the German state to implement more repressive laws?
What should the response of the demonstrators be? Evidently, the police are now wise to Black Bloc tactics, and know how to control a demo (and the city) with their superior weaponry, and of course they have the law on their side. We can talk of how ‘we’ controlled or ‘reclaimed’ St Pauli, etc., but the reality is that the police dictated where we could go, and even kind of dictated the terms of the riots In the Schanzenviertel. You could suggest that a few shops and businesses were sacrificed, a few bins burned and a few people (including some kids and ‘normal’ residents) had a pretty scary and possibly dangerous evening, but that the police might see this as ‘collateral damage’ and a price worth paying. Even a few cars burning on the Elbchaussee out towards the rich area of Blankenese is not really big news.
And of course, fireworks and burning barricades make sexier headlines than difficult questions about why we object to the G20 in the first place. It is not so much the meeting of some pretty evil characters that is the problem (perhaps Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Merkel, May and Macron should talk more about ‘women, migration and health’), but the fact that their solutions to issues of inequality, migration and war is to sell more arms to each other, to allow the rich to cream off the wealth. The fact that they are talking is possibly a good sign; but the economic outcomes arising from such meetings demonstrably make inequality greater and put more wealth and power in the hands of the few, which demonstrably creates less harmonious socieities. Evidently, the creation of just and harmonious societies is not the preferred outcome!
On a cultural level, the anarcho-left could argue that we lead the way. Where the ungovernable artists, idealists and dreamers go first, the rest of society will eventually folllow, often with poor imitations of the originals; but on the economic level, we are losing the fight: power and wealth is being more and more focused and controlled in the hands of the few, and we really have little power and still fewer tactics to change this. We talk of reclaiming the city. We talk of creating alternative socail an economic structures. We can even live well off the crumbs from the rich man’s table. But how can we genuinely break down borders, violent and oppressive structures, oppressive relatonships and our dependency on an economic and political system that harms the many for the benefit of the few?
Much anticapitalist activity ends up being in response to and actively mitigating against the shortcomings of a failing system (soup kitchens, food banks, refugee support camps, homeless shelters, etc.) One thing that impressed me in Hamburg was how some people had actively gone ahead and prefigured the necessary telecommunications and food requirements of activists (from the free media centre in the football stadium, with rolling twitter updates, also displayed on big screens at info ponts to the activist kitchens providing excellent cheap vegan food across the city). Such things are possible (and sometimes done very well at such events), but, generally also rely on capitalist owned and made structures and technologies to make them work. They are therefore open to control and manipulation from outside, but, I believe, are absolutely essential to show that we are serious about making the world a better place, independent of the capitalists we oppose.