The 2017 summit of the G20, which is comprised of the leading seven industrial countries (G7), Russia, and a number of ‘emerging economies’ as well as the European Union, took place in the German city of Hamburg July 7 and 8, 2017. After the G8 (G7 plus Russia) summit of 2001, which had taken place in Genova, this was the first summit to take place in a major city in Western Europe. One reason for this had been that it was easier to police summits in remote locations and enforce restricted areas by only allowing counter-demonstrations far away from the actual summits.
The 2016 summit had taken place in Hangzhou, China, without any public protests. The Chinese authorities had made sure of that, simply by clearing a large part of the population out of the city altogether, either by issuing travel vouchers, shutting down factories (and thus forcing day labourers to look for work elsewhere), or putting dissidents under house arrest.
The German government couldn’t turn Hamburg – the second biggest city after Berlin – into a ghost town, but they too made it a priority to guarantee the seamless proceedings of the summit. The police force was later accused of prioritising the safety of delegates over that of the inhabitants of the host city. Apparently the police thought that by fiercely repressing any protest they would remain in control of the situation. Thus the first (legal) anti-G20 demonstration which took place July 6 under the slogan ‘Welcome to Hell’ was not allowed to march and was basically wiped off the street by water cannons, creating a panic situation that could potentially have caused casualties.
Acting police director Hartmut Dudde had already sworn in his fighters with announcements such as ‘a water cannon has no reverse gear’ and ‘do not report when a street is blocked, report when it’s cleared’ (Der Spiegel, 29/2017). With the largest police presence and the biggest operation ever in the federal republic he seemed certain of the success of a hard line.
But hours later the police asked for further reinforcements from other parts of the country as riots were spreading across the city and control of the streets appeared to be slipping away. Eventually the police sent in heavily armed special units (SEK) which were equipped with automatic rifles.
Until that point, shops were being looted, barricades set up and cars burnt. Particularly in the Schanzenviertel, considered a ‘left wing’ district of Hamburg, which is also home to the Rote Flora, a squatted social center, violence spread and the police stayed away for nearly three hours. The violence included setting fire to a shop with flats above, looting a shop that had made regular donations to the Rote Flora in the past and creating fire hazards in the street.
Incendiary devices were thrown into an Ikea store, while people were still working. Cars were also set on fire along the posh Elbchaussee in the richer western part of town.
But the riot wasn’t the extent of the protests. There were attempts to ‘disrupt the logistics of capital’ by blockades of the harbour, as well as a large peaceful demonstration on Saturday which was attended by 76,000 people.
Nevertheless, these events were overshadowed by the riots in the media – a fact that was predictably bemoaned by centre-left critics of the summit, as if peaceful protests are ever considered a ‘news story’.
Instead the reaction of the media and in politics was characterised by hysteria. There was talk of a ‘civil war-like’ situation, of ‘left-wing terrorism’ and the like. The conservative daily paper Die Welt was ranting about a ‘council republic of violence and hate’ which had apparently been realised in the riot by ‘groups of mercenaries’ that, due to their predominantly black dress, were likened to Italian fascists and the Islamic State. These idiotic assertions were made not by an over-zealous intern, but by the editor of the ‘intellectual’ paper of the Springer publishing house, Ulf Porschardt himself.
Bild, the Welt‘s tabloid counterpart, started a campaign on behalf of the police with the slogan ‘Solidarity with the Police’ on a full-page poster with the picture of a child handing a policeman a flower and the headline ‘Danke Polizei!’.
Obviously this had become necessary after an abundance of videos appeared on the internet documenting brutal police violence, and even some of the mainstream media started criticising the ‘heavy handed’ approach.
Bild also printed the pictures of rioters under the title ‘Wanted’, leading the majority-mob into a manhunt. The person pictured on the cover of Bild handed himself in right away, which was celebrated as a success by the paper the next day – although his motivation might have been to protect lookalikes from Springer-sponsored mob violence.
Bild was arguably in breach of legality as well as press ethics. Indeed the German press council (Presserat) later issued an official disapproval of Bild for having breached the press codex. (meedia.de, 15-09-2017).
In the meantime, police had already suspended the concept of reasonable suspicion by arresting people traveling to the upcoming (again legal) demonstration planned for Saturday and holding them in specially constructed interim jails.
The suspension of basic democratic rights didn’t come as a surprise. Months ahead the state apparatus had already begun to prepare the population for the case of emergency. Die Rote Hilfe, the magazine of the far left prisoner-support and anti-repression group, had already laid out what was likely to be the scenario in their spring edition, including the prediction that the state would use the situation to crack down on the radical scene with different forms of repression. (Die Rote Hilfe 2.2017)
After the riots, politicians across the spectrum, including Sarah Wagenknecht of Die Linke, tried to outdo each other with condemnations of the ‘violent criminals’ (Wagenknecht), who acted purely out of ‘lust for destruction and brutality’ (interior minister Thomas de Maizière, CDU), while SPD boss Martin Schulz discovered ‘characteristics of terrorism’, and city mayor Olaf Scholz (SPD) stated that the police had handled everything perfectly.
All kinds of strategies of ‘prevention’ were suggested, from systematic evictions of autonomous centres, to making organisers of demonstrations pay for damages, to increased online surveillance of potential radicals and even the snooping on lawyers (this suggestion was made by Christian Lindner, the boss of the ‘liberal’ FDP) (konkret 9/2017).
In short: the political establishment showed its love for the authoritarian state.
The radical left involved with the protests – at least the two main alliances, Ums Ganze and Interventionistische Linke (IL) – tried to give everything a positive spin. Ums Ganze saw in the riots, demo and blockades ‘greetings from the future’. According to Ums Ganze, it was correct to break the silence surrounding the crimes of capitalism and the protest showed that it was possible to do so. According to the IL, tens of thousands had come to defy the state of emergency, ‘the rebellion of hope took place’.
There was a justifiable attempt by radical groups and individual writers to reject the political consensus and emphasize a progressive element of the riots, at least as a symbolic rejection of capitalism and the commodity economy.
But there were other less savoury groups involved. The Maoist group Revolutionärer Aufbau published a text claiming: ‘…but we have felt something, when we stood together, when our blood and the blood of the enemy was flowing: we felt a birth – as a birth is normally, bloody – of something new (…) Soldiers of the class, ready to pay the price’. And the Trotskyist group ArbeiterInnenmacht (previously Arbeitermacht) made clear that in their opinion the fight against capital and war was really the fight against ‘Israel’ with the slogan ‘Gegen Kapital und Krieg – Intifada bis zum Sieg!’
Surely, as was pointed out in a discussion in konkret, such groups only discredit the protests and should not be tolerated in an emancipatory context – but it looks like these groups are tolerated in a desperate attempt to maintain a ‘left unity’.
More unclear was the alleged involvement of neo-Nazi groups in the riots. Groups like the Antikapitalisches Kollektiv and the Junge Nationaldemokraten ‘admitted’, according to some media reports, to have taken part of the protests. But besides some stickering – which most likely took place at another date – no organised participation of neo-Nazis could be effectively documented.
Also unclear is the presence of the secret state. ‘It has to be assumed that there are covert investigations taking place in the left wing scene. After all, in Hamburg three female undercover police have been exposed over the last few years’, wrote Die Rote Hilfe. According to the paper, numerous recruitment attempts were made by the Verfassungsschutz (internal secret police) in the months leading up to the summit, especially targeting young people.
The fact that plainclothes police were present during the riot is indisputable. One plainclothes officer even fired a shot in the air, which was caught on camera. The police later claimed that the officer tried to break up a situation where a person lying on the ground was being beaten up. But the person is seen only briefly falling to the ground and then getting up and running away without being exposed to further violence. The person later told journalists that the shooter must have thought he was a colleague being exposed and attacked, as he asked him what unit he was in.
The police also decided on ‘facts’ in other matters, for example the number of victims of violence in its own ranks. The number started rising from statement to statement until it reached more than 700. Soon it turned out that the tally included officers who had phoned in sick even days before the summit. Most of the other cases were due to dehydration and exhaustion of officers. Only a tiny number were exposed to violence, amongst these were some who had been exposed to pepper spray – fired by police.
I was not in Hamburg. But piecing together a picture according to the available information shows the outcome to be rather multifaceted. Every participant seems to have a different story with both positive and negative aspects. Some reports emphasise the exhilarating feeling of the temporary absence of state power and the negation of the commodity economy by luxury items being burned on the barricades rather than being stolen for personal use. Others point out the reckless use of fire which could have endangered the safety of fellow proletarians. Only a few fringe groups would seriously claim that what happened in Hamburg was part of an actual revolutionary development. But the symbolic value of the ‘smoke signals’ also has to be investigated. I cannot judge whether this message of total resistance has been received by the industrial workers in China, the garment workers in Bangladesh, the mine workers in Congo etc.
What is certain is that the state is preparing to use ‘Hamburg’ against the radical left with all force. A number of cases are currently in courts, and the repression has hit the radical media in the form of banning the web site linksunten.indymedia.org and raiding the premises where the site was alleged to have been maintained. This is likely to be only the beginning.
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