Violence and the Hamburg G20

Mandatory Credit: Photo by CARSTEN KOALL/EPA/REX/Shutterstock (8907233do)

Violence and the Hamburg G20 – is there any way out? By Richard Henry Holland

There were thousands of joyful moments for the tens of thousands participating in the week of peaceful protest and political education precipitated by the G20 in Hamburg. A personal highlight was unexpectedly spotting four members of the Scottish Socialist Party amongst the eighty-thousand strong march in which the protest week culminated on July 8. The four had positioned themselves more or less at the head of the march, the party banner waving. Behind them was a large contingent from the Alawite community, with full-throated and understandable rage at a G20 in which an irascible and punitive Turkish state has shots to call. To their left, a vociferous group from the Interventionist Left, all wearing red T-shirts and calling themselves the Red Bloc. Their attire was unmistakeably intended as a sign to distinguish themselves from the Black Blocs, who had managed to increase their notoriety in the preceding days. I was at the march with my teenage daughter, having decided, reluctantly, to leave my nine year old at home. After what had been happening, it felt too unsafe to go to the march with younger children. Other demonstrating Hamburg parents felt the same – there were hardly any small children to be seen. During the two hour wait before the march was allowed to get going, I tried to find a good space for my daughter and I to march in, as far away as possible from the many hooded and sun-glassed protesters who were milling about. I was calculating that if any trouble were to spark off, it might spark in their vicinity. In the end, we ended up marching beside a whole mix of groups, including pockets of Black Blocs – and in the six hours in which we took part we saw not one bit of violence.

Yet peaceful protest doesn’t get talked about for long, however angry and justified it is, and whatever the scale of the efforts needed to bring it together. The souls of the vicarious masses, watching events on screens in bars or at home on their sofas, get locked into another storyline. The scenes of hooded and masked figures rampaging through Hamburg’s streets, setting fire to cars, throwing chunks of broken up pavement and bottles at the police, and smashing up civic and private property with concrete bollards and steel rods, will also have briefly flashed up on Scottish TV screens, only to be replaced this week by more meritorious theatres of hate and confrontation. Equally pulse-affecting, particularly for those actually present in the city, was the scale of the psychological and physical violence perpetrated by the police. Even though the talks between the heads-of-state only lasted two days, surveillance helicopters were to be heard and seen constantly buzzing overhead for five days, as part of an operation that garrisoned twenty-thousand extra police in and around the city, from all over Germany and from Germany’s military partners in the EU. Mostly to be seen parked in long convoys at the roadside, when they moved they did with at least ten police vans at a time, the sirens wailing. These centuries of police-officers, the basic unit that the German federal police-force is still divided into, should remind us of the military efficiency of the later Roman Empire. High-falutin’ notions of genuine democratic decision-making now appear foreign to the ruling classes, and we’re in the middle of their grim, hard slog to hold onto power.

Among the images that will be the Hamburg G20’s most influential legacy, are shots of a protester who appears to be unconscious being dragged away by police, his head bouncing against the tarmac. A series of other videos and photos show police putting the boot in when demonstrators are already on the ground. Further footage shows what are obviously trained tactics of how police subdue individuals they consider a threat: getting the individual on the ground, quickly getting five or more officers in heavy riot gear on top of them, and promptly installing a further circle of police, standing tightly together, around the scene, so that journalists or photographers or citizens attempting to film cannot subject it to any further scrutiny. This should put us in mind of what we do know about how Sheku Bayoh died in Fife in 2015. Water canons employed throughout the week, against flamboyant and disciplined peaceful protesters, and only occasionally against the actually violent, will also stay with us, if only subliminally. They are the pictures that will continue to inform the politics of a minority, in Hamburg and around the world.

Yet merely by devoting these words to police violence in my opening paragraphs, I’ve already put myself beyond the pale of a Hamburg majority who, primarily outraged by the attacks on high-end consumer goods, are determined to enforce a narrative in which the police acted bravely and with moderation, and protected “us” from even worse excesses. My minority views matter little in themselves, but they do lead to the philosophically more significant question of whose violence gets talked about by whom, and at which points in historical processes. Seen from the outside, my work-place – a mile or so to the west of where the most intensive clashes took place in the districts of St. Pauli, Sternschanze and Altona – may seem like a location in which, in the months and weeks building up to the summit, heated discussions about the nature of violence would have been taking place. Or about why the prospect of G20 triggered such animosity amongst certain groups. Named the Writers’ Room, our work-place consists of roomy, open-plan office space for writers, translators and academics, run on an annual block grant that is substantial by culture industry standards, although minuscule compared to the costs of protecting G20 leaders for even fifteen minutes. Our grant is ultimately ensured by the same Hamburg executive that gifted us the G20, a coalition of the SPD and the Greens sanctioned by 58% of those who voted at the last election in 2015. Over fifty members of the Writers’ Room (selected through a non-elitist and regularly occurring application process) get to use facilities that mainly consist of a quiet space to write in, serviced computers to write on, and a kitchen in which to chat and moan about publishers.

We’re a privileged niche and an anachronism in the era of Europe’s austerity consensus. As we’re mostly freelancers, with no bosses physically present in the building, we had lots of opportunities to talk at will about the gathering storm. The first violations of our fundamental rights as codified in the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany were being enacted around us several months ago. An application made by fans of St. Pauli football club to march on a match day in April to the trade fair centre – the Messehallen, where the G20 met last week – was rejected outright. Thirty-eight square kilometres of the inner city cordoned off behind high, barbed wire fences in the days immediately prior to the arrival of Theresa May et al. also failed to get the colleagues’ pulses racing. Some mention was made of plans to escape the city over the G20 weekend, just like a third of all Hamburgians polled said they planned to do. Otherwise, we didn’t talk about it much. We got our noses down and attended to the infinite “projects” the self-employed in rich economies pursue. We shut up and ate our cereal.

Conversational habits swung from the Thursday evening onwards (July 7), when the first eye-witness accounts and videos of burning cars came through. Finally, a group of perpetrators against whom the moral high ground could be seized! Hopefully this indignation can also stretch to lasting anger about the treatment of 32 evaluated and accredited journalists, who had initially secured official access to the press centre at the Messehallen. Nine of these journalists had their accreditation stripped from them without notice during last week’s upheavals, and 23 have had their accreditation removed retrospectively. As reported on July 12 in the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung – a publication which, as it happens, regularly vilifies leftists – these included journalists who have been under regular police surveillance for over ten years. At least six of the 32 affected have reported intensively on Kurdish protests against the Turkish government in Ankara, leading to suspicions that the German federal government’s decision to intervene spontaneously against this group may have followed pressure exerted by the head of Turkey’s secret service, Hakan Fidan, who was in Hamburg to accompany Erdogan. The treatment of these members of the fourth estate has been brusque, as highlighted by North Germany’s public sector broadcaster, NDR, and in other sources, also on July 12. On the Saturday of the summit (July 8), Adil Yigit – who runs and writes for the Turkish-language website Avrupa Postasi that consistently criticizes Erdogan’s post-democratic government – showed his pass to get into the press centre. Two officers of the Federal Crime Agency denied him access. They then took him to a tent at the side of the centre, and told him that there were “concerns” about his person. Refusing to answer his repeated question “which concerns?”, the officers then tried to tear his press-pass off him, which he was wearing around his neck.

On a global level, these incisions into press freedom will raise few eyebrows. They are acts of symbolic violence against that small minority amongst the citizenry, who has the guts to throw intellectual grit into a finely-oiled machine. For those of us who think it’s wrong to use violence against people or property, or consider it politically counterproductive, or are simply incapable of such violence, one of the few options left open us – assuming we’re interested in change at all – is to differentiate amongst the facts, and to refuse prejudice and generalizations. Amid the ocean of hearsay and rumour swilling around Hamburg post-G20, it is noteworthy that the police’s narrative of a protester flinging Molotov cocktails at police vehicles, as reported in the Guardian on the Friday (July 7), had been widely dismissed by the Tuesday (July 13). That was when Hamburg’s favourite tabloid, the MOPO, which had been milking the “thousands-of-cold-blooded-violent-leftists-expected” angle for months prior to the summit, displayed enough impartiality to at least report the analysis of an independent court specialist on infra-red technology. Georg Dittié refuted the police interpretation of infra-red photos taken by helicopter of a demonstrator throwing something at police from a Sternschanze rooftop. These photos matter, as they were the evidence used by Hartmut Dudde, director of the police operation, to justify sending in special commando units, or SEKs as they’re known in German, to storm several Sternschanze blocks of flats on the Friday evening. Photos of an an Austrian special unit will have attracted particular international attention, their chunky body armour and weaponry fulfilling every bit the fantasies of the directors of Terminator and other Hi-Fis blockbusters from over two decades ago. The commando units did not shoot at people, but did use live ammunition to shoot through locked doors in what is a crowded, residential area, as the daily TAZ reported (July 13).

In a matter-of-fact manner, Dittié gave several reasons why what the demonstrator was throwing were fireworks, not Molotov cocktails. You would have expected the head of 20,000 armed police to know about at least one of these: after being lit, “a rag soaked in petrol bursts into flames straight away”, as Dittié pointed out. Which the objects photographed did not. For the hundreds immediately affected by the violence – the police-officers injured by the stones and the bottles, the protesters injured by the truncheons and the tear gas, the owners of the burnt cars – these details will continue to matter a lot. But they are also abstractable. We know what’s going to happen when you decide to locate a conference of 20 world leaders, masters at ignoring and avoiding democratic accountability, in a city that’s known as a stronghold of the far-left throughout Germany and in much of Europe. When you say you’re going to force this through with military policing (study youtube for an hour or two, and you’ll get the shots of the tanks moving through the streets during the summit), you know violence is going to kick off. Leading many to argue that police leaders and Ministers of the Interior need the violence, that it provides the raw material for their own societal power, and for justifying the astonishing budgets needed to pay for the hardware and personnel to protect such an event. The disagreements continue about the size of the bill German tax payers will ultimately have to pay for this curious political show. A party colleague of Merkel’s, the Minister of the Interior for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Lorenz Caffier, has estimated the total costs at 200-300 million euros. And that was before the costs for repairing damages to pavements, roads and other municipal property were included in the sum.

So far, so scriptable. What is harder to foresee is how the German establishment will
exploit the large opportunity the violence has bequeathed them. De Maizière, the Federal Minister of the Interior, appears to be following a multi-track strategy, including seizing the moment to further stigmatize left-wing politics. The tactic, in no way new, aims at making involvement in all anti-system leftist politics tabu, by equating it with right-wing extremism. It can only be the populace’s lack of interest in recent history that allows de Maizière to get away with this comparison. By synthesizing and maintaining records started by a number of non-profit organizations and mainstream newspapers, including Die Zeit, Der Tagespiegel and Frankfurter Rundschau, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation documented 178 people murdered in Germany as victims of right-wing extremist violence in the period 1990-2015. Mostly directed against people from minority ethnic communities, these killings also claimed the lives of several leftist activists. Equally revealing in this context is recent research carried out by the TAZ newspaper, demonstrating that German police have been shooting dead roughly 10 people a year since 1990 (full article here). The research shows that a high proportion of these victims have mental health issues; the police consider them primarily as people who are behaving dangerously. In contrast, no one is claiming, not even de Maizière, that there have been any killings in Germany that could possibly be classified as leftist since 1993, the year of the last killing by a member of the Red Army Faction. However, the small group of individuals who self-define themselves as leftist and who were being violent on Hamburg’s streets have little to do with the RAF in political terms. Anyone who’s looking for a pigeon-hole to stick them into would do better to look to the much wider traditions of autonomism, workerism and anarchism.

It is police-officers, police leaders and Germany’s centrist ruling-class that “fail to distance themselves” – the charge de Maizière levels at the Left – from the disproportionate violence that props up a rigged and rotten system. None of the G20 leaders distanced themselves from the police violence necessary for them to be able to meet in the first place. None of these leaders distanced themselves – which they could have done, if they had refused G20 membership – from the latest spikes in state violence perpetrated by other member states in the group. On the day before the summit (July 6), news in of the arrest of the leader of Amnesty International Turkey constituted merely the latest violent act in an ongoing war carried out by Erdogan’s state apparatus against millions of Turkey’s civilians.

The unresolved question remains how we will continue to react to and challenge, democratically, these failings in the current global leadership.

Comments (14)

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  1. IJM says:

    The “established” ruling classes throughout the world are scared. they can not hide what they are doing, or what they have done before. The police, army etc… are and have only been to protect the rich and their assets. This social unrest , increasingly, is coming to a “cinema”(Area) near you.

    Unless…unless, we stand up and reject this system. Vote Yes for independence from right wing
    tyranny, for Scotland and other free thinking peoples of the world.

  2. Crubag says:

    This will be why it was held at Gleneagles when it was in the UK.

  3. jack elliot says:

    At g20 They talk about “partnership with Africa”, but almost the entire continent is missing.

    They talk about climate change, but they represent the interests of the oil, coal and auto industries.

    They talk about peace, but are themselves the largest warring and armaments-producing states.

  4. w.b.robertson says:

    mrs merkel presides over it all…and some Scots want to remain under her umbrella.

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      A handsome majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU, Robertson, because they’re not idiots…

      These Scots know that if the EU wasn’t around, that if every country arranged independent trade deals with each other, the result would be a return to the politics of the early 20th Century, with various alignments emerging between different European nation States, effectively dividing Europe into competing power blocks….

      …exactly the kind of arrangement which led to two World Wars in 35 years…

      That guys like you got a vote and I didn’t is just a total outrage….

      Then again, I’m not left with the tricky task of explaining how on earth I ended up on the same side of an argument as Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage…three total headbangers, the former two born Scots…

      You guys will be begging for a trade deal 18 months down the line, and I hope the EU make it a punitive one…

      1. Crubag says:

        Even that would be the same deal that an iScotland would inherit?

        The EU27 situation isn’t static – it might evolve into a tighter federation with a common budget, or problems like migration or Poland/Hungary might blow it apart.

        But after the GE2017 results, where pro-Brexit parties got the majority of votes in Scotland, I don’t think the EU institutions are planning for anything else other than the whole of the UK leaving. An equitable trade deal is in the interests of both Scotland/rUK and the EU27.

        1. Redgauntlet says:

          Crubag, you keep reading the General Election results of 2017 as a vote on Brexit, when it was no such thing. It was a vote on who should form the next government…

          If the Brexit referendum result is constantly held up as being nothing short of the sacred will of the electorate in England by both Breixeteers and Remainers, how can any Scottish nationalist do anything less than defend the will of the electorate of Scotland in the same poll on the same day, and the decision to stay in the EU?

          To argue for anything other than the continued membership of Scotland in the EU is to tacitly acknowledge that British sovereignty supercedes Scottish sovereignty…

 Scottish nationalist can accept Brexit for Scotland without falling into contradiction. It doesn’t matter what each individual wanted or voted, the Scottish electorate voted Remain by a clear and decisive margin.

          As for Poland and Hungary “blowing the EU apart”, don’t be daft…

          1. Crubag says:

            The only substantive issue in GE2017 was Brexit. Lib Dems stuck to a pro-EU line as did the SNP, though more tentatively, and both dropped votes. Between them, the pro-Brexit parties took the majority of votes in Scotland. That hasn’t gone unnoticed on the continent.

            The SNP has now quietly dropped its pro-EU position, and after the reset later in the year, I’d imagine will coalesce around an EFTA/EEA position.

            If I had to bet, I’d say migration or the euro are more likely to be the fatal crisis for the EU27, in their current form. But the EU’s inability to reign the Polish government’s judicial takeover badly weakens the central institutions. Watch this space, I guess.

          2. Redgauntlet says:

            Crubag, as Richard Henry Holland points out in his excellent piece, the media’s framing of the narrative as often as not succeeds in confusing people about events, which I fear is your own case in terms of the General Election…

            Labour’s vote went up because Corbyn ran an anti-austerity campaign, promising to abolish tuition fees, for example. The Tories in Scotland, likewise, ran a campaign based on the rejection of indie ref 2 and saw their vote rise due, at least to some extent, to referendum fatigue.

            The SNP, remarkably, did not fight the general election on the need for indie ref 2 and the sovereignty of the people of Scotland, but backtracked. As for the Lib-Dems, they have been a negligible force in British politics since Clegg put Cameron into N10.

            The only party who tried to make the General Election about Brexit were the Tories. And they failed…

            As for Poland, well she has two choices in the long run; tow the line in the EU, or leave and fall under the sinister influence of Putin….the EU existed for decades without Poland or Britain, let’s not forget it…

  5. Scott Macdonald says:

    An early report from the Hamburg streets by Connor Beaton – national secretary of the Scottish Socialist Party.

    I was one of the SSP members cited there, delighted to attend as part of the international anti-G20 protest. And I can confirm the policing was every bit as oppressive, provocative and designed to escalate as written above.

    Other than the constant police presence and deliberate fear tactics, I found the city to be an incredibly pleasant and welcoming place which treated its guests with dignity and humanity.

    And the Sternschanze is one of the world’s treasures. I’ll be back.

  6. Crubag says:

    @Redgauntlet – actually, you can get a lot of false history about the EU, as indeed any country does in trying to fit its present to its past.

    The European Union only dates to 1992 and the Maastricht treaty, before that you have the European Communities, which are looser assemblage. History might indeed judge that’s where European cooperation best sat, rather than the current push for a federal state.

    But it is wrong to say that the EU “existed for decades without Poland or Britain.”

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      The EEC and the EU are different names and different stages of the same project, which was broadly outline in the Schuman Declaration of 1950:

      1. Crubag says:

        No, that’s an example of fitting the present back on to the past. It wasn’t the EU back then, and even Schuman didn’t use the term

        If you mean there have been federalists for a long time, who would like to see a single European state, and would seize on any political arrangement to advance this, then I’d agree. But that is an old dream, older than the EEC – the Holy Roman Empire would be one example.

        I don’t think it is workable. The USA only became a unitary state after a bloody civil war clarified the rights of states to secede (none), and the indifference of the euro states to the crises of fellow members (other than banking interests) suggests they won’t pool their resources to make it work.

        But if it did, should an iScotland join a single European state?

        1. Redgauntlet says:

          Crubag, I’m not going to carry on with this exchange….you’ll do anything to justify your Brexit point of view, and I’m not going to argue with you about the EU, because you’re full of prejudice and disinformation. How can anybody possible compare the Holy Roman Empire with the European Union? It’s just nonsense.

          As for Scotland, people like you and David Jaimeson and Robertson above the page, can we please remember that a far greater share of the electorate in Scotland backed the Union with Europe than did the Union of 1707 with England….by over 10% points….that the cases of Scottish indie and our EU membership should be wedded together is beyond all doubt for me.

          If the SNP can’t score an open goal, then too bad for Scotland….

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