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.