Hamburg's G20 protests can provide immense inspiration, argues Marta Music
“A… Anti… Anti-capitalista!”. “Staat, Nation, Kapital – Scheisse! [State, Nation, Capital – Shit!]”.
Those chants shook the city of Hamburg from July 5-8, as tens of thousands of people gathered to protest against the G20 Summit. Protesters from a wide variety of groups came from all over the world to disrupt, show presence and express their outrage against the neoliberal, unaccountable and undemocratic international forum during which the leaders of the 20 most powerful countries in the world set the global agenda behind closed doors, with no legitimacy or political mandate.
Some of the biggest events which took place last week include:
- The two day Global Solidarity Summit as a democratic, alternative platform to discuss world crises through panels, discussions and workshops
- The “Welcome to Hell” autonomous, anti-capitalist demonstration is attacked by police, but successfully marches through the city.
- The Block G20 initiative begins on the first day of the summit, with several attempts to enter the red (restricted) zone from different parts of the city
- The “Shut Down the Logistics of Capital” occupation of the harbor
- The youth and student strike marches through the centre of the city
- Riots break out in the Schanze and Altona districts
- The largest, general demonstration of the week “Solidarity Without Borders instead of G20” takes place, with reports of between 75,000-200,000 people in attendance.
- Police “clean” streets in Shanze and Neuer Pfedermarkt at night with force in large-scale operation.
- July 9th: The solidarity protest against the Gesa prison built specifically for the No G20 protests in support of the people arrested
This article does not deal in detail with these events or the discussions of the G20 charade. If you are looking for more information, both Crimethinc and Enough Is Enough had rolling coverage of protests, and Unicorn Riot provides extensive footage. Instead, it will focus on two of the most dangerous institutions of the capitalist state apparatus and their roles throughout the No G20 protests – the mainstream media and the police – and presents the results of last week’s protests.
A biased coverage of the G20 protest by the mainstream media
Those who took part in the No G20 could not agree more: the discrepancies between what actually happened last week and how the mainstream media depicts these events is shocking. The coverage of the G20 protests by the media is systematically biased. It focused primarily on the looting of stores, cars set on fire and images of protesters throwing projectiles. By presenting looting as individual, independent acts committed by hooligans, it failed to address the underlying crises leading to such acts in a systemic way. The use of phrases such as “criminal violence”, “civil-war like situation in Hamburg" or “brutality of the protesters” all contribute to the scaremongering perpetrated by the media and the construction of an image of the “extremist protester” which both legitimizes police action and criminalizes dissent and peaceful protesting. While the number of police officers injured last week is usually reported, there are no accounts of how many protesters were hurt, and no reports of police attacks on members of the press and legal team or the beating of protesters.
Naturally, the structural violence of capitalism and its devastating economic, social and ecological consequences worldwide went completely unmentioned. The specific framing of the events of last week by the media and the failure to emphasise the manifestation of shared grievances against a global exploitative system demonstrates once more that the mainstream media is but another tool of the capitalist state apparatus, contributing to its resilience.
Police violence during the G20
The structural violence of the state and the police are not comparable to that of burning cars and looting shops. For members of the radical left, this realisation is widely accepted. In that sense, Hamburg offers nothing new, but from a strategic perspective, there are still lessons to be learnt. The G20 protests were a struggle for emancipation, in two main ways. Firstly, they were about protecting an established autonomous space marked by anti-capitalistic social relations in the city and secondly, it was about tens of thousands of people coming together collectively to fight against a repressive system. It is with these two broad strategies in mind that we must consider last week’s events, and evaluate the struggle between the state, the police, and the protestors.
Hamburg represents a new stage in the militarization of policing protests. The size of the operation was unprecedented, with 20,000 officers mobilized, equipped with water cannons, pepper spray, tear gas, batons and live weapons, while SWAT teams were called in, and the military waited in reserve outside the city. Tactically, the police used what we might call an ‘aggressively defensive’ strategy. As well as totally blocking the “red zone” of the meetings, an enormous “blue zone” was set-up covering the majority of central Hamburg, in which ‘assemblies’ (gatherings of three people or more) were forbidden. Any infringement of this was met with as much force as necessary. Anyone hoping to truly disrupt meetings with these sort of policing operations will need sophisticated communication strategies, and a clear way of nullifying some of the security apparatus.
On top of this, the Polizei also used arbitrary provocation tactics to force escalation. Police officers raided the Welcome to Hell demonstration even after protesters had uncovered their faces as demanded by the authorities. In the evening of July 8th at the Rote Flora, a former theater in the Sternschanze quarter central to the squatting community, the police proceeded to arrest around 200 people in what many called “acts of revenge” and “retaliation” with the sole objective of filling the 400 places in the Gesa Prison set up specifically for the No G20 at a cost of 2 million euros. The lack of accountability for the police’s actions is another serious matter which the radical left must tackle in coming struggles. Indeed, while it is illegal for protesters to be masked, the police wore no identification numbers on their uniforms and covered up their faces entirely. The police decided how to demarcate the spaces in the city into accessible and inaccessible zones and did not hesitate to prevent peaceful protesters from exiting certain neighborhoods for hours by guarding each street. The actions of the police and the control they exercise over bodies and spaces are legitimized precisely because they are part of the state apparatus. The inherent violence of capital’s armed wing, and the fact that authorities do not protect people but the interests of capital is already an established fact. However, the G20 protests can be useful point of reflection for future struggles, where we must prepare to fight for what we already have, and further develop offensive strategies and tactics for disrupting the oppressive machinery of capitalism.
A step towards moving beyond capitalism
A few victories of the No G20 should nevertheless be mentioned such as the retreating of the police from the Welcome to Hell demonstration which was supposed to be blocked, the delaying of summit on the first day by a group of protesters which succeeded in entering the red zone, the occupation of Hamburg’s harbor by a thousand people under the fervent cheering of the workers and the gathering of more than 100,000 people for Saturday’s general demonstration “Solidarity without Borders instead of G20”.
More importantly, last week’s events can be seen as one immense showing of solidarity from a diverse movement The G20 organising platform successfully brought together a wide range of different groups under one banner; united but autonomous. Where it may have been all too easy for the platform to disown or condemn more militant factions like Welcome to Hell, they stood strong. The Black Bloc too was never an isolated component of the protests, and was always interspersed with, and supported by, nearby protesters. Another major source of inspiration is the sheer size and depth of the movement. No G20 was not only about showing visibility and disrupting the G20. It was about tens of thousands of people coming together to fight against a repressive system and protect these autonomous spaces that are built collectively. The protests thrived on Hamburg’s extensive anti-capitalist infrastructure and community, with squats and social centers operating as major focal points. The 20,000 seater St Pauli stadium too hosted an alternative media forum, accommodation for protesters, and a pay what you can anti-fascist kitchen.
The G20 protests give us proof of the strength of a vital social movement, and glimpses of the challenges ahead. This social movement is not a reformist one; it is anti-statist, anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist. Fighting for the right to protest and the right to assemble is not enough. What needs to be questioned are the laws put into place by the state. Accepting the state’s diktat on how, when and where to protest defies the very notion of protesting. The No G20 protests in Hamburg were a refusal of the legitimacy of the state to decide on people’s future, bodies and spaces. As the systemic crises inherent to capitalism multiply and intensify, people should look to ‘moments’ such as the G20 protests for inspiration and as a way to evaluate the current strength of the movement. All the while, however, we must keep constructing alternatives discourses and practices whilst working within, against and beyond the state.