The State pre-empts
Germany has, as with every other Western State, been preparing to deal with mass public revolt for a long time, often using the excuse of extremist terror to dramatically restrict the ways in which its citizens can dissent against the increasingly hard realities of neoliberal economics.
As early as 2001, after the 9/11 attacks in the US, the German government passed anti-terror legislation which expanded the ability of the State to monitor mobile and online communications, invade people’s banks accounts and flight plans, as well as reinforcing the role and powers of intelligence, border and military forces.
The next major expansion occurred in 2008, not coincidentally in the wake of a financial crash which put a match to the stability and growth of the Eurozone along with the myth of Friedmanite trickle-down theory. Fearing revolt, Germany introduced a ‘Big Brother’ law allowing State agents to tap the phones of “terror suspects,” film people’s homes, track mobile phone signals and even infect computers with “remote forensic software” to secretly search through hard drives.
It would have little to no effect on the sort of cell-based or lone attackers it was ostensibly aimed at, but allowed for broad surveillance of public malcontents that could provide valuable intelligence data about anything large scale — and use in the repression of dangerously rebellious voices.
Then came G20. In the run-up to the Hamburg summit the government went on high alert. While recent G8 and G20 summits had mostly successfully isolated and repressed anti-capitalist groups by siting at easily-defensible venues, distant from known radical areas, this year’s political jamboree was sited in what seemed like an almost deliberately provocative spot near one of Germany’s counterculture heartlands, Sternschanze — currently on Hamburg’s gentrification frontline.
Chatter was immediate and loud, even on public networks that this would be a big one with a major anti-capitalist showing. This was a chance for the German government to get its anti-riot apparatus in order, which it did with vigour both through its security services and with a legislative overhaul in 2016 (though some of this had been in the works for far longer).
As German anarchist magazine GaiDao noted in its July issue, shortly before the G20 kicked off:
Our rulers have not stood idly and have also armed themselves.
In addition to the usual police and security technology around the Summit, there have been extensive and radical law reforms in recent months which have been prepared and largely adopted, building new dimensions for the monitoring powers of the State, tightening punishments in case of resistance.
Law enforcement officers and private security have had their powers expanded by the authorities … the last point of a long list came at the end of June, when the Bundestag adopted several legislative amendments which enabled spying on private communications and hard disk drives and anti-encryption measures, as well as de facto abolition of the right to silence when confronted by police.
These laws apply to all (potential) critics of the current social order.
The stage was thus set for dealing with the crowds heading to Hamburg to stand up against the world’s most powerful State leaders. It was intended to be a rout — a show of strength from Europe’s Big Beast and a reminder about who exactly was free in Europe’s cities.
And yet: Polizei humiliated
Without doubt, this year’s G20 has proven one thing. The world’s fourth most powerful government, with a huge surveillance service, a well-armed and drilled police force and ample preparation time was totally unable to control a city in revolt.
Depending on who you believe, anything from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest against G20, drawn from all over the world but primarily the enormous and well-connected Eurozone itself. Restricted as Fortress Europe is to outsiders, within the border walls freedom of movement allowed anti-capitalists across the subcontinent to converge in both officially sanctioned and unsanctioned tent cities, taking over stretches of Hamburg’s open spaces.
As numbers swelled, a rattled police force called in reinforcements from all over the country and started the weekend off with a massive crackdown on the tent cities, both legal and otherwise, initiating raids and on July 6th violently attacking the opening protest against the summit. By that evening, they had drawn a furious response from both Europe’s anticapitalists and local people.
Taking up the story, CrimethInc describes the stunning failures of the police and equally intelligent tactics of the anti-capitalists in a post on July 7th, as the second day of riots drew to a close.
Tonight, for the second night in a row, approximately 20,000 police armed with the best crowd control technology money can buy utterly lost control of downtown Hamburg. Last night was bad enough, with clashes and decentralised attacks continuing well past sunrise; tonight they were forced to withdraw completely from the Schanze neighborhood for several hours, as barricades burned in the intersections and thousands of people of all walks of life joyously celebrated a police-free zone. Now the Mayor who invited the G20 to Hamburg is pleading for the end of the violence he started.
Let’s look closer at the breakdown of police control. In 1987, the German police began to shift to their current model for crowd control, in order to correct for the ways that crowds had outmaneuvered and defeated them—especially on May Day of that year. The subsequent model of German policing, in which long lines of riot police are supplemented with highly mobile snatch squads that maintain close contact with the crowd, has more or less served to control urban unrest until now. (For a more thorough overview of the recent history of German police tactics, consult this helpful article).
In 2017, exactly 30 years after the origins of this model, the crowds of Hamburg succeeded in once more outmaneuvering and defeating the police. This time, they did so by spreading the action over a vast area of the city, moving swiftly and focusing on decentralised actions. Whenever the police established a control line, people gathered on the other side of it—not only demonstrators, but also supportive spectators. Small, highly organised and mobile groups of demonstrators were able to identify exit routes and carry out swift attacks, while larger crowds stretched the police one direction, then another. The more territory the police had to control, the more they antagonised the population, and the more demonstrators they had to deal with as their lines became more and more thinly stretched. Finally, they lost control of the most unruly regions and were forced to retreat entirely.
In addition to tactical concerns, however, the most important blow to the police has been that, by going to far in seeking to control the population by brute force, they lost legitimacy in the public eye. Their absurd and unprovoked attack on yesterday’s (July 6th) Welcome to Hell demonstration turned the entire city against them. No wonder they have lost control.
They will surely regain it, probably at the cost of a great deal of suffering inflicted at random on those who remain on the streets. But we should be heartened by the fact that they were beaten, that they could not control the population—and we should be inspired by the tremendous courage that people have shown in Hamburg, standing up to such a powerful adversary and refusing to back down.
CrimethInc was quite right, the police would duly go for revenge, as Enough is Enough reported yesterday:
Throughout the entire city of Hamburg police were looking for international activists in hostels and at train stations. Reportedly the authorities were especially looking for Italian and French protesters while also looking for Kurdish flags. Already during the big rally about 15 Italians had been arrested, inclunding a member of the European Parliament.
According to the G20 legal team’s knowledge, orders for arrest were issued against 15 people, 28 remain in preventive custody. Some of the detainees were transferred to the prisons in Billwerder and Hanöversand. Despite the available capacities, cells at the detention centre in Harburg were overbooked without any necessity. Certain cells were occupied by eight rather than the intended five inmates. The temperature in the cells was at 35°C. Despite previous announcements the detainees were not allocated climatised cells. Some of them reported that they only received two slices of bread over the course of 24 hours.
As of today, the “cleanup” is in full swing, with a social media event similar to the “cleanup” which took place after the London riots in 2011 with hundreds of middle-class worthies striving to erase all evidence that a break from business as usual took place.
And the aftermath?
There are, broadly, and with a lot of crossover, two schools of thought in the anarchist movement about summit confrontations.
One, often with a more insurrectionary bent, looks upon events such as these as key to the process of building direct action dissent, violent or no, as a norm and mobilising particularly the young to break with the stifling process of growing up and old under State and capital.
The other is less enamoured of the “summit hopping” spectacle, arguing that while such breaks offer adrenaline and excitement, inspiring some, they often divide and alienate others. They provide a sort of training experience for the forces of control, and a boogie man for the elites to foist on the populace. They certainly aren’t events at which everyone can attend or feel safe.
Both are, to a more or lesser extent and according to circumstance, true. The examples of both G20 and recent events in the US, which have for the first time in a generation lifted the terms “ancom” and “antifa” to the spotlight, remind us that the spectacular can crash through otherwise carefully-guarded media gates and force anarchist politics into the broad public sphere. Many people very much are radicalised by observing and participating in such events. Cracking the polished veneer of bourgeois society and showing the police up as the limited machine that it is can build confidence in rebellion where there was none before. In that sense Hamburg represents perhaps the greatest success of the insurrectionist ideal in recent memory, at least in Europe.
But equally, Hamburg was a set-piece which scared people. The vast numbers of people on social media all over the world who observed it were, often, having their experience mediated by preconceptions, by the shrieking condemnations splashed on every paper and news front page — and sometimes simply by the understandable view that property destruction doesn’t just affect rich people. For many who weren’t in Hamburg (and for many who were), what happened seemed less a victory for dissent over the police State than a burning symbol of anarchists and chaos. As a method of making a point and building a movement, this sword has razor edges.
In the days to come there will be many arrests, a crying need for solidarity and a crushing effort by the enraged State to destroy those who humiliated it and stripped it of the myth of invincibility. There will be condemnation, and in today’s media environment a temporary rush for comment on What The Anarchists Want. Dangers and opportunities. Let us hope the latter outweigh the former.
It’s certainly not been boring.