Hamburg G20: the revival or death of street protest – a pre-game analysis

The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, to give its full name, is a proud and reserved place with good reasons to rank among the world’s global cities, yet remains markedly modest about it.  I have lived here nearly ten years and learned to love its quirks and respect its traditions.  I was quite disappointed when in November 2015 a citywide referendum rejected a bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.  Hamburg has the wealth, the infrastructure and the space to host, so why not flaunt it?  The majority sentiment, however, was that it would be too much hassle, too expensive, would bring too many tourists and too much traffic.  I found this sad and petty reasoning for a city that labelled itself as “The Gateway to the World”.  Imagine my surprise, then, when Hamburg was chosen to stage the biggest and most divisive political summit of modern times – an undertaking far more disruptive to inhabitants than any sporting event.

From July 7th to 8th, the leaders of the G20 nations will descend on Hamburg along with their thousands of advisers and security teams.  Twenty thousand police, drafted in from all parts of Germany, will secure the perimeters of two exclusion zones around the conference center and the new Elbphilharmonie.  The entire city of nearly two million people will be a no-congregating zone, river traffic in the country’s largest port will be stopped and border checks reinstated.  Schools and the city university will close, as well as hundreds of companies located in or between the exclusion zones.  Hamburgers, mostly skeptical on the issue of the summit, speak of it as if awaiting an imminent asteroid strike and anguish over whether to stay at home or flee for fear of street violence or looting.

What makes this G20 especially divisive is its ever-expanding composition of wannabe-autocrats, particularly the freshly emboldened triumvirate of the mutually-admiring Trump, Putin and Erdogan.  These are the three figures who are transforming our world, many would say into an uglier place, and here they are together in one spot at the same time, for the first time.  Throw in King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who has booked the entire 150-room luxury Four Seasons hotel for himself and his consort, and what you have is an extremely inviting, and pertinent, focus for protest.  Perhaps, even, the single most important protest opportunity of the year.  With the conference center sandwiched between Germany’s best-known left-scene districts of Sternschanze and St. Pauli and one of its oldest gay communities of St. Georg, one has to question: why here, of all places?  Add the vast number of Turkish, Kurdish, Russian, Ukrainian and even American émigrés living in the city and it all just seems bonkers.  On the other hand, to give the most cynical view, it could very well be an intentional choice of location in order to assert dominance over diversity of opinion.

Nobody can determine how many protesters will travel to Hamburg from other parts.  Estimates range from several tens of thousands to two hundred thousand.  What is known is that police expect that out of this number there will be at least several thousand “hardcore troublemakers”.  Preparations have been underway for some months, including the building of new razor-wire clad holding centers for detainees.  Local businesses throughout the city have plywood covering for their windows on stand-by, though few will admit it, waiting to see whose reserve among their neighbours will crack first before the protective panelling goes up.  Because, when the time comes, where there is trouble, there will be broken windows.

Image: Police vans keep close tabs on the Rote Flora, a left-wing activist hub just 800 meters from the conference center.

Modern protest, however, has become an almost futile display of frustration, where participants are hemmed in and led down prescribed routes and, paradoxically and infuriatingly, ignored unless there are a few broken windows.  From the brutal police violence at the Seattle anti-WTO protest in 1999 to the calm filming and later public humiliation of those who took part in the London student protests of 2010, anyone in their right mind would be discouraged from exercising the right to protest.  Up until our very recent past, protest has been an integral part of politics and ushered in many critical changes: the black civil rights movement in the U.S., English people taking to the streets to reject the poll tax and the quiet revolutions that swept across the failing Soviet states, among many examples.  To outlaw protest due to minor, replaceable property damage would be similar to banning the internet over a couple of trolls.  Where the right to protest is violently suppressed, such as happened in Northern Ireland, resistance goes underground and turns ugly.  But all this reasoning is lost on organizers and the authorities alike.

Police tactics have evolved and crowd control has become a science to such an extent that protest has now nearly completely ceased to be effective.  On the 15th of February 2003, tens of millions marched in over 60 countries in opposition to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, to date the largest coordinated peace protest in history.  In response, George W. Bush, with his trademark wry smirk, stated that he would not be swayed by a “focus group” (1).  But those who take to the streets for their convictions represent only a small fraction of those who feel the same but can’t be bothered.  To kill off any lingering inclination to protest: at this year’s presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, some 200 protesters were “kettled” into a street, beaten, and now face prison sentences of up to 80 years for treason (2).  Again, only some windows were broken.

Protest has been made impotent to such an extent that the one city-sanctioned demonstration in Hamburg does not even take place within 5 days of the summit itself (3).  Astoundingly, its organizers have advised participants not to sit down on the day.  Sitting down, the most passive of all protest, championed by Gandhi, is now considered a provocation.  Here is the level to which the public have been brow-beaten in the name of “safety concerns”.  Civil disobedience, it very much seems, is a dead art.  But there are petitions, and people are encouraged to express themselves on these virtual platforms, so policy makers can duly ignore them as it suits them, while signees allow themselves the smug feeling of having done something.  Even Caesar was more answerable to his people than most modern politicians.

Alternative to the family-friendly, non-offensive, well-advertised decoy-protest planned 5 days before the Hamburg summit, there will be a wide array of unsanctioned protests during the summit itself.  These will involve groups of all persuasions and from many if not most corners of Europe and the world.  Some protests aim to get the message through by causing mayhem, such as the “Welcome to Hell” riots planned by the infamous “Black Block” on the opening night.  Most protesters, however, are average folk who take the personal time, effort and expense to come and try to make a difference, often representative of groups or communities and bearing earnest and important ideas.  There are plenty of productive and relevant talking points: the climate, refugees, inequality, war….  But the official delegates will not hear a thing through the kilometer deep police cordon.  Given the lineup for this summit, they will be more interested in themselves and jostle, or as is the new trend, shove their way to front position.

I have two days of work disrupted due to this summit, and as a freelancer I am out of pocket for those days.  I am rather annoyed about this inconvenience which is all for the sake of some delicate egos.  My university lectures and some private classes have been cancelled.  Some of my students will be involved in protest, some leaving the city.  I will not be attending, nor will I be fleeing, opting instead to stay put in my home, which is near the city centre but not in the area of planned action.  I will be setting up a safe-zone for my foreign students and friends who want to avoid the chaos and we will drink beers and barbecue in the garden.  I am not protesting because I know it is futile, just as much as petition signing, (- there must be another way!).  I applaud anyone who has the bravery to protest in this current climate, it really must take balls.  I am there with them in spirit.  But my priorities lie with my family, friends and students and their safety.  What might unfold over those days in July is a resurgence of direct action, or the death knell of protest.  We’ll see what plays out.  I’m unhappy that this has to be on my doorstep.  I will be watching closely, and nearby, ready to help.

Additionally, there is no question that German police are among the most competent and professional in the world – they are expert in de-escalating situations.  There is also little doubt that the protesters, a few broken windows and stopped or damaged cars (“things”) asides, will not hurt anyone (“people”).  What is unpredictable is certain trigger-happy security details, such as Erdogan’s, who only recently in Washington D.C. beat the living crap out of U.S. citizens while local police looked on (4).  The guard dogs of autocrats only understand violence, and only know that response with absolute impunity.  With such forces converging, there is a major risk that this event will not pass without unfortunate incident.  But it is the people of Hamburg who will bear the brunt at the end of the day, in cost and in the reputation of their city, which may come out of this badly bruised.  All this supports the argument that it would be easier for us all, and no doubt cheaper, to build an artificial island in the middle of the Atlantic for similar events in future.  I mean, if we can’t speak to or influence these leaders anyway, what difference does it make if they’re on a raft?