Of politics, press and protest: Young Germans try to make sense of what happened in Hamburg and the G20
The gathering of influential statesmen in Hamburg in the first week of July could have been a significant symbol as the world’s leaders met in person to discuss and solve global issues. But for Hamburg, the event proved quite different.
Instead of reiterating success and global cooperation between leaders as different as Trump and Merkel, and Putin and Macron, the meeting in Hamburg raised many questions. For several nights, violent clashes between police, protesters and rioters left the city in uproar.
Security concerns over hosting the summit in one of the most densely populated areas in Germany were voiced long before the event took place. Hamburg, a city of 1.8 million residents and the birthplace of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is one of the wealthiest German cities. In 2015, the city voted against bidding to host the Olympics in 2024. It is known for its counter-cultural protests (presumably due to its maritime history), and, despite the city’s wealth, there is a strong anti-establishment culture and a tradition of violent May Day riots.
The Schanzenviertel neighborhood in specific is known for its left-wing tradition. “Hosting the summit here is irresponsible to me,” local student Michael Schott, 25, said. “We as local citizens had a pretty good idea of what extent the backlash could reach. If it had been a referendum like they did for the Olympics, I am sure that we would have voted against it.”
Fuel was added to fire when police decided on an assembly ban within a 38-square kilometer zone in reaction to the growing number of registered protest marches. A police force of 20,000 was set to patrol the city during the summit on Friday and Saturday. Indeed, not all protests were violent. A group of performance artists, for example, walked the streets covered in gray paint to draw attention to political apathy.
But on Friday, July 6, violent clashes erupted between protesters and police with both sides claiming that they were provoked by unnecessary and violent behavior. A protest march called “Welcome to Hell” was stopped because an estimated 3,500 masked members of the Black Bloc, an anarchist group known for violence against the police, were among the 12,000 protesters. Water cannons and pepper spray were used to disperse the crowd. Afterward, cars were torched and shop fronts smashed in Schanzenviertel, home to many people who marched over the course of the summit.
On July 8, 50,000 people joined a peaceful protest march called “Borderless solidarity,” while a smaller protest march, “Hamburg shows attitude” of an estimated 5,000 participants, marched for different reasons like freedom of the press, gender equality and sustainability.
In the evening hours of July 8, violence and massive damage to properties continued until the next day with uncontrolled masks riots that only stopped when armed police forces were deployed.
Meanwhile, world leaders attending the summit stayed in Elbphilarmonie, a prestigious concert venue, and listened to a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The riots continued until the evening hours of Sunday, long after the summit participants had left the city.
Facts on who provoked whom and how many people from both police, protesters and rioters were injured by the events are hard to find. It is estimated that roughly 500 policemen were injured while some news sources claimed that it was hard to interpret that data and injuries stemming from dehydration were added to that list. The number of rioters, protesters and unlucky bystanders are hard to calculate, but at least 190 patients were treated due to injuries relating to G20 in local hospitals. The cost of damage is yet to be calculated although the government has pledged to compensate the citizens.
“I wasn’t in Hamburg for the weekend, so I kept calling my family to move my car,” Luca Frein, a 27-year-old Hamburg resident from Schanzenviertel, told Global Young Voices. The coverage of the events in the German press was dominated by violence, while little to no public discussion touched on the content of the summit itself. “It is incredible: 20 world leaders met, yet hardly anyone has any idea of what they decided on,” Frein added. Instead, a new dimension focused on internal policies had dominated by then the public discourse.
Politicians from all parties were quick to condemn the violent protesters but had little common basis on what measures should be taken or what parties were to be blamed. Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière defended the decision to host the event in Hamburg but also stated that “the events surrounding the G20 summit must be a turning point in our view of the leftwing scene’s readiness to use violence.” Jens Spahn, a member of Merkel’s center-conservative party (CDU), said that Germany was “blind in the left eye,” implying that too much focus was on right-wing extremists and that negligent behavior from the major opposing party (SPD) had added to this.
Politicians, the press, the police and protest organizers were quick to shift the blame. Some politicians called for the need to hold a joint European database for all sorts of political extremists.
“One newspaper claimed that the city was close to civil war. I find such a comment quite distasteful,” Frein said. “I doubt that all these rioters are part of an extremist left-wing. It seemed to me as if the majority was happy to exchange any ideology, right or left, for pure interest in destruction and violence. This has become such a black and white issue. Criticizing the police does not mean supporting violence.”
A differentiation between the different group may be hard but will be necessary to fully understand what happened. “What struck me were the comments on social media, especially Facebook, with this bunch of right-wing posts,” Naomi Wolf, an Ethics major, said. “It seemed as if people hadn’t even read the articles they were commenting on, instead stating that it was time to shift the focus to left-wing terror. There was no constructive discourse. Obviously, Facebook isn’t known to foster that, but I feel that the media should watch out for a better moderation technique, to do their best to support an open atmosphere of discourse.”
Members of the press were also actively involved in conflict. Police officers controlling the venues were photographed with a black list, a document containing names of journalists (some from renowned newspaper) that were denied entry, thus effectively losing their accreditation. It is also unclear whether the information that these decisions were based on came from foreign intelligence services, as some of these journalists had previously reported on Turkey. Some journalists said that they felt targeted by the police during the riots even when specifically showing that they were there as observers.
“Now, in the aftermath, the most important aspect is the criminal persecution of those individuals. I firmly believe and understand that it was impossible for the police to protect the whole city,” Oscar Seinfeld, a 26-year-old political science major from Hamburg, said. “But there must now be at least a consistent effort to prosecute instead of just holding the entire left-wing as well as the opposition accountable.”
While officials, politicians, the police and the press continue to argue about who’s responsible, residents of the city took matters in their own hand. Volunteering protesters and local residents helped to clean up the street and restore store fronts, but no matter how resilient the city may be, it will likely take much more than cleaning to calm the wider political turmoil.
Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV