This article was written shortly after the occurrences in Hamburg. We cannot bring in all of the impressions this day has left us with and maybe others will draw different analytical consequences, which we look forward to reading and discussing. Our main aim is to try to explain the events from our antinational, anticapitalist perspective here in Germany, especially for our international comrades, who asked about information and who cannot follow everything due to language barriers.
On Saturday, the police attacked and stopped a big autonomous demonstration called in defence of the social centre ”Rote Flora” in Hamburg. The heaviest riots we have seen in years lasted the whole day and night, hundreds were injured or taken into custody. The organisers speak of a “political scandal”; the media discuss violence, the meaning of the constitutional right to assemble and violations against it by the police; for the radical movement, this further criminalisation of vital social struggles (coming after Blockupy 2012 for example) show that the front lines against state and capital might be hardening.
Who was calling for what?
Several organizations and initiatives called for demonstrations on Saturday which were all politically connected. The initiative for the asylum right of refugees, the “Lampedusa-Group“, called – as they have done frequently in the last few weeks – for an antiracist demonstration. This initiative has to be seen in the context of the refugees struggle, which has been taking place in Germany for a few years now. In Hamburg, it has created a large and vibrant political dynamic and drawn the supportive attention of various section of society, from the autonomous milieu to students and liberals.
A “right to the city”-initiative also called to gather and to protest, in particular against the eviction of the so called “Esso-Houses“, an old housing complex in Hamburg-St.Pauli with a few over 100 housing units, stores, clubs etc. This housing unit was sold to investors in 2009 who directly said that they wanted to bulldoze these buildings and create new, more profitable estates. The houses were evicted only six days before the demonstration, last Sunday (15th December)! The slogan of the protests that day was “Right to city does not know any borders”, this made clear the link to the antiracist struggle.
The biggest demonstration was expected by the initiative for saving the Rote Flora, the legendary autonomous centre in the gentrified district “Schanzenviertel” in Hamburg. The Flora has been threatened by eviction for some years now. Occasionally the owner clarifies how hardline he is and that there is now a discussion about the need for eviction. The situation of the Flora – one of the autonomous centres which refused to negotiate with the city administration and chose a strategy of resistance – is one of the most important symbols of the “right to the city” initiative not only in Hamburg, but in Germany. Furthermore, refugees around the Lampedusa-Group are in intense exchange with the alternative-autonomous scene around the Flora. All the issues for the day can be seen as being crystallised in the Flora demonstration (racism, exclusion from city development). The other demonstrations and assemblies wanted to join the Flora-Demonstration, which was set for the Saturday afternoon. Important to mention is also a strong support from the mobilization by antifascist groups.
The days before
The mobilisation had massive effects. Not only because of the traditionally large representation of the autonomous movement in Germany that comes together at the Flora-demonstrations, but because of the links between the topics described above, which are at the moment most relevant to the radical left in Hamburg. But the mobilization did not stay German wide. Many people from Europe, mostly from the autonomous scene, travelled to Hamburg. An aggressive demonstration was expected.
Politicians, local press and the police built the ideological groundwork for its total-escalation strategy in the days before the demo by playing on people’s fears in the media; Hamburg should be “worried about the city, which is in danger of being burnt down completely“, local press said.. The large crowds of christmas shoppers had to be protected. The police expected 6000 demonstrators, amongst them 3000 “ready for violence”. The eviction of the Esso-Houses in the days before heightened the tension. The police mobilized aggressively, including bringing in specialist riot police units from all over Germany.
On Friday, the police declared the zone of the inner city (St Pauli is not strictly in the inner city, so it was not included directly) as a “danger zone”. You can understand it as a temporary “state of exception”: anybody can be stopped, controlled and taken into custody with little reason needed. This “danger-zone” method is unusual in Germany and its last large use was during the Blockupy-protests in 2012 in Frankfurt. Last time this provoked huge amounts of popular outrage. With tensions rising, the organizers of the antiracist demonstration feared violent dynamics, especially provocated by the cops and replaced their demonstration with a rally instead.
Also on Friday, after an FC St.Pauli football match, a group of about 300 persons organised a spontaneous demonstration to the Reeperbahn (in the “Red-Light-District” close to Flora) and smashed the police station there with stones and paint bombs. The building and several police cars were damaged
Saturday: Warzone Hamburg
This added even more wood to the fire. Hours before the Flora demonstration started, the police had a massive presence in the area. Helicopters, riot police everywhere, 12 water cannons and a lot of tanks against barricades. People were stopped and taken into custody even before they could demonstrate. In the public many have said that this was necessary, especially because of the attack on the police station the night before. Most of the local media did not see these arrests as being a problem.
At about 2:30 pm the first speeches began, but the demo did not move yet. The police say 6000, press about 8000 and the organizers 10000 came together in the end. The demonstration only walked some meters (most people did not even start moving) before the front rows were stopped by the police brutally and without any warning. First there was some skirmish, and then the police fired the water cannon directly into the front rows. After that, stones, bottles, and fireworks were thrown at the police. All in all, after 30 minutes the police said the demonstration was now over.
The “official reason” varies between two versions. The first being that the demonstration started violently and too early. This is as ridiculous as it sounds, so another version popped up: just at the beginning some people threw stones from a bridge at the police. This is more realistic. Or is it?
Take above video, which documents how the demonstration was stopped. First it shows that there was no attack from the demo till the cops stopped it. In this image from the bridge, where the stones were supposed to be thrown, it becomes clear, that the train traffic is still rolling and with the exception of some photographers and spectators no people (I.E. possible stonethrowers) are to be found on this bridge.
The official reason for stopping this demo is extremely poor and it hints to the fact, that this early stopping was pre-planned. As well as attacking the front of the demonstration another riot police unit stormed the back of the demo, where the creative Right to the City bloc was situated. The police co-ordinated attacks on both sides.
The demo was over even before it started properly. Heavy rioting began, barricades were built. The Police used batons, pepper spray and a lot of water from those cannons, which were said to have been filled with chemicals. Even if not, the cold water, combined with the freezing weather and the high pressure with which it is shot make them extremely uncomfortable and dangerous. The cops kettled some thousand people in a big area close to the Flora.)
Even people living in the houses nearby who were not part of the demonstration could not get in and out of their homes. After two hours the police opened the kettle and people were free to go. The big group dispersed, a lot of smaller groups were trying to reach the Esso-Houses, which were seen as one destination to go to. Spontaneous demonstrations of many groups and further fights occurred on many spots. The inner city was not reachable, but many areas, including the large Reeperbahn avenue were completely blocked by the police.
During the day, about 500 demonstrators were injured, some badly. Probably 300 were taken into custody, 19 charged. The police reported 117 injuries to their officers. We know about how these numbers are produced and expanded but this image of an uncosciousness cop show about the high levels of violence from the day. Furthermore, the press report large levels of damage to property, including party bureaus of the governing Social-Democrats, banks and luxury hotels.
The big, legal and authorised demo never happened due to police escalation. They do not even put this into question, just claiming that it was unavoidable because of the violence. Local and regional press have hardly criticised the strategy of the police, mostly they believe the fairytale about the attacks on the police before the demonstration from the bridge or the front rows and therefore the necessity to never let this rally happen.
What does this event mean politically? How should we understand it? One mainstream argument, mainly pushed by the (left-)liberal press about the meaning of constitutional rights is a popular argument; This is the third time (after Blockupy 2012 and 2013) that large, nationwide protests from the left and radical left have been declared illegal and dispersed. Despite the fact that about 90% of all Nazi-demos are made possible by brutality against antifascists because it is “the constitutional right of the Nazis” to demonstrate. It seems some have more of a constitutional right than others. Nonetheless, this debate is accompanied by discussion about violence at demonstrations, which in many cases prevents widespread solidarity from German civil society towards anticapitalists who are being successfully criminalised.
This liberal outrage about the right to assemble can be taken as a discursive push against authority. The radical movement, though, should not reduce its arguments to the constitutional level and the book of law. Bourgeoise democracy always has been compatible with massive repression and exceptional actions which are seen to be needed occasionally to guarantee it. In Europe, most recently Spain and Hungary, the rising tendency of exceptional actions (against abortion, migration etc.) are put into “democratically legitimate” forms by passing them as law.
Still, this day could harden the front lines. Every time the German police state shows itself, many already politicized people are confirmed in their (very justified, as the day shows) belief of the impossibility of making peace with the state and become more radicalized. The ideological, German interpretation of “democracy” became obvious that same evening: as the official 8pm-news celebrated the freedom of Russian opposition activists, who fit neatly into their understandings of “Freedom” (of market and surplus production) and “Wealth” (for those who can be used for state and capital and therefore “earn” it), the demonstration in Hamburg was attacked brutally and was not even reported about.
Not out of the blue
But it would be naïve to believe that this development is a total surprise. It is rather the result of the ongoing criminalization and political defamation process against social struggles in Germany. Two central topics of the (radical) Left at the moment – which also were central in Hamburg on that weekend – are refugee and antiracist struggles and those surrounding housing . On these issues, the Left – despite the mistakes one can assert – could receive relatively more acceptance from civil society than usual. The central slogans are “No Borders”, “the City belongs to everyone” and “International Solidarity”.
Take the interventions against racist crisis discourse. By the slogan “We are here because you destroy our countries” the refugee-activists make clear, that the crisis is not to be personalized and projected on them, but should be seen as a crisis of the international capitalist system, its world market and its accumulation dynamics. The same can be said about the housing struggles. For years now, especially in Berlin and Hamburg, but increasingly spreading, initiatives get active and build up a good public standing without necessarily hiding a radical (i.e. revolutionary, anticapitalist) critique. They make clear that current city planning is not for those people who live in that city and need a roof above their heads, but for capital interests and against any imagination of a reasonable society. Living space is not treated as a need for everyone, but as a commodity which is commercialized at every cost.
These struggles and their message question and negate the strong national hegemony of austerity as current crisis management. In a time where Europe is building its fortress even higher to prevent migration with dramatic results and in a place where people are kicked out of their apartments because they cannot afford it and face the risk of homelessness and death, these are topics, where the radical Left in Germany (and beyond) with its radical critique can reach more people than usual.
These two struggles show, that the crisis is also in Germany and was never out of it. No state is immune to the everyday crisis of capitalism. The message is clear: the whole country – as depicted in the ideological national narrative – is not the “winner of the crisis”, but only some classes and groups and only by exploiting more heavily the others – within or outside national borders. Activists from all over Germany and beyond came together to express this critique in Hamburg and they were harshly criminalized and attacked, maybe on a new level we have not seen before. There was even hardly the well-known distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” protestors in Hamburg. This police action was a decision by the local, social-democratic government in Hamburg. But this policing method is not unique to Germany and not to be distinguished by local governments – be it conservative (as in Frankfurt against Blockupy), green and/or social-democratic.
In Europe and beyond
Seen in a European context the ruthless attack on the demonstration is no singularity. Repression, criminalization and political defamation are problems that radicals all over Europe and beyond have to face. Counterinsurgency, not only as a practical method on the street but also as a political act, is not just a national affair; secret services and police forces across Europe are in intense exchange. The German police are well known for their tactics but we are also seeing more authoritarian police responses in the UK, Greece and beyond. So the tactics we faced in Hamburg do not only concern us, but are common problems for social movements in other countries as well.
Links and Media
Photos on flickr: pm_cheung, boeseraltemann, presseservice_rathenow