Did the G20 Shutdown Point to a New Type of Protest?
It looks like summit demonstrations are catching up to the new economic reality.
Photo by Henry Langston
At 2AM on the morning of Saturday the 1st of July, as world leaders gathered for the 2017 G20 Summit, St Pauli – Hamburg's counter-cultural district – crackled with tension. Through the haze of tear gas, police special forces aimed loaded rifles at crowds of protesters, hoping to intimidate them into dispersing. Warning shots had already been fired by police, who stalked the neighbourhood in their thousands, backed up by water cannons. By 4AM the place looked like a war zone, as helicopters thudded over streets now covered only in sand and broken glass, their paving stones wrenched from the ground by activists to build barricades.
While the rioting dominated international coverage, the intensifying militarisation of Hamburg around the G20 summit largely evaded scrutiny. The standard of repression was described by one German organiser as a "level of police violence not seen in Europe for 30 years". Despite the ferocity of the police aggression, demonstrators managed to enact Europe's first "City Strike" – putting forward an alternative to the corporate agenda of the G20.
Watch – Welcome to Hell: G20 in Hamburg
With over 15,000 police officers deployed to enforce an astonishing 34 sq km exclusion zone around the city-centre summit venues, residents frequently complained of increasing harassment. In an alarming collapse of democratic control, a week prior to G20 the police illegally ignored the decision of Germany's highest court to allow demonstrators to establish a camp in the city. On the night of Monday the 3rd of July, hundreds of riot police stormed the camp with batons and pepper spray, hospitalising several demonstrators and setting the tone for the days to come.
By the Tuesday, even small gatherings around sound-systems were attacked with water cannons. On Thursday, the police repression escalated further, as a peaceful demonstration was savagely attacked after moving just 300 metres, triggering mass panic as gangs of riot police beat through the crowd. Bleeding demonstrators scrambled over three-metre walls amid volleys of batons and pepper-spray to escape the crush. Scores of people were hospitalised – many with broken limbs.
By Friday the 7th, hundreds of police dominated every street, provoking and randomly attacking the crowds. By this point the chant of "Tout le monde déteste la Police" – "the whole world hates the police" – was proving popular. By nightfall the police attacks escalated, finally detonating the volatile situation into an intense confrontation.
Since the election of Donald Trump and his "America First" populism, it has been claimed that Angela Merkel is now "the leader of the free world". Given the scale of the police brutality unleashed in Hamburg this seems contradictory, but makes sense if understood as referring not to democratic freedoms, but free markets: Germany, not the US, is now the leading power in shaping the direction of global capitalism. As governments attempt to fend off renewed economic crises with increasingly unpopular measures, Trump and Merkel appear as two sides of the same coin, sharing a commitment to – along with May, Orbán, Erdogan and others – an authoritarianism that's creeping across Europe and America.
Established by George Bush following the 2008 financial crash, the G20 summit typifies this approach; a meeting of the most powerful political actors who make decisions with minimal democratic control or accountability. The G20 initially poured trillions of pounds into a banking system on the brink of collapse, transferring the wealth out of societies through devastating austerity programmes. Through closed meetings and opaque processes, the G20 has become the central forum for crisis management by Western governments, freezing out the United Nations to emerge as one of the preeminent players on the global economic stage. Advocating policies sculpted by a huge network of corporate lobbyists, the G20's pro-business agenda and exclusion of civil society groups has lead to widespread criticism that interests of wealthy investors are prioritised over basic human rights.
While the Hamburg summit claimed to promote "responsibility, economic security and viability", an investigation by the International Monetary Fund suggests the "structural reforms" on offer will include reducing wages, welfare provision and food subsidies in over 130 countries.
Despite raging inequality and rampant environmental damage – so severe scientists now warn that the "Earth's sixth major extinction event" has already started – the G20's championing of corporate interests ensures that instead of meaningful changes, the decades of neoliberal economics at the centre of our demonstrably failing system are being extended and accelerated. Even the mild-mannered broadsheet, Der Spiegel, damned the summit as "farce", saying:
"one can understand the wrath with which demonstrators are protesting […] the group meeting here is an exclusive club mostly interested in preserving a creaking system of financial market-driven capitalism."
The future plans for the neoliberal project agreed at the G20 – or, as the G20 prefers to call it, globalisation – are centred on transforming the power of nation-states and the reach of markets. As corporations move freely around the world, nation-states are increasingly unable to legally bind international entities to one country. The G20's latest "Africa Partnership" is indicative of how globalisation is extended; claiming to "mobilise private investment […] to seize African economic opportunities", Oxfam warns the policies will ignore local communities in a "race to the bottom" which lines the pockets of investors.
The G20 is itself a symptom of the declining power of nation-states, established precisely because no one country could address the globalised nature of the 2008 crisis. If the G20 was specifically formed to manage a crisis, how can we influence markets when things are running relatively "normally"?
At 7AM on Friday, the crowd flowing out of the S-Bahn station began hastily donning ponchos, transforming into a sea of hundreds of red bodies surging towards the Port of Hamburg. From multiple locations thousands descended on specific pinch points, chanting "Everything for Everyone". Soon, every major road and rail route out of the port was blockaded, leaving a stream of brightly emblazoned shipping containers helplessly waiting in traffic jams over a mile long.
Shipping is so important to the world economy that the Financial Times uses shipping volumes to warn of impending crisis. Any blockage in the logistical network rapidly causes severe and expensive disruption; if the Port of Felixstowe were to shut for just three days, it's thought many of Britain's factories would be forced to close.
With logistical processing increasingly concentrated in large centres, the potential for blockades to exert political leverage is huge. For six hours, nothing moved in or out: the Port of Hamburg had been shut down, the disruption presumably resulting in a costly afternoon. The organisers of the action – Ums Ganze and Beyond Europe – said the blockades proved that "if we tighten the right screws and break the right circuits, we can show how vulnerable this complex system is". The demonstrators carried giant inflatable Tetris cubes reading "Game Over Capitalism".
The blockades didn't just occur at the port, they followed the logistical trail to the city itself. Heeding a call to skive off work and join the City Strike, thousands of demonstrators formed blockades across Hamburg. Mobile pickets flooded the roads around the airport, creating havoc for arriving delegates. Meanwhile, outside the summit venues, throngs of people clutching umbrellas faced down water cannons to besiege key access routes into the exclusion zone – disbanding under police attack only to spontaneously re-emerge at another intersection. This delayed the summit by several hours, preventing key attendees reaching the venues and even trapping Melania Trump inside her hotel, eventually forcing the military to extract world leaders by helicopter.
On Friday night, in Hamburg's new concert hall, the leaders sat awkwardly through Beethoven's Ode To Joy as, just a few hundred metres away, the police could be seen firing tear gas to keep back the crowds – an unwittingly poetic metaphor for the disconnection between the elites and struggle of society. Reinforcements were called in from across Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland – backed up by over 50 high-tech water-cannons – and enforcing some of the most vicious police brutality I have ever seen.
As the riots against the repression erupted in St Pauli, the swelling crowds forced the police to withdraw under an avalanche of missiles. Throughout Friday and Saturday, large parts of Hamburg would become police-free zones, as hundreds of decentralised actions combined into a collective articulation of power capable of defending territory across the city. Two-hundred-thousand people marched on the summit, demanding international solidarity and an urgent departure from the G20's policies. Despite claims to the contrary, the summit accepted a 2ºC target for global warming – widely considered catastrophic – along with weak and inconclusive outcomes on key global issues. Images of the demonstrations overshadowed the summit, much to the humiliation of Angela Merkel.
If previous G20 demonstrations had focused on the summit themselves, then Hamburg represents a qualitatively new mode of action: responding to how the nature of political power has changed in its logistical, economic and territorial forms. Trump and Brexit threaten the ideological coherence of the G20 – Trumpish protectionism contrasting with Merkel's globalisation. The leaders are intellectually bankrupt and ideologically divided. If we want to inherit a future beyond ecological catastrophe and collapsing living standards, we will have to work together to fight for it. The success of the Hamburg City Strike – in unifying logistical blockades, strikes in the workplace and holding territory in the face of intense oppression – demonstrates we can build the power we need to change our lives for the better. A consensus is already forming: the barricades may close the streets, but they open the way.