We saw you last night among thousands of other anti-Trump demonstrators around the US. Their signs proclaimed, “No one is above the law.” You were the one with the sign reading “I love laws.” We need to talk.
Really, this is what gets you into the streets? Trump’s goons have been kidnapping your neighbors, preparing to block your access to abortion, openly promoting “nationalism,” calling the targets for lone wolf assassins who send mail bombs and shoot up synagogues—and your chief concern is whether what they’re doing is legal?
And if Trump and his cronies were to change the laws—what then?
If you’re trying to establish the foundation for a powerful social movement against Trump’s government, “no one is above the law” is a self-defeating narrative. What happens when a legislature chosen by gerrymander passes new laws? What happens when the courts stacked with the judges Trump appointed rule in his favor? What will you do when the FBI cracks down on protests?
If everything that put Trump in a position to implement his agenda were legal, would you be at peace with it, then? When some nice centrist politician takes office after him, but the police keep enforcing the policies he introduced and the judges he appointed keep judging, will you withdraw from the streets? Come to think of it, where were you under Obama when people were being imprisoned and deported by the million? Perhaps you have no problem with millions of people being imprisoned and deported as long as no one colludes with Russia or talks over a journalist?
We saw other protesters with signs entreating us to “Save Democracy.” Didn’t democracy inflict Trump on us in the first place? Isn’t it democracy that just brought Bolsonaro to power in Brazil—a racist, sexist, and homophobic advocate of the Brazilian military dictatorship and extrajudicial killings? If democracy enables outright fascists to legitimize their authority rather than having to seize power by force, what’s so great about it, exactly?
If “no one is above the law,” that means the law is above all of us. It means that the law—any law, whatever law happens to be on the books—is more valuable than our dearest desires, more righteous than our most honorable aspirations, more important than our most deep-seated sense of right and wrong. This way of thinking prizes group conformity over personal responsibility. It is the kiss of death for any movement that aims to bring about change.
Social change has always involved illegal activity—from the American Revolution to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, from the sit-in movement to the uprising in Ferguson. If not for the courageous deeds of people who were willing to break the law, we’d still be living under the king of England. Many of us would still be enslaved.
That is what makes your cheerleading for the FBI so chilling. You’re familiar with COINTELPRO, presumably, and many of the other ways that the FBI has set out to crush movements for social change? Imagine that your best-case scenario plays out and the FBI helps to orchestrate Donald Trump’s removal from power. What do you think that the FBI would do with all the legitimacy that would give them in the eyes of liberals and centrists? It would have carte blanche to intensify its attacks on poor people, people of color, and protesters, destroying the next wave of social movements before they can get off the ground. Nothing could be more naïve than to imagine that the FBI will focus on policing the ruling class.
The greatest peril we face is that Trump’s government will be replaced by a centrist government that will continue most of the current administration’s policies without violating any rules or norms. The more Trump’s regime is described as exceptional, the easier it will be for the next administration to get away with the same activities. In the long run, the system is at its most dangerous when it does not outrage people.
Mobilizing to support an FBI Director in response to the firing of one of the most racist Attorney Generals in living memory—this is the same “lesser of two evils” argument some have made for voting taken to its logical extreme; this approach guarantees that we will be reduced to advocating for the second worst of all possible evils. Firing Jeff Sessions helps Trump evade Mueller’s investigation, yes, but let’s be clear—men like Sessions, Trump, and Mueller do the most harm in the course of carrying out their official duties in strict observation of the law.
What Gives the Law Legitimacy in the First Place?
In the feudal era, when kingly authority was thought to be bequeathed by God and laws were decreed by kings, it was at least internally consistent to hold that everyone had a sacred duty to obey them. Today, this assumption lingers as a sort of holdover—yet without any rational basis. Certainly, the law decrees that no one is above it, but that’s just circular reasoning. What obliges us to regard laws as more valid then our own personal ethics?
Partisans of democracy like to imagine that laws arise because of their general utility to the population as a whole. On the contrary, for most of the history of the state, laws were decreed by monarchs and dictatorships—and only existed on account of their utility to rulers. Sovereignty itself is a fundamentally monarchist metaphor. If we no longer believe in the divine right of kings, that undermines any inherent claim that laws could have on our obedience. Rather than blindly complying, we have a responsibility to decide for ourselves how we should act. To cite Hannah Arendt, “No one has the right to obey.”
The law masquerades as a sort of social contract existing for everyone’s benefit. But if it’s really in everyone’s best interest, why is it so hard to get people to abide by it? The truth is, neither the powerful nor the oppressed have ever had good cause to obey laws—the former because the same privileges that enable them to write the laws release them from the necessity of observing them, the latter because the laws were not established for their benefit in the first place. It shouldn’t be surprising that a billionaire like Trump does not obey the laws. What’s surprising is that you still think that the rest of us ought to.
What’s the difference between the illegal activity of a Donald Trump and the illegal activity of a person who engages in civil disobedience? If “no one is above the law,” then they’re both equally in the wrong. No, the real distinction between them is that one is acting for selfish gain while the other is attempting to create a more egalitarian society. This is the important question—whether our actions serve to reproduce hierarchies or undermine them. We should focus on this question, not on whether any given action is legal.
What we are seeing today is the fracturing of our society. The peace treaties that stabilized capitalism through the second half of the 20th century are collapsing, and members of the ruling class are adopting rival strategies to weather the crises ahead. On one side, nationalists like Trump are betting on chauvinism and brute force, preparing to make the best of it as society splinters into warring groups. On the other side, centrist technocrats want to present themselves as the only imaginable alternative, using the specter of Trump and his kind to justify their own quest for authority. When they get back into office, you can bet that they won’t turn down any additional power that Trump has vested in the state. Your advocacy for “the rule of law” is music to their ears. And, of course, whatever additional power and legitimacy they concentrate in the state will be passed on to the next Trump, the next Bolsonaro.
Each side aims to instrumentalize the discourse of law and order in order to outflank the other in the battle for power. This isn’t new; it’s as old as the state itself. Immediately after the confirmation of Kavanaugh, you’re a sucker to imagine that the law represents some sort of social consensus rather than the edicts of whoever happens to control the institutions. To fetishize obedience to the law is to accept that might makes right.
To march under the banner “no one is above the law” is to spit in the faces of all those for whom the daily functioning of the law is an experience of oppression and injustice. It is to reject solidarity with the sectors of society that could give a social movement against Trump leverage in the streets. It is to assert the political center as a discrete entity that holds itself apart—that views both Trump and the social movements that oppose him as rivals to its own power. Finally, it is to legitimize the very instrument of oppression—the law—that Trump will eventually use to suppress your movement. Remember “Lock her up”?
You have to ask yourself some important questions now. Do you love laws—or justice? Do you love rights—or freedom?
If it’s laws you believe in, you’re on the right track. Just don’t have any illusions about what it means to value the law above everything else. If it’s justice you want, on the other hand, you need to be prepared to break the law. In that case, you need a totally different narrative to explain what you’re doing.
If it’s rights you’re after, you’ll need a government to grant them, protect them, and—inevitably—take them away when it sees fit. Whenever you use the discourse of rights, you set the stage for this to occur. There are no rights without a sovereign to bestow them. On the other hand, if you love freedom, rather than vesting legitimacy in the government, you’d better make common cause with everyone else who has a stake in collectively defending themselves against invasive efforts to impose authority, whether from Trump or his Democratic rivals.
From the anarchist perspective, all of us are above the law. Our lives are more precious than any legal document, any court decision, any duty decreed by the state. No social contract drawn up in the halls of power could provide a basis for mutually fulfilling egalitarian relations; we can only establish those on our own terms, working together outside any framework of imposed responsibilities. The law is not our salvation; it is the first and greatest crime.
A year ago, the Russian Federal Security Service—the FSB—initiated a wave of repression, arresting and brutally torturing anarchists in order to force them to sign false statements admitting to participating in a supposed terrorist group invented by the Russian authorities. The ensuing crackdowns put tremendous pressure on anarchists around Russia; you can learn more about the cases and solidarity efforts here. Today, a young Russian anarchist died in an attack on the FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk. Below, we present a rough translation of the initial report from Russian anarchists, including the young man’s personal claim of responsibility.
As we have previously emphasized, we don’t believe that individual attacks on specific authority figures will suffice to abolish the institutional power of the state and capitalism. But the Russian state has left precious few alternatives for those who desire a means of bringing about positive change. At the conclusion of a week that has seen a tremendous upswing in authoritarian repression and fascist violence around the world, from Pittsburgh to Brazil, it is time for us to discuss how we can collectively respond to the escalating violence of the state and its fascist supporters.
It also bears mentioning that the FSB is directly descended from the KGB, showing the continuity of oppression between state socialism and capitalism.
We respectfully bid farewell to this young man who took a stand against repression, torture, and deceit, doing the best he could with the few options that were available to him. Let’s organize together to give people like him a reason to live. Please go to the support page for those targeted by the FSB operation.
At 8:52 am, at the entrance to the FSB Directorate for the Arkhangelsk Region, an explosion took place. The anarchist rebel, Zhlobitsky Mikhail Vasilyevich, also known on the app Telegram as Valerian Panov, blew himself up. This is the first case of anarchists carrying out such an attack on the FSB in 19 years; the previous attack was organized in 1999 at the reception of the FSB in Moscow by the New Revolutionary Alternative organization.
The comrade died as a result of the explosion, also causing injuries of varying severity to three officers of the FSB.
Seven minutes before the explosion, Valerian left a message in one of the anarchist chats via Telegram, in which he described the reasons for his action:
Comrades, now in the FSB building in Arkhangelsk there will be a terrorist attack, the responsibility for which I take upon myself. The reasons are clear to you. Since the FSB fabricates cases and tortures people, I decided to go for it. Most likely, I will die because of the explosion, because I have initiated the charge directly by pressing the button attached to the bomb cover. Therefore, you are requested to spread information about the terrorist attack: who committed it and what the reasons were.
Well, sort of like everything. I wish you to go unswervingly and uncompromisingly towards our goal. Light to you, the future of anarchist communism!
We bow our heads before the heroism of our comrade. We were not acquainted in person, but through communication, he left an impression of himself as an intelligent and well-prepared person who was not apathetic, who aspired to go beyond the swamp of the official opposition struggle that is now mainstream.
We are sorry that he had no other choice, no way to do more damage to the enemy with less harm to himself.
Yet be that as it may, he lived as he thought was right, and died as a hero in the struggle for our common ideals.
As the Kurds say—Şehid namirin! Heroes do not die!
In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, fascist proponent of dictatorship and mass killings, has won the election. Who needs a military coup when you use voting to accomplish exactly the same thing? We’ve already explored in detail how the left and centrist parties paved the way for this. From Brazil to France, parties across the political spectrum have lost all pretense of offering any solution to social problems other than escalating state violence. In this context, it’s not surprising that politicians who explicitly represent the police and military are coming to power, as they have become the linchpin of the state itself.
Our hearts go out to our comrades in Brazil, who have already experienced a tremendous amount of state repression and capitalist violence—and will now face far worse. Perhaps the immediate resistance that greeted the election of Donald Trump can serve as a useful reference point. Yet because of the specific ways Brazil is on the receiving end of colonialist violence, the wave of nationalism that has already crested in the United States and Europe will involve considerably more brutal violence there. We call on everyone around the world to prepare to mobilize in solidarity with those who are targeted in the attacks that Bolsonaro has promised to carry out.
As anarchists, we don’t believe that elections grant legitimacy to any ruling party. No election could legitimize police violence, homophobia, racism, or misogyny in our eyes, nor prisons, borders, or the destruction of the natural world on which everyone’s survival depends. No vote could give a mandate to anyone who wants to dominate others. Majority rule is as repugnant to us as dictatorship: both make coercion the fundamental basis of politics.
The important question is not how to improve democracy; fundamentally, democracy is a means of legitimizing governments so that people will accept their impositions, no matter how tyrannical and oppressive those may be. The important question is how to defend each other from the violence of the state; how to find ways to meet our needs that don’t depend on unanimity or coercion; how to collaborate and coexist rather than competing for power. As more and more oppressive regimes take power around the world, we have to have done with our illusions about “good” democratic government and organize to protect each other by any means necessary.
The opposite of fascism is not democracy. The opposition of fascism is freedom; it is solidarity; it is direct action; it is resistance. But it is not democracy. Democracy, yet again, has been the mechanism that brought fascists to power.
Over the past several months, our comrades in Brazil, Greece, and Germany have all published translations of From Democracy to Freedom, our analysis of the common threads that connect democracy and dictatorship. We offer those translations here—in case the Brazilian group’s site unexpectedly goes offline—along with an English translation of the epilogue to the German translation. Our comrades in Germany are also organizing public presentations about the book.
For more on why the democratic movements of 2010-2014 reached an impasse, enabling far-right groups to appropriate their rhetoric and seize the initiative, read this analysis we published ahead of the Swedish elections last month.
Epilogue from the German Publishers
Before this book was published, we presented discussions about democracy together with comrades from the US and Slovenia in autonomous centers around Germany. Although none of the texts in From Democracy to Freedom explicitly deals with the situation in Germany, that does not mean that we have not had quite similar experiences—on the contrary.
A few weeks before the federal election in 2017, a propaganda truck was driving around on behalf of the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. They were distributing baseball caps and candies featuring the Bundesadler, the coat of arms of the Weimar Republic (which is back in service to today’s German government), as well as propaganda films for students about parliamentary democracy. The organizers emphasized how democratic Germany is. This sort of advertising offensive was obviously necessary for a system that has good reason to fear for its own legitimacy.
All parties represented in the Bundestag claim that democracy as one of their central issues. The SPD wants to risk trying more democracy, like Willy Brandt said; the Green party wants to expand democracy; the Left just wants more democracy; Christian Democrats want to strengthen democracy; liberals want to revive democracy; and the racist, neo-fascist AfD presents itself as a party for direct democracy. The entry of the AfD into parliament confirms once again that advocacy for direct democracy is hardly a guarantee of emancipatory politics.
Whatever we do, whatever we demand, we should always make sure to emphasize why we are struggling, so as to protect our ideas and rhetoric from appropriation by conservative or fascist groups who fight for the exact opposite of what we are fighting for.
Those who pursue initiatives for “more” or “real” democracy like to present themselves as courageous or even revolutionary fighters against the prevailing political order—when in fact, they only want another kind of representation. Conferences with names such as “Democracy Needs Movement” are an example of this development. As people who express ourselves uncompromisingly against any form of democracy, we nevertheless spoke there; people raised their eyebrows at us because our positions and goals cannot be implemented in the context of a better democracy.
For many, it is impossible to imagine that there could be anything else. This is one of the problems with democracy: it narrows down what we can imagine.
In anti-capitalist struggles in Berlin, we met people who appeared to believe that making signs with their hands during meetings represented the epitome of revolutionary behavior. Some people told us that the methods of communication and decision-making should take priority over the results. Some didn’t see it as a problem that their chosen form of decision-making resulted in the permanent obstruction of any meaningful form of activity.
All this, because for the first time in their lives, they understood themselves as an important part of an apparatus. We were expected not to destroy this feeling of finally getting it right. We did it anyway.
We tried to adapt to the proposed rules of “non-violent activists” in order to be able to cooperate with them. In the process of making decisions with them, we used the right of veto to block a decision that seemed intolerable to us. We discovered that our veto was less important than other people’s veto. In the end, we had to discuss whether there could be a veto against our veto.
Once again, we saw that the official methods of decision-making only last as long as they serve the interests of those who introduced them.
When we were part of the discussions preparing the blockading actions at the G20 summit, we decided to be strategic: we sat in different positions in the meetings, we split up into different working groups. We did this to prevent worse attempts at manipulation, to block authoritarian attempts to control the process from the very beginning, to influence the discourse. Doing this, we learned something about our own power potential—and it scared us. We saw that we could play this game too: we knew the mechanisms and we could play the same tricks. We knew how and when to formulate a question if we wanted to be the ones who determine how the discussion would go—how to fix the order of the points on the agenda—when to set the start time of a meeting. Sometimes we were not just afraid of ourselves, but also disgusted—because on the way to overthrowing all authority, we were tempted simply to seek to get our own piece of the cake.
This experience gives us all the more reason to be critical of the democratic framework.
We have not only encountered the debate about democracy in practical struggles on the street. We can also find it in a few theoretical texts from German-speaking countries. We can recommend two such publications here:
A secret children’s book passed from hand to hand, invisible to the market. After a decade and a half, we’re finally offering a zine version of The Secret World of Duvbo, the companion to our other children’s book, The Secret World of Terijian. This is a story about the furtive outlets we create for the parts of ourselves that do not fit into our ordinary lives—about the potential for transformation hidden within seemingly staid and conservative communities—about how the courage of one can become the courage of all.
This story has followed a long and winding path to reach your hands. The plot line was conceived in São Paulo, Brazil in early 2000. The first draft was composed at the end of January 2002, at Demonbox, a now-defunct collective house in Stockholm that, incidentally, was also the original European publisher of Days of Love, Nights of War. It was written as a gift for Arwin, who was born the following May in the real-life neighborhood of Duvbo.
In 2004, after publishing several books for sale on the market, we wanted to make a book that would only be available through gift economics. We printed a few thousand copies of The Secret World of Duvbo and gave them away to friends, lovers, and charming strangers over the following years.
Traveling in Minnesota in 2006, we discovered a new CrimethInc. cell that had composed a sequel, The Secret World of Terijian. In 2007, we published it in the same format as The Secret World of Duvbo, selling it as a fundraiser for defendants accused of earth and animal liberation. Within two years, the authors were themselves imprisoned on such charges and we had to raise funds for them as well. By then, most of the print run of The Secret World of Duvbo was long gone.
In 2018, we saw copies of the 2004 printing of The Secret World of Duvbo selling online for $125 and up, shipping and tax not included. We had eluded both the market and the internet for 14 years, but they were finally catching up to us. We prepared this edition to make sure that the text can still reach you outside the exchange economy, if no longer in the context of personal interaction that gave the original printing its special power. May we meet someday as friends, nonetheless.
Burn every toy store and replace them with playgrounds,
-CrimethInc. Children’s Crusade
The Secret World of Duvbo
A magical story about a perfectly ordinary world
I wanted to write the most perfect story for you, so you would know how excited we all are for you to join us. I went around with a blank notebook for weeks, trying to work out the perfect first line for a perfect story. Finally, since I couldn’t come up with it, I moved on to trying to work out the perfect second line. I went through every line that way, right up to the last one, without any success. And then it hit me: I had written a perfect story, after all, but since this is not a perfect world, the story couldn’t join me here—it was waiting in another universe, the one where everything is perfect, even me.
To solve this problem, I had to sit down and write you an imperfect story, so at least you would have something to read. If nothing else, I think I’ve succeeded in doing that. By the time this reaches you, it will have been waiting for years; but all the same, late as it is to say this—welcome here!
Duvbo was a sleepy town in the world that is just like our world in every respect except that it is the one in which stories like this one take place. It wasn’t particularly close to or far from any other towns, and although people came in and out sometimes, life in Duvbo centered around what was going on in Duvbo, which generally wasn’t much at all. The residents didn’t seem to think much about this, but if someone had asked them, they probably would have answered that this was the way they preferred it.
If you were to take a walk around Duvbo on a sunny afternoon, you would pass through neighborhoods of modest houses, a few to a street, trees shading the well-trimmed grass behind white picket fences. Whatever path you took, you would be bound to come eventually to the center of town, where there were a street of shops, a street of civic buildings, and a central square where they intersected. It was a large enough town that a small child could get lost in it, but not so large that he would not quickly be found and returned home.
In this town there lived one mayor, four policemen, six firefighters, three mail carriers, four hundred and twelve assorted other workers, some retired, and their one hundred and nineteen children, most of whom attended the one school, which was staffed by nine teachers, including a particular Ms. Darroway, who taught mathematics. In addition to all these inhabitants, there were two especially grumpy retired army officers, who don’t come into the story until later, and one especially shy, especially sensitive boy, Titus, who will be the hero of this tale.
All in all, then, there were five hundred and fifty seven residents of Duvbo; you should try to remember this number, in case it becomes important later on.
Let’s start with Titus: he was a tousle-headed little fellow, perhaps a little shorter than his classmates, given to daydreaming and distraction but no more preoccupied than any other child his age. He wasn’t a boy to stand out in a crowd, but on closer inspection you might notice him—he would be the one near the edge of the group, looking one direction while everyone else was looking the other. Truth be told, he paid more attention to his surroundings than adults gave him credit for, and sometimes noticed things no one else did.
The mayor was a great big ostentatious man given to flaunting extravagantly ordinary ties and delivering long-winded speeches about nothing in particular, and Titus only saw him on special occasions like the county fair or the Christmas parade at the end of autumn. He didn’t see too much of the police officers, either, and though police officers in other towns are known for doing quite horrid things, these four weren’t really a bad sort. The firefighters would come to his school once a year to ramble through a presentation about fire safety and prevention, but as far as Titus could tell, there were never any fires in Duvbo for them to put out.
The mail carriers were more interesting to the boy, or at least one of them was. Every day on his way back from school, Titus would pass her coming down the driveway from his house, having just dropped the mail in the mail slot; as soon as he had passed her, so she wouldn’t see him do it, he would run up the front steps and fling open the door to see what had arrived. Nothing ever had, of course, except for bills and other confusing, humdrum things that set his parents to muttering; but all the same, it seemed to Titus that a mail carrier ought to bring important packages, magical invitations, parcels that would open to reveal hidden entrances to other worlds or at least maps to buried treasure. So every afternoon, just in case, he was there, fingers crossed, to check the mail—and every afternoon it was the same: bills and advertisements.
As you’ve probably already guessed, Ms. Darroway was Titus’s mathematics teacher, and he sat in her classes many long hours every week daydreaming and counting down the minutes until he and the mail would arrive on that doorstep. She was a stern, strict, unlaughing woman, and would always catch him with his head in the clouds and chastise him in front of his classmates. Still, his mind would wander, and he couldn’t help following it out those windows, across the placid fields around Duvbo, over the hills and far away into wild jungles where women and men with painted skin rode winged fish up black rivers to abandoned cities at the feet of towering mountains… sometimes when the bell rang to release him, he was almost sorry to come back to his seat, even though he knew it was time to run home to see if the package he longed for had finally arrived.
Through the course of this tale, you may sometimes wonder where Titus’s parents were; the answer is, of course, that they were there, somewhere in the background, like many people’s parents are these days. Titus was not so lucky as to have parents who knew how lucky they were to share their lives with him, and he had to work a lot of things out on his own. This is the story of how he did, and of how much of a difference it made for everyone.
Weeks and weeks of hopeful afternoons added up to months with still nothing special in the mailbox. At Titus’s young age, that seemed like an impossibly long time for nothing special to happen, and he began to fear that something was wrong in the world; but everyone around him carried on in such a nonchalant manner, and with so little visible desire for Something Special to arrive in the mail or from any other direction, that some days he wondered if something was simply wrong in himself that he should want such a thing. If he had been a braver boy, he thought to himself in a tone of accusation, he would have asked the mailwoman if strange packages from exotic lands didn’t show up on at least some doorsteps, sometimes; but he was at that age when boys become too self-conscious to ask such things aloud, even if a part of them still shouts the question silently.
He should not have been so quick to criticize himself, for as it would turn out, he would demonstrate great bravery and initiative when the time came. But he had no way of knowing this, yet, and went about thinking of himself as something of a coward, hoping for an opportunity to prove his courage with the same mounting impatience with which he awaited the arrival of something magical in the post.
This impatience led him to do something that parents tell their children Never To Do Under Any Circumstances, the sort of thing they certainly do not want little boys doing in the stories their children read—so if you’ve gotten this far, you can consider yourself lucky. Fed up with a life in which nothing ever happened, Titus began secretly staying awake until everyone else in the house was asleep, and then—this is the really controversial part—sneaking out of the house to take walks in the witching hour of the night. Each night he would wait until he heard the low rumble of his father’s snoring, then the quieter whistle of air between his sleeping mother’s lips, and, after counting breathlessly to one hundred, would hold the pillow over the window latch to muffle the sound as he unlocked it. Then he would open the window just wide enough to slip his body out, and lower himself carefully to the ground a few feet below, trembling as he did in the thrill of doing something so frightening and forbidden. Some nights he would step on a twig as he reached the ground, and freeze in terror for minutes until he was sure he hadn’t awakened his parents; he began to check the area under his window for sticks in the afternoon, after the latest disappointing batch of bills had arrived.
On the first few outings, he didn’t stray far from the house—it was enough just to stand in the dim streetlight in the front yard, looking at the dark forms of trees that loomed overhead and savoring the chill air on his face. After a week of this, though, he had built up enough courage for a short expedition down the street, and then another. The whole world looked so different at night—everything that was familiar in daylight became, in the still starlight and emptiness of sleeping Duvbo, spooky and nearly magical. Squinting at the silhouettes of street signs made blank by the blackness, almost swallowed up by the silence in which his footsteps boomed, Titus felt like the last human being on earth—or the first.
Parents and other adults forget this as the years pass, but you know it well, I’m sure: children’s lives are electrified by secret adventures like this, given their true form and meaning by moments no one else witnesses. Already Titus was daydreaming less about the afternoon mail and more about what he would do later in the evening while the city slept; and every day in class a taciturn, tired Ms. Darroway would snap him out of his reveries with a sharp word or a rap on the wrist.
One night, flushed with a growing confidence from weeks of these expeditions, Titus crossed a line. This evening, when he arrived at the edge of the neighborhood he knew, he didn’t turn back, but paused—and then, mustering all of his little boy’s bravado, walked forward, onto a street he could not recognize in the darkness. Every step was a terror, at first: he laid his feet down as if the pavement might give way beneath them, or the whole town suddenly be transformed into thick and impassable jungle. As successive steps revealed these fears to be unfounded, he shook himself, tried to relax a little, and returned to his usual pace. It was a little like walking with your eyes closed, which, if you’ve never done it, you should try some time: he expected to hit disaster at any moment, and shuddered sometimes despite himself, but the disaster did not come, and if he didn’t think about it too hard, it was as easy as anything to keep moving.
Soon, he began to feel free and sure of himself in a way he hadn’t before in the few long years of his young life. Here he was, out in a fairyland no one else ever saw, navigating it with the fearlessness and finesse of a true explorer; if those sleeping civilians only knew! He rounded corners and set off down new lanes like a pirate captain swaggering onto the beach of a newly discovered island. Finally, he decided it was time to return to his bed.
And then, with a dread that ran as deep as his elation had soared high, he realized he was lost. He hadn’t kept track of every turn as he should have—and in the dim of the streetlamps, all the landmarks he had haphazardly picked out looked the same. He took one familiar-looking road, but it led to no others he remembered; he turned back, and tried another, only to have second thoughts—and, upon trying to retrace his steps, lost track of his path altogether.
Looking on from above, as it were, we can see that Titus had not strayed more than a few streets from his neighborhood; but from where he stood, in the murk of moonless night, it seemed home might as well be a thousand miles away. He wanted to sit down and cry, but he knew he was in such deep trouble that he couldn’t afford to waste a moment. Bravely, he walked on, deeper and deeper into the maze of his own confusion, hoping now against hope that he might stumble upon something he recognized—Duvbo was not such a big town, after all. Still, nothing of the sort appeared, for what seemed like hours and hours and miles and miles, and he was in the final stages of panic when he was startled by something altogether extraordinary and unexpected.
At the far end of the street he was passing on his left, he made out a glimmering distinctly different from the light the sparsely scattered streetlamps cast. It glowed, red and golden, and flickered as if with movement, or shadows. This was such a wild development that for a moment little Titus forgot all about his predicament: he had to see what it was, whatever the consequences. A lifetime of private fantasy had prepared him for this moment, and although his imagination conjured nightmares and well as wonders out of the light ahead of him, he turned and crept up the sidewalk towards it all the same.
As he proceeded, the street grew wider, and he saw that there was an open space ahead of him, in which he could make out the silhouettes of trees above and the texture of grass below. He also made out something else: figures, spinning and whirling around a great fire. The fierce light stretched their forms and magnified their proportions, made them appear unreal and enormous. This was beyond out of the ordinary—it was positively beyond belief, and Titus whirled internally at the shock and wonder of seeing with his own eyes, in monotonous Duvbo, a scene the like of which he had only dimly imagined in his mind. He froze, dizzy, torn between running forward and running away—but it was a choice he did not have to make.
In the very next instant, the great bonfire went out with a whoosh of sparks, and the figures disappeared in all directions, melting into the darkness. Titus leaped into the bushes behind him, but it was unnecessary—nothing and no one reappeared, and soon the stillness settled back in and resumed its air of permanence. Something else happened, too: Titus discerned the first glimmers of pink in the sky overhead—the sun was preparing to rise.
As it got lighter, the street came into focus, and Titus suddenly realized where he was: this was the central square of Duvbo! He could make his way home from here, if he followed the street past the fire station. There was no sign anywhere of the fire or the feral dancers, and he crept carefully out of his hiding place and across the cool grass, morning dew dampening his shoes, to start back.
He hurried through neighborhoods that once again took on an entirely different character, the rosy first light falling on familiar roofs and hedges as the dreams of slumbering families drew to a close. He was drained and out of breath, yet still shaking with adrenaline and awe from his discovery, when he slipped back in through his bedroom window and pulled it shut behind him, almost too distracted to muffle the latch. A few minutes later, as he lay in bed, heart racing, attempting to feign sleep, his mother came in to rouse him for school. It was as amazing to him as everything else had been that night that she didn’t notice anything unusual.
Titus spent the next day in a confused combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. It was impossible to think about anything but what he had seen, what it could have been, what he should do the coming night, and at the same time his brain was so foggy, his eyelids so heavy, his body so worn out that it was all he could do to stay awake in class. Ms. Darroway seemed particularly short-tempered and weary herself, and gave him no quarter whenever his head drooped to one side. Poor Titus pinched himself and kicked his feet against each other, trying to keep up at least a veneer of attentiveness, but with his mind swirling with dervish dancers and sleep deprivation it did little good. Finally, after five hundred years of mathematics and dour reprimands crammed into fifty-five minutes, class was over.
There was nothing special in the mail, of course, so Titus set himself to the task of killing the hours until his parents were asleep. What was it he had witnessed, after all, he wondered? Did witches visit Duvbo? Was it haunted by ghosts? Had he almost interrupted a gathering of bandits? Were there even bandits, or witches, or ghosts anywhere, anymore, in this age? The one conclusion he came to again and again was that, whatever the danger and however great his fears, he had to go investigate further that night.
But when the moment came, and his mother switched off the light in his room, he plunged instantly into sleep—long before his parents even retired to their room. He was simply too exhausted to stay awake any longer.
The next evening, of course, he was wide awake and electrified with anticipation. After he heard the first whistle of his sleeping mother’s breath he was barely able to restrain himself while he counted, as fast as possible, to one hundred. On the final number he bolted upright and threw open the window latch with scarcely any muffling at all, and hopped down to the ground, which he had carefully picked clear of twigs that afternoon.
Once on the street outside, apprehension set back in. What would happen if they caught him, whoever or whatever they were? What if they were unfriendly? They were certainly otherworldly, at least of another world than Duvbo. He couldn’t know what to expect from them, couldn’t begin to imagine. But there was no way around it: he would have to be careful, and find out what he could. He wrapped his scarf over his mouth and nose as an impromptu mask, more as a charm against his own fears than anything else, and set out.
He had carefully charted the route from his house to the central square that afternoon, so there was no chance he would get lost again; all the same, it was a very different walk in the darkness. The uncertainty of what awaited him ahead coupled with the gloom of the streets around him made the trek fearsome indeed. Had he been older and more what adults call “mature,” he might have reasoned himself out of it, or at least waited to return with reporters and a camera crew; but he was young, and innocently impetuous, and ready for magic.
And it was waiting for him. Drawing close to the central square again, he once more made out a light in the center, beneath the trees. It was less bright, and flickered less wildly; soon he saw that the figures around it were not dancing, now, but gathered in a great circle of seated silhouettes. In the middle, before the bonfire, one towering figure stood, moving its arms in powerful sweeping gestures. All backs were to him, so Titus moved in closer.
The standing figure was draped in a complete bearskin, the fur hanging in strips around the arms, the shadow of the open jaws obscuring the face within. And she was speaking: when Titus heard her words, he recognized it as a woman’s voice, one that sounded almost familiar, and yet at the same time was unlike anything he had heard before. Her tone was so clear and strong that it carried through the square and resonated in his chest, but it had a softness and a warmth that only deepened his impression of its strength. It was a story she was telling, a story like the ones he made up in mathematics class, but fleshed out with even more imaginative details and fantastic settings than his own: men tattooed maps to mysterious portals on their children’s skin, women traveled on subterranean streams to the inner space at the core of the earth, flew there in the zero gravity to a hidden moon floating within. He listened, entranced, and crept closer, despite himself.
The speaker concluded her tale with a line of eerie poetry, and then turned sharply in Titus’s direction: “And now,” she pronounced, “it is time for us to hear a story from our new guest.”
Titus jerked to his feet and stumbled backward, but before he could get any farther a pair of hands seized him from either side and bore him to the center of the circle. Little Titus stood there before the great fire, surrounded by dark forms in outlandish costumes, and froze like an animal under a searchlight. Impulsively, he tightened the scarf around his face, but there was no getting around it: he was caught. “Go on,” another figure urged him, in a tone of voice he could not decipher: “a story.”
Titus opened his mouth, and began to speak: haltingly at first, but then, discovering a voice of his own that he had never had cause to engage, he told, with mounting confidence, one of his own stories from his daydreams. He narrated for dear life, adding clever digressions and extravagant descriptions, hoping the shadowy circle would not be disappointed and have him flayed or burned alive.
At the end of his story, there was a silence. He looked, fearful, around the circle, but could not see the eyes of the ones watching him, could not imagine what would happen next—and then, all at once, there erupted from all hands a great applauding, and from all throats a great cheering, and in the next instant, as had happened two nights before, the fire went out in an explosion of sparks and all the figures disappeared abruptly into the darkness.
The following day Titus was as exhausted as he had been two days earlier, and as perplexed and excited. He sat in mathematics class, eyes pointed at the blackboard but unfocused, and reflected on his discovery. He had uncovered a fabulous mystery, a secret side of Duvbo that no one knew of but himself; it was amazing that such an exotic company would gather in the heart of such an ordinary, even dreary, place. Where were they coming from? What drew them here? He had the strange feeling that the pieces of the puzzle were right in front of him, but he couldn’t put it together. He resolved, head blurry with fatigue, to let himself catch up on rest that night, so he could be in top condition to investigate further the following evening. At that moment, Ms. Darroway wrenched him from his reverie with a sharp word. She looked as tired as he felt.
The night after, he was there again, making his way into the main square in the middle of the night, scarf around his face and heart pounding in his chest. Again it was different: now there was no central fire, but the area was lit by torches on the trees; some of the figures were playing instruments, sweet-voiced silver wind instruments and belligerent booming box-drums and great strange stringed things stroked with two-pronged bows, while the others spun and twirled and leaped in trailing scarlet gowns and elaborately layered veils and elegant black capes. It was a masked ball.
Still apprehensive, Titus paused at the edge of the torchlight, but one of the dancers saw him and, as she passed by, seized his hand and pulled him into the dance. He had never danced like this before; growing up in Duvbo, he had hardly ever danced at all. Now they were all clasped in concentric circles. They sped above the ground, feet barely brushing it, clutching each others’ hands lest they hurtle out into space, momentum pulling the circles ever wider as they spun faster and faster. In the center of the action, Titus now made out the imposing woman from his previous visit: the bearskin was gone, replaced by a wrap of dozens of multicolored scarves, but it was unmistakably her. She held hands with no one, but stamped out her own dance, kicking her legs high over every head and swinging her arms like the wings of a fierce bird of prey; the scarves retraced her movements in the air behind her in slow motion, following like a shadow dancer in her footsteps.
All in an instant, the dance shifted, and each participant took a partner. Titus was chosen by a young woman with a brightly painted face, who lifted him up high in the air above her; then the music paused for an instant, and the partners switched. Now Titus was passed to an impossibly tall, long-legged man—no, he must be wearing stilts!—and now, at another sudden pause, to a pair in matching costumes, and then to another partner, and another. The song grew rowdier, faster, more forceful and irresistible; it seemed to be emanating from his own pounding heart.
Suddenly, Titus was arm in arm with the woman in the scarves. The rest of the world seemed the fall away to a great distance, and even the deafening music became remote, manifesting itself instead as the inexorable rhythm of their bodies. She was clearly possessed of a superhuman strength, and as her companion, it was communicated to him: Titus found he could leap high in the air, spin in circles, lose himself in movement in a way he never had before. The musicians struck a high, drawn-out note which brought the world back into focus for a second as he spun to face his partner, and then again cut all the sound for a second’s pause: and in that instant, looking into her eyes, he recognized exactly who this woman was—it was Ms. Darroway.
Another dancer seized him, and she disappeared behind him into the throng before he could react. Now, looking around, he saw others he could recognize in the torchlight, despite their disguises: there atop the stilts was the fireman who did the yearly fire safety presentations, and there behind a veil was an older student from the school, and there—that was even the woman who brought the mail to his doorstep every afternoon! This was far stranger than any strangers’ carnival could have been. And once again, in the instant he formed that thought, all the torches came down, the square was plunged into darkness, and Titus found himself absolutely alone in the hour before dawn.
The next day was a Saturday, so Titus had the chance to fall asleep when he slipped back into bed, and he slept late—later than he ever had before. His parents didn’t notice; they went out early to do something, and so when he woke up, muscles sore and feet raw from the dancing, head still groggy from a week of little sleep, he found he was alone in the house. He dressed slowly and then stepped out onto the front porch.
It was nearly noon. Duvbo looked exactly the same as it had every Saturday morning for as long as he could remember, but he saw it with different eyes. As old men passed walking their dogs, or mothers with their children, he wondered which ones had been with him in the dance the night before, which ones shared the secret he now possessed as well. Now every passer-by was a potential conspirator, a might-be fly-by-night reveler or story-spinner; it was as if trap doors waited around every corner and under every bush, all leading right out of reality as he had known it. Titus’s world, once no bigger than the small town from which he had pined for deliverance, now expanded around him in every direction.
When Monday found him back in mathematics class, he concentrated for the very first time on really paying attention, and fixed his eyes on Ms. Darroway’s. They were indeed the eyes of the woman who had told that dazzling story and danced that magnificent dance, though here they were somewhat tired and distant. He winked at her, as he had wanted, walking on the clouds of his new discovery, to try winking at everyone he had met since his last adventure, in case they too were in on the secret. She gave no indication she had noticed anything: either she hadn’t recognized him, or it was a secret not to be referred to outside the gatherings. Titus was comfortable with that. He would see her and their companions in surreptitious adventures later that night at the square, after everyone else was asleep.
Months passed. Through a strange process of attraction, an invisible magnetism, or perhaps simply as the inevitable result of living in a town in which Nothing Ever Happened, every week brought a few more wanderers to the secret gatherings. All were absolutely astonished to discover that they were not the only ones who had harbored unspoken longings for Something To Happen, that fellow dreamers had lurked in the ranks of the polite and restrained citizens surrounding them.
The night assemblies were everything these unconfessed outsiders had dreamed of, and more—they were the very opposite of life in Duvbo: witches’ sabbats in which everything savage and beautiful, every wild impulse stifled by decorum in daily town life, was given free reign in a symphony of creativity and abandon. The conspirators juggled, walked through, and swallowed fire, erected fantastic stages and performed life-sized puppet shows, lay naked but for their masks in the moon’s rays upon the grass and composed their own constellations out of the stars in the sky. They lived for these hours, they counted down the minutes through weary mornings and tedious afternoons and uneventful evenings to the nights when they could give expression to their secret selves, when they would be possessed spirits again. As little Titus had discovered early on, no one ever spoke aloud of the meetings, or alluded to them in any gesture or sign—in fact, as it turned out, he was the only one perceptive enough to have recognized any of his fellow revelers by their daytime personas—but for all who participated, these nights dominated everything, invisibly.
And so something else was happening, in a town where no one could remember ever seeing any change at all. It was a very slight thing, something an outsider would have missed entirely and that the residents did not notice because it appeared too gradually, but all the same, it was true: an air of mystery now hung in the streets, and however placid and simple everything appeared in Duvbo, there was always something beneath the surface, like a fluttering just outside the corner of your eye. This was not all: all those sleepless nights had started to show on certain faces. In every office and classroom, in the supermarket and the synagogue and the fire department and at the post office, the watchful observer could pick out the dark circles under eyes, the drooping eyelids, the drowsy sluggishness of bodies that have not had enough rest. Nothing like this had appeared in Duvbo before, either, and so no citizen could yet articulate a question about it to himself, let alone aloud; but the scene was set.
As smart as you are, you’ve probably guessed that a tension like this could not remain unresolved forever. But there was nothing yet to light the fuse; so things continued like this for a few more months, and all that time, every week brought more people to the night gatherings.
Summer came and passed; Halloween arrived. By this time, it seemed that nearly the whole population of Duvbo was meeting at the central square at midnight. Anticipation among the conspirators was great, and preparations in the nights leading up to it had been extensive. That evening, after an early dinner, parents dressed their children up in matching plastic costumes modeled after television personalities—Titus was a cartoon character from a Saturday morning show, at his mother’s insistence—and walked them neatly around the block, collecting little sweets from the baskets that every household had dutifully provided. Then the adults hurried their children home, took the sweets from them to be rationed out one a day over the following weeks, and quickly set about the business of putting them and then themselves to bed. As soon as each one was sure the others were asleep, windows were slipped open, clothes hurriedly slipped on, and fathers, daughters, mothers, and sons slipped out into the night to assemble, disguised beyond each other’s powers of recognition, in the town square.
There the wildest, most enchanted carnival yet unfolded. Red-skinned devils, tails swinging, muscles flexing, prowled between the legs of great dragons and Trojan horses bulging with Greek soldiers; zombies and vampires and skeletons danced to rhythms beaten out on bones by ghosts; eagles flew overhead. It was as if the earth itself had opened up and revealed a fairy kingdom within; the throng stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see through the torch-dotted darkness. Although there were so many present that it appeared practically the entire populace was in attendance, each individual still felt that he or she was getting away with something that Duvbo would never and could never countenance.
In fact, if an outside observer had been there to witness the nights’ antics, and had carefully counted all the people in the crowd, the total would have come to exactly five hundred and fifty five. Who was there and who was not there were about to become very significant, though only two people knew this was coming—and they were the ones who knew least of all what was going on.
The next day Titus, like everyone else, was exhausted beyond words. In every class every body sagged, students’ and teachers’ alike. Ms. Darroway droned listlessly through her lecture, scarcely bothering to scold the students whose heads lolled on their shoulders and chests. After school, the boy practically staggered home—to find something new and unexpected had, once again, taken place.
These days, he only checked the mail out of habit, in unthinking faithfulness to a routine he no longer regarded with any serious optimism—his longings for adventure and escape were fulfilled by the nights’ activities, anyway. But there, just dropped off by the drowsy mail woman, was a letter unlike any other that had ever arrived on his doorstep. It wasn’t a bill, and it wasn’t an advertisement, either, as far as Titus could tell. It seemed to be an announcement: it was a single sheet of thick paper, folded in half and taped shut, with ominous lettering on the front that read simply FELLOW CITIZENS OF DUVBO. In an instant Titus was awake again, nearly bursting with curiosity. This was the first unexpected thing that had ever appeared during daylight hours—could it be that the secret world was about to erupt into being around the clock? As curious as he was, he knew the daytime rules still applied, and they dictated that he wait to find out what this message might be until his parents came home and opened it themselves.
It seemed an eternity before his mother and father were both home from work, and then Titus had to wait all the way through the usual silent proceedings of dinner. Finally, when the boy was at his wits’ end, his father drew out the mail to go through the dismal daily process of paying bills and balancing accounts. He dealt with every bill at length, reading every invoice and receipt twice and perusing all the fine print with a magnifying glass to be sure not to miss anything, making notes on his clipboard as he went, before he came to the announcement. Titus held his breath. “Oh, you open it, honey,” his father sighed, passing it to the boy’s mother: “it’s nothing important.”
She did, and peered at it for some time, until Titus could restrain himself no longer. “What does it say, mom?” he ventured, trying to sound nonchalant.
“It’s some of kind of public notice, I think,” said his puzzled mother. “It requests our attendance at a meeting tonight of ‘All Concerned Citizens of Duvbo,’ at the town council building. It doesn’t say much more than that.”
His father grumbled about always having to go to meetings and how the last thing he needed was another one but he figured they had better go anyway since you can’t risk looking bad in the eyes of the community, and all the same what a chore it all was, wasn’t it. “Can I come, too?” queried Titus, in his most courteous voice.
“I don’t think this is the sort of thing for young boys like you,” she answered definitively, and that was the end of the matter. So of course, well-practiced prowler that he was by now, Titus sneaked out and followed his parents at a careful distance when they left an hour later to attend the meeting.
The town council building was one of the oldest in Duvbo, and correspondingly dour and stuffy, like a bitter old man clinging too tightly to tradition. Inside, the adults sat stiffly in rows of uncomfortable chairs, backs straight and aching, hands folded in their laps, in much the same way that a decade and a half of schooling had taught each of them to when they were younger. Virtually every grown person in the town was there: the firefighters were seated near the front, Titus’s mail deliverer just behind them, and in the center were all nine teachers, including Ms. Darroway—taciturn as she was in class, and still wearing the same grey dress. There was a dry, awkward silence in the room, broken occasionally by the hiss of a nervous whisper, or the screech of a moving chair as an embarrassed man arrived late. Hidden in a bush to escape detection, Titus looked on through a window from outside.
At precisely eight o’clock, two stern, grim middle-aged men stood up from their chairs and advanced to the podium in the front of the room. One of them took his place at it while the other stood behind him, casting vaguely menacing and judgmental looks around the audience at random.
“It has come to our attention,” began the first of the two retired army officers, for that of course was who these men were, as you may remember from the beginning of the story, “from certain sources we need not divulge, that Duvbo has become a fallen town, a den of iniquity, a place where evil has taken hold. We have summoned you to this meeting because, as you well know, it is your duty as Responsible Citizens to root out all blemishes and stains, all Unacceptable Behavior, from the precious soil of our community, and steps must be taken immediately to do this before our beloved heritage of Honor and Morality is lost forever.”
The second man stepped to the podium and replaced the first, and the first in turn took on his role of glaring at the audience. “Back in our day, in the Service, we ran a tight ship, as they say, so I believe you’ll all agree when I say that we are the right men for the task of cleaning up Duvbo. What you must do is report to us any inconsistencies, any foul Deviations you are aware of, beginning tonight, at this moment. Well then, who’s first?”—and he joined the other in glaring.
Titus craned his neck to see the faces of the adults throughout the room. They were all casting furtive glances about, guilt writ large on every face, each practically wondering aloud who the wrongdoers were but secretly cringing lest his own culpability be uncovered. Months of living in secret had subtly, inexorably bred into all of them the sense that they had something to hide, and now that the question of evil had been broached, those feelings rose to the surface. Every citizen felt the officers must be talking about him, and looked around to see what he could expect if they were. Who could be trusted here? Who was a part of their secret intrigue, and who was a spy waiting to catch them in it? Could fellow conspirators even be trusted, now that the pressure was on? None of them had needed to consider such questions before. The officers might have been bluffing, might have been referring to a boy who had copied his friend’s homework or a driver who had run a stop sign; but the reception of their claims—as if everyone knew exactly what they were asking about—was so suspicious that now there was no going back. No one spoke, or even dared cough; the tension became unbearable. Finally the mayor came hesitantly forward.
“Good men,” he began, deferentially, “of course we are all very honored as well as outstandingly fortunate to have you put your services at our disposal to expose and eliminate this—er, contagion—in our midst. I move that each citizen goes home to make a full report of all the suspicious activities and criminal behavior he is aware of, so when we reconvene in a week to address this matter further, we will have some reference material for, uh, reference in pursuing this matter, arhum, further.” He straightened his tie, twice, and attempted to compose his face into an ingratiating expression while maintaining the dignity befitting a dignitary.
“All right then,” growled the second army officer, with a look that snarled Consider Yourselves Lucky, “we’ll meet again in a week, and you’d all better have some evidence by then of what’s going on and who’s to blame. Remember, citizens,” he thundered in a concluding tone that made Titus’s skin crawl, “in the war of good against evil, right against wrong, tradition against corruption, you are either one of us, or you are against us. There is no middle ground to muddle around in. See you in a week, with your reports, and God Bless You all. Oh, and policemen—” he snapped, singling them out, “keep your eyes especially open this week. This is supposed to be your department.” He turned, and, with his fellow ex-officer behind, stomped out the door.
Every citizen of Duvbo woke up the next day feeling hunted, guilty. The time-engrained habits of concealment, the exhaustion that attended such double lives, these now felt like bodily indictments—if they had nothing to be ashamed of, why had they been hiding? And if what they were doing was healthy and right, why were they exhausted all the time? Forced now to assess their nighttime activities by daytime standards, they found they could not translate between the two contexts, could not justify themselves. Each felt he could never explain what he had been doing to those who had not been a part of it; in the meeting room of the town council building, with those two men glaring at them, some had even wondered if they were indeed monsters in disguise, if their nightly pursuits proved they were in fact evil. So while it might seem surprising to an outsider that the citizens of this little town could so easily be turned against themselves and one another, it was not actually so unusual, after all.
For the following week, daytime Duvbo crackled with rumors and suspicion. Everyone went about with a great show of righteous outrage at the discovery of possible illicit influences in their precious community, and gossip abounded as to who might be responsible. All mature citizens were too well-mannered to refer to anyone by name, but insinuations proliferated: the residents of each street spoke of other streets, “bad neighborhoods,” just as the employees at each company spoke of the bad sorts that might be found in less honest lines of work, just as, at the end of the day, husbands and wives spoke in hushed tones of the bad influences of other families. Everyone was anxious, above all, to direct attention away from themselves, since each person was sure that, were their own nocturnal activities to come to light, their fellow citizens would give no quarter in the rush to attribute guilt and deflect suspicion.
By night, the gatherings still took place, but in decreased numbers, and there was a tension in the air that had never been there before. In denial about the measures being taken in the daylight world, afraid to speak aloud about the situation but unable to shake the burden from their minds, the conspirators who did show up threw themselves all the harder into their invented ceremonies and flights of fancy, but to less and less avail: a dark cloud hung over every moment of abandon, every step of each dance. At least here, in open if anonymous admission of their guilt, people did not look at each other with hostile or judgmental eyes; but each morning as they passed their fellow citizens on the street, things were decidedly different. When once they had looked on passers-by, like Titus did that Saturday morning, with a sense of joy and companionship, wondering if they too were secret revelers, they now regarded all others with fear, lest they be judges waiting to pass sentence upon them, or former comrades who would turn them in to save their own skins.
At the next town meeting, every adult arrived with a complete report. Some brought big sheaves of papers under their arms, others great folders divided into sections according to arbitrary systems of categorization, others thick notebooks with every possible infraction of public morals and tastes that had come to their attention noted and annotated. They sat, heavy testimonials in their laps, backs ramrod straight, lips tight, faces blank masks, looking neither to the left nor the right, and waited for the proceedings to begin. No one was late this time, and at the appointed hour, the mayor, anxious to maintain the image of responsible authority, arose to officiate. From their seats at the front of the room, the two ex-officers regarded him with expressions of acid impatience; Titus, too, looked on from his post in the bush.
“Fellow concerned citizens,” the mayor began, and cleared his throat as if to command attention, in a room already empty of all distractions: “we are gathered here to show our concern about, our commitment to, our deep-seated feelings for the continuity of our proud tradition of greatness and purity in this town which we all so know and love, the name of which you know as well as I, fair Duvbo. I hope you’ll join me in these trying times in holding out a light of hope to the future—“ and he went on, and on, and on in this style for some time, before one of the ex-officers cut in and demanded he get down to business.
The mayor summoned the first citizen to the podium to make her report—the roster was arranged in alphabetical order, so it was Anna Abelard, the retired grocer. She shuffled through a veritable mountain of loose papers, and approached the stand with her eyes on the floor. Anna had a gentle heart, and much as she knew what was expected of her, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to specify any names or risk endangering anyone else, so her entire account was a string of abstractions and ambiguous references to unspecified people and events. For the purposes of the ex-officers’ inquisition, it was absolutely useless, but they let her stumble through it for a good half hour, presumably because they could tell this was even more mortifying for her than it was exasperating for them. Time seemed to grind to an even slower pace than it kept in mathematics class.
Then without warning, without asking permission, someone stood up from the audience. It was Ms. Darroway. Her face was lined with years of little sleep, the dark circles under her eyes were heavier than ever, but the air of elderly irritation she affected during the day dropped away and her bearing here was suddenly as imposing as it was when she presided over storytelling circles in the witching hour. “This is foolishness, and you know it,” she stated plainly. “Let Anna be—she obviously doesn’t have anything to tell you. If you’re so certain there is wickedness in our town now, why don’t you tell us where it is?”
Both former military men shot to their feet in indignation. “Hold your tongue, schoolteacher!” shouted the first. “This is an important meeting, not to be interrupted by idle questions! You should know from your own profession better than to talk out of turn!”
“So tell us where it is,” she insisted, calmly.
“I’ll tell you where it is,” yelled the other, “it’s in teachers like you who set bad examples! How are our children supposed to grow up with a proper respect for rules and authority with women like you for role models?” He stepped back to address the audience in general. “And it’s in all of you who let the moral fabric of this town fray and unravel! It’s written on every face in this room, the secrecy in your movements, those mysterious bloodshot eyes, the indifference you show to important matters like this! We may not know what’s going on yet, but mark our words—we’ll find out!” He stomped out of the room in a rage, his henchman close behind.
At the mention of bloodshot eyes, everyone in the room had flinched despite themselves. They looked around, and it was true: on practically every face was this sign of guilt, the evidence of a double life. So the game was almost up: the two self-appointed detectives knew nothing yet, but they knew where to start looking, and it was only a matter of time before they would uncover the truth about Duvbo. The townsfolk trembled, gazing at one other in fear—for however many of them were involved, it only put each one at greater risk if they could not trust each other—and hurriedly began filing out the door to head home. Only the mayor remained behind, wringing his hands at the scene his citizens had caused and yearning for the simpler days when his greatest concern had been which tie to wear for the Christmas parade.
That night, five hundred and fifty five conspirators sneaked out their bedroom windows, one by one, each going to greater pains than ever not to wake the others from their sleep. They crept through dark streets thick with the shadows of their sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, neighbors, and coworkers, doing everything to avoid detection until they arrived, in disguise, at the main square. Here, a great bonfire burned, and Ms. Darroway, clad in her magnificent bearskin, was already leading a discussion of what was to be done.
Tensions were high and accusations flew. Some held that the gatherings had to be suspended until a safer time; others, speaking eloquently of the freedom and energy they prized in these moments, believed they could continue to take place, but at more prudent intervals; still others argued that it was foolish and irresponsible to think of gathering this way ever again, that it endangered everyone too much. All agreed, if nothing else, that the good old days had come to a close, and dark times descended in their stead.
“But what are we supposed to do, if we can’t come together here anymore?” demanded an impassioned young woman no one recognized as a local real estate agent, clad in a scintillating dress of green sequins and wild feathers. “All of us went wandering and discovered this midnight carnival because life without it was too vacant to bear! We can’t simply go back to those barren lives, can we? I almost feel as if I’d rather die!”
“I wish I could tell you there was another choice, dearie!” said Anna, the retired grocer, sadly, from behind her silver veil. “But I think we have to let it go. That’s the way life is. There was a life for me before I found my way here, you know, and there will be a life after, for all of us, though it may not be what we’d prefer.”
“We don’t have to let it go unless we choose to,” countered Ms. Darroway, hotly. “We decide what risks are worth taking, we decide what we give up and what we keep. That’s how we made this secret society for ourselves, and if we suspend or dissolve it, it should only be because we believe in doing so, not because we think we are the victims of fate. Make your decision for yourself.”
“That’s easy for you to say, perhaps!” It was Titus’s father. Titus himself looked on, his face concealed as usual by his trusty scarf, in unnoticed mortification. “Some of us have children. We have to think about their future, about making this a healthy environment for young people! We’re not at liberty like you must be to make decisions for ourselves alone. In fact, when you make your decisions, they affect the rest of us as well! What if you and people like you keep coming out here, causing trouble for all of us? How are we supposed to raise our children in a town where things like this go on?”
Little Titus wanted to demand how children like himself were supposed to grow up in a world without magic, without dances and costumes and fairytales, but he was afraid to speak up, afraid too of being recognized by his parents. “You’d have us give up our lives all over again!” shouted an angry figure from the shadows, a fireman by day. “What did you start coming here for, anyway?”
“Who are you to risk our lives for us, and our children’s lives?” retorted another enraged parent, and real quarrelling broke out. Everyone tried to shout louder than everyone else, and for many minutes the chaos spiraled out of control—until a sudden realization choked the words in every throat: the townsfolk had lost track of time and dawn was already breaking. In a panic, they scattered everywhere, leaving the square in such a hurry that they forgot the care they had always taken before not to leave any evidence of their gatherings.
The next morning, while doing his rounds, one of the policemen came upon the still-smoldering remains of the fire in the center of the town square. He tried to pass it nonchalantly, stifling a shiver of fear as he realized how careless he and the others had been, but then he caught sight of another citizen at the far end of the street. If he was caught deliberately ignoring such obvious evidence of unusual activity, it would be taken as a sign of complicity; he put his whistle between his teeth and sounded the alarm.
The report of his finding spread like wildfire, and the responding outcry was immediate and intense. Word passed from mouth to ear to mouth around the town in a matter of hours, and an emergency meeting of All Concerned Citizens of Duvbo was called for that evening. All afternoon speculations circulated as to what outlaws or fiends might have been doing in the very heart of Duvbo the night before, and how they could be captured and brought to justice; everyone fought to outdo each other in shows of righteous indignation.
This time the mayor did not even make a show of administering the meeting. The two former officers had set themselves up at a tall table in the front, from which they glowered at everyone else as they filed in. This was the tensest atmosphere yet: hostility hung in the air like an electric charge, and while no one dared make eye contact with anyone else, condemning glances were cast like darts all around the room.
“As spokesperson for the emergency panel that has been established to handle this situation, I call this meeting to order,” began the first ex-officer. “Obviously you are all well aware now of how real the threat we warned you of is, so I trust we will not have to bear any more interruptions tonight”—he cast a withering look at Ms. Darroway—“and will be free to get down to the business of cleaning up this town.”
“Clearly, the undesirable elements, the subverters, are meeting by night, plotting heaven knows what sickening disgraces and crimes,” continued the other man at the table. “Police chief—”
“Yes sir,” responded the haggard-eyed chief of police.
“You’ll need to extend your patrols to cover every hour of the night in addition to the standard daytime schedule, starting this evening, so the monsters can be brought to justice and their plans foiled.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir,” responded the police chief, and one of his men nodded. “My men will need at least one good night’s sleep to be ready for a shift change like that. We can get the patrols in effect by tomorrow night, but that’s the soonest. I’m sorry.”
“Well, lock your doors tonight then, fellow citizens!” roared the first ex-officer, and it sounded more like a threat than a warning. “This will be the last night any funny business takes place in this town! And tomorrow we’ll meet here, at the same time, to discuss some other Big Changes that are going to be made around this place.”
After midnight, only the bravest few dared to congregate for a final time. Ms. Darroway was there, and the woman who delivered the mail to Titus’ house, and the young lady in the green sequins, as well as a few others, including the police chief who had bought them one more night to bid a melancholy farewell to each other and the world they had created. Titus was there, too, of course; his parents had indeed locked and barred the doors of his house, but they hadn’t thought yet to do the same with the windows. Spirits were lower there at that moment than they had ever been before in Duvbo, day or night. No one spoke; they simply sat in a circle around the small, struggling fire, staring into its dwindling flames, lost in their own thoughts.
Finally the woman in green broke the silence. “It’s just so sad, so unendurably sad,” she began, haltingly, “to discover what you spent your whole life longing for, to find that it was within you all along, and to explore it, to find out how much bigger and wilder it is than you’d ever imagined, and even share it with others, only to lose it, all of it, because of their fears.”
“Because of our fears,” the sorrowful police chief broke in. “Because of our fears. And there’s nothing we can do, however much we want it, however much it breaks our hearts.”
Ms. Darroway, still tall and proud even in this bleak moment, remained silent. Titus looked at her in horror and dismay: it was unthinkable to him that this powerful woman, who was practically a supernatural being in his eyes, might become, again, a mere math teacher, a woman who had to lecture and reprimand indifferent students all day as an actual life’s work rather than an alibi. Just as he had once before, on the first night he ventured outside his neighborhood, he gathered his courage—and spoke up.
“Is there really nothing we can do?” demanded the boy. “Aren’t we giving up too easily? Are you sure there isn’t something we haven’t thought of yet?”
“But what could that be?” asked his mailwoman, who still didn’t know that he had once believed so fervently that she could bring him an invitation to another world.
“Well, let’s think!” Titus furrowed his young brow. “if this is our last night together, and tomorrow we will never be able to meet again, well, at least we are free and together now. That’s something.”
“Yes, go on,” encouraged Ms. Darroway, quietly. “What can we do with that?”
“If we’re still free now, and we don’t want to lose that, and we know we’ll lose it tomorrow”—Titus pondered this, but there seemed no other way around it—“then I guess the only hope for us is that tomorrow doesn’t come.”
“And that’s impossible,” said the policeman. “The sun will rise in just a few hours, and then I’ll be just a policeman, nothing more, for the rest of my life.”
Titus was much younger than the others, though, and not as resigned to the inevitable as they were. “Who says it’s impossible?” he replied, surprised at his own voice. “I believed that it was impossible that you could be anything more than a policeman, before I stumbled into the dance here that first night. All we need is some magic to stop the sun from rising, and this world will be ours forever, as it has been only for a few hours at a time until now.”
“Magic? Yes, that’s what we’d need,” sighed the woman in green. “It’s too bad it’s only in our stories. We could use it in real life tonight!”
“Maybe we can!” said Titus, standing up. “What we need is a magical dance, a ceremony to stop the sun. Will you join me in making one?”
The others were silent; the hope in the little boy’s voice only saddened them more. But finally Ms. Darroway spoke up. “It’s true that when I came upon my first night gathering in Duvbo, years ago, when there were fewer people meeting than we are here tonight, I felt as though I’d found something magical,” she began. “It was like a miracle, something so totally different from everything I’d known that it seemed to defy the very laws of nature. If that’s what we’d need to discover again, tonight, for this story to have a happy ending, perhaps we shouldn’t despair yet, since it has already happened to each of us once.” She looked around at the others, her eyes bright in the firelight. “I’m ready to dance with the young man, unless any of you have a better idea. Even if it is our last night here, it’s better we spend in on our feet than at our own funeral.”
The others slowly rose and joined Titus on their feet. Titus seized a great burning branch from the fire, and lifted it high over his head, waving it defiantly towards the east. Ms. Darroway did the same, and the others followed. One of the firemen began to beat out a quiet rhythm on the one drum that remained with them, and the dancers began stamping their left feet, then their right. Titus took the towering woman’s hand, and they began spinning.
As they had so many times before, they left the world of solid things and gravity, and entered the world of energy and motion. The stars in the night sky, the red glow of firelight on the trees, the grass and shadows underfoot became a blurred background against which their bodies sailed, crisscrossed by the streaks of white light their torches left in the air. The rhythm intensified and accelerated. Their feet were flying over the soil, barely touching down long enough to push off again, their hearts pounded with the drums—their hearts were like drums themselves, inside them, urging them on. The others too were whirling now, coming in and out of their vision like comets, trailed by the afterimages of their torches, wild animals set free for a moment from fear and inertia and weight itself.
But they knew they had to break out of everything, to leave the world they had known entirely, so they danced harder and faster. Harder, so the drummer feared his thumbs might fly off; faster, so dizziness welled up in them in almost unendurable waves; harder, so they thought their bones would break and their fingers snap away; faster, until it seemed that their feet and hands and muscles themselves were fire, that they danced as only fire can dance through burning leaves. They danced as though mad, as though animated by demons or angels; leaping into flight, they kicked against the ground so hard it seemed the force must stop the earth’s rotation, must halt it dead in space.
They were so caught up in their dance, so absolutely possessed and entranced, that they didn’t even notice the light creeping into the sky in the east. They didn’t notice the first bird calls, as the breeze lifted the branches of the trees overhead; they didn’t notice the red clouds burning away to reveal the first ray of sunlight shining over the horizon; they didn’t even notice as the sun crept up, over the hills, and morning began. There they spun and flew and twirled, the torches shooting out sparks around them, sweat raining down upon the grass from their bodies, eyes rolled back in their heads; they were oblivious to all but the magical world of the dance. This is how their fellow townspeople found them that morning.
And a strange thing happened. As the first early risers filtered out into the streets, and saw their companions from previous nights of abandon here in the sunlight, leaping without shame in the same unchained motion they too had savored, one by one they came forward and joined them. They, too, began to dance as if it were still night, as if they were wearing masks that hid their identities, as if no one were watching—as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Slowly all Duvbo assembled in that square, as they had so many midnights before, but now with no camouflage or subterfuge; all, that is, of course, except the two retired army officers, who had the sense to get out of town immediately and never come back.
The schools and offices were empty that day, and the next day as well; and no one in Duvbo ever had to sit up straight and quiet, or struggle silently with boredom, or cast a suspicious eye on a neighbor again. Some say you can still find the townspeople there, that life in that village is a continuous festival that knows no beginning or end; others say Duvbo is a hidden and wandering town, that it appears for moments or hours in every city across the world, unexpected and unpredictable, and one day it will emerge everywhere at once. Still others insist that the whole thing is just a myth, or a bedtime story to be told to little children without being believed; but at your wise age, little one, I’m sure you know better than to believe the ones who speak like that.
…like all children are born to smuggle in the end of the world with no one qualified to herd them…
From Victor Jara to Public Enemy, music has played a pivotal role in countless cultures of resistance. A large proportion of those who participated in the anarchist movement between 1978 and 2010 were part of the punk counterculture at some point; indeed, many were first exposed to anarchist ideas via punk. This may have been merely circumstantial: perhaps the same traits that made people seek out anarchism also predisposed them to enjoy aggressive, independently produced music. But one could also argue that music that pushes aesthetic and cultural boundaries can open up listeners to a wider spectrum of possibility in other spheres of life as well.
Yet just as anarchism was coming into its own in the US around the turn of the century, radical activity in the domestic punk scene began a nosedive. Now that it is no longer possible to depend on the punk1 subculture as an incubator for anarchists, we should set out to understand how and why it served that role for thirty years.
Preface: When Punk Was a Recruiting Ground for Anarchy
“People talk about ‘preaching to the converted’—well who fucking converted them?”
-Penny Rimbaud of Crass
There are countless reasons not to tie the fate of a revolutionary movement to the fortunes of a music scene. Coming into anarchism via punk, people tended to approach anarchist activity in the same way they would participate in a youth subculture. This contributed to an anarchist milieu characterized by consumerism rather than initiative, a focus on identity rather than dynamic change, activities limited to the leisure time of the participants, ideological conflicts that boil down to disputes over taste, and an orientation towards youth that made the movement largely irrelevant upon the onset of adulthood.
Yet during the decades of global reaction that followed the 1960s, the punk underground was one of the chief catalysts of the renaissance of anarchism. Were it not for punk, anti-capitalists in many parts of the world might still be choosing between stale brands of authoritarian socialism.
Granted, the average punk show was as dominated by patriarchy as a college classroom. All the hierarchies, economics, and power dynamics of capitalist society were present in microcosm. And anarchism was not the only creed that utilized this soapbox: countless ideologies competed in the punk milieu, from Neo-Nazism to Christianity and Krishna “consciousness.” But all this only makes it more striking that anarchist ideas fared so well, considering that they gained less purchase in other circles at the time.
We can attribute that success to structural factors. Many years before internet access became widespread, the do-it-yourself punk scene offered a rare model for horizontal and participatory activity. Organizing their own affairs in decentralized networks, participants experienced firsthand the benefits of leaderless autonomy. Once you’ve booked a tour yourself, sidestepping the monopoly of profiteering venues, record labels, and tour promoters, it’s not hard to imagine organizing other aspects of your life in a similar way. At the same time, in a youth culture founded on opposition to authority, there were fewer built-in mechanisms to suppress radical ideas.
It’s also possible that anarchist values took root in the punk scene precisely because they were so marginalized elsewhere: in an era when radical ideas were pushed to the periphery, peripheral subcultures teemed with them. This can create a feedback loop that keeps those ideas marginal, as they are not associated with popular or successful initiatives. The romanticization of obscurity and failure that made punk hospitable terrain for revolutionary ideals in the 1980s did not encourage their new partisans to fight to win outside the punk ghetto.
But the self-imposed exile of the punk community was also an effective defense mechanism through an era of capitalist cooptation. The punk scene helped keep anarchist ideas alive between the 1970s and the 21st century in the same way that monasteries preserved science and literature through the Dark Ages. Although the demands and influence of the capitalist economy recreated the same power imbalances and materialism that punks had hoped to escape—limiting the punk critique of capitalism to a variant of the liberal maxim “buy local”—the anti-capitalist DIY underground displayed a remarkable resilience. In a cycle that became familiar, each generation expanded until profit-driven record labels skimmed the most popular apolitical bands off the top, setting the stage for a return to grassroots independence and experimentation. So the punk scene provided the music industry a free testing and development site for new bands and trends, but this process also served to cleanse it of parasites.
Far from MTV talent scouts, competing independent labels, and alternative consumerism, you could find something beautiful and free at the heart of the DIY underground. At best, it was a space in which the roles of protagonist and audience became interchangeable and the dictates of the dominant culture were shaken off.
Let’s contrast this with the models of anarchist activity that are currently in vogue. While political activism often focuses on matters outside the daily lives of the participants, and thus tends to cost more energy than it generates, DIY punk was basically pleasure-oriented, offering activities that were fulfilling in and of themselves. Although this might appear frivolous, sociality and affirmation are as essential as food or housing. In some parts of the world, the punk scene was significantly more working class and underclass than much of the current anarchist milieu; this may indicate that it provided for real needs, rather than catering to the middle class propensity for abstraction. In contrast to protests, which are often criticized as reactive, at its best punk emphasized creativity, demonstrating a concrete alternative. It was youth-oriented, yes; but as youth are among the most potentially rebellious and open to new ideas, this could be seen as an advantage. In focusing on self-expression, it enabled participants to build their confidence and experience in low-risk efforts, while producing a great deal of artwork that doubled as outreach material; as a decentralized cultural movement, it reproduced itself organically rather than through institutional efforts.
Were we to attempt to invent a cultural counterpart to contemporary activism that could replenish energy and propagate anarchist values among young people, we could do worse. Meme culture alone has considerably less to recommend it.
Anarchists often complained that in actuality, the punk scene was full of people with no regard for anarchist values. Unfortunately, if you want to introduce new people to anarchism, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of people who are not anarchists. This is especially true in the United States, in which so few people grow up with any exposure to radical ideas at all. In Italy, by contrast, anarchist punks could say “Punk equals anarchy plus guitars and drums; anything less is just submission.”
There’s a lot to be said for operating in diverse environments, in which the ideas of individuals and the culture that connects them are still evolving. Because the punk scene was not beholden to any rigid ideological framework, it offered a more fertile space for experimentation than many more explicitly radical milieus. Had this lesson been applied elsewhere—had anarchists initiated influential projects in other politically diverse, horizontal, network-based milieus—anarchist ideas might have spread further afield.
Though critics often accused the punk scene of being nothing more than a playpen for privileged First World consumers, punk has been integral in the resurgence of anarchist ideas far outside the US and Europe. While punk arguably originated in Britain and the US, a great proportion of the activity of the global punk underground took place in Latin America and the Pacific rim, not to mention South Africa, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and the former Soviet bloc. In many of those nations, punk is still more overtly associated with radical politics than it has been in the United States; punk was especially instrumental in revitalizing anarchism in contexts in which there was no radical alternative to Marxist hegemony. It would be instructive to examine why punk took root in nations like Brazil, Malaysia, and the Philippines but not India or most Arabic-speaking nations, and study how this correlates with the spread of anarchist ideas over the past thirty years.
Punk and Resistance: A Trajectory
The first major wave of politicized punk can probably be traced to the British band Crass, which drew on Dadaism and other avant-garde traditions to fashion early punk rock into a form of cultural agitprop. Decades later, a visitor to Britain could find small circles of middle-aged anarcho-punks who had been politicized by Crass still participating in the same independent music underground and resuming the same arguments about The Clash whenever they got drunk.
In the United States, over a decade later, the DIY underground of the mid-1990s contributed to an increase in animal rights activism and helped pave the way for the anti-globalization movement. Magazines such as Profane Existence introduced radical perspectives on everything from feminism to firearms; DIY communities developed in which everyone wrote a zine, played in a band, or hosted basement shows; even in the most macho scenes, every band addressed the audience between songs—if only, in some cases, to urge people to dance more violently.
On the eve of the debut of the anti-globalization movement,2 hundreds of punks gathered in Philadelphia late in April 1999 for Millions for Mumia, a march to deter the state of Pennsylvania from executing Mumia Abu-Jamal. For many, it was the first time they had traveled out of town for a protest; likewise, though no major conflict took place with the police, it was the first time most of them had assembled publicly in black masks and sweatshirts. This moment, in which politicized punks realized that there were enough of them to constitute a social force, set the stage for everything that came after; a year later, many of the participants fought shoulder to shoulder at the demonstrations against the IMF/World Bank meeting of April 2000 in Washington, DC. The night following the march, a standing-room-only crowd assembled at Stalag 13, a local DIY venue, to see His Hero Is Gone; there was a feeling in the air that there was no real distinction between subcultural identity and political activity. That same year, the Primate Freedom Tour achieved a synthesis of punk music and radical activism, using a series of shows around the country to promote regional demonstrations against laboratories experimenting on primates.
The DIY boom of the mid-1990s fed into the momentum of the anti-globalization movement. Those who had been in or around punk bands already understood how an affinity group worked; operating in decentralized networks and coordinating autonomous actions came naturally. It was easy for people who routinely traveled across the country to engage in rowdy subcultural events to shift to traveling across the country to participate in rowdy anti-capitalist demonstrations. So-called “summit-hopping” offered many of the same inducements as punk—risk, excitement, togetherness, opportunities to be creative and oppose injustice—along with the additional attraction of feeling that you were on the front lines of history.
In the period leading up to this explosion of political activity, punk music and culture had become more experimental as punks sought to match daring aesthetics to radical rhetoric. There had always been a tension in punk between the folk art aspects of the craft—three-chord musical progressions and hand-drawn layouts—and the desire to innovate and challenge. As the subculture offered participants broader conceptions of what could be possible, they began to play music and make demands that strained against the limitations of the medium. On one hand, innovative music could make radical ideas more compelling: following an unfamiliar yet exhilarating experience, a listener might be more likely to believe that an entirely different world was possible. On the other hand, this experimentation contributed to the fragmentation of the punk subculture, as traditions were abandoned and the standards for musicianship and creativity reached prohibitive heights.
Volatile phenomena eventually break into their constituent elements and stabilize. The Swedish band Refused, for example, who had combined hardcore, techno, jazz, and classical music on their final album, split asunder in 1998, and the members went on to form much more traditional bands according to their individual tastes—none of which were nearly as interesting as Refused. Once there was an anarchist movement for the most politicized punks to join, a similar process occurred within the punk scene. Until 1999, politicized punks tended to stick around the DIY underground, as there was usually no larger revolutionary milieu to move on to; playing music and writing zines were seen as political activity, despite the narrow horizons of the subculture. All that changed after the 1999 WTO protests, which kicked off an era of non-stop demonstrations and political organizing. Most of the people who were serious about their politics shifted focus away from the punk scene. Meanwhile, the people who were involved in punk only for music and fashion remained, and led a reaction against political engagement of all kinds. While others focused on anarchist convergences, black blocs, and accountability processes, the reactionaries were the ones still booking shows and recording albums, and they set the tone for an apolitical and musically conservative 21st century punk scene.
Between 1998 and 2002, nearly every band that had helped to politicize the punk underground broke up, and many influential magazines ceased publication. By May 2002, when Boston anarchists staged the Festival del Pueblo, a rupture had developed between the aesthetic and political elements in the subculture, evident in tensions between punks who only attended for the shows and anarchists striving to establish a revolutionary movement. To name a single example, the person who had booked the His Hero Is Gone show after Millions for Mumia and later played a role in anarchist organizing against the Republican National Convention of 2000 came to perform with his band, but headed home afterwards rather than attending the demonstration scheduled for the following day.
A few years later, the split between punk and anarchism was complete. Even Against Me, the progenitors of the folk punk reaction to the stagnation of the anarcho-punk scene, had deserted the DIY movement and eschewed their former anarchist politics. From Ashes Rise, who had been colleagues of the uncompromisingly independent His Hero Is Gone, signed to a larger record label and recorded a final album with songs about nuclear war—a regression to 1980s nostalgia all the more absurd in the midst of the Iraq war—before breaking up. Punk—at least for that generation—had reached the end of its trajectory as a force for social change.
Technology, Legitimacy, and Accessibility
Let’s return to the resurgence of folk punk shortly after the turn of the century. His Hero Is Gone had been one of the first DIY bands to shift from single speaker cabinets to full stacks, and within a few years every band that wished to be taken seriously had done the same. This led to an arms race and a sort of aesthetic inflation: no volume was loud enough, no recording powerful enough, no gear expensive enough.3 Folk punk was a reaction to this: an accessible, cheap, self-consciously unrefined format. Yet it never achieved the popularity of gear-based punk; tellingly, the flagship band Against Me shifted to standard rock instrumentation in the course of their shift to corporate careerism.
Similarly, one might ask why, out of all the formats that flourished in the DIY underground, there were never any traveling drama troupes. On the face of it, theater would be the perfect medium for independent performers with limited access to resources. A drama troupe could travel without expensive equipment or need of a large vehicle; performances could take place practically anywhere. Dario Fo, the Living Theater… radical theater has had a rich history in every other nation and era. Puppet shows were practically a cliché on the DIY circuit—so why not drama?
This indicates a lingering materialism in DIY culture. Equipment, be it a shoddy cardboard puppet stage or ten thousand dollars’ worth of amplifiers, conferred the legitimacy that both performers and audiences longed for. “Look,” working class dropouts could say to themselves, gesturing at a rusty van full of gear that cost them years of wages, “we’re a real band!”
In capitalist society, activities are invested with meaning primarily through the marketplace and the media. Rock music was originally a working class art form that came to be cultivated by capitalists as a cash crop; the meaning people find in it is real enough, but it is generated through forces largely beyond their control. Rock stars are important precisely because not everyone can be one. Paradoxically, punks took up the rock format as a way of asserting their own importance, even in the process of rebelling against the corporations that introduced them to it.
One could read the rise and fall of DIY punk as the historical “hiccup” during which record-releasing and printing technology first became accessible to the general public. Crass was one of the first bands to release their own records; this was exciting because they were using technology that had been largely unavailable to the working class. Within a couple decades, however, this development was rendered moot by technological advances and oversaturation. Once anyone could release a record, it wasn’t meaningful anymore—it wasn’t “real” in the sense that everything on television is “real” while our lives feel unreal and insignificant.
The punk scene had been founded on the tensions created by limited access to the musical means of production; with the arrival of technologies that extended this access to everyone, its structures collapsed. The internet replaced painstakingly built distribution networks and zine cultures with the offhand immediacy of music downloading and blogs; some of this took place in genuinely decentralized structures, but more of it was based in corporate counterfeits such as myspace.com. The proliferation of the latter was particularly ironic in that the DIY underground had been a testing area for the sort of network-based systems that the internet universalized.
When every band of middle-class teenagers could have their own webpage and home recording studio, the ensuing disenchantment revealed how banal the promise of rock stardom had been in the first place. In some ways, it is healthy to be divested of one’s illusions, especially the ones instilled by one’s enemies. On the other hand, if nothing takes their place, this only drains the world of meaning even further—and pure nihilism helps maintain the status quo.
Punk had been exciting because, in contrast to corporate rock, it offered a relatively unmediated experience: one could meet one’s favorite musicians, dance and interact outside the prescriptions of a repressive society, even form one’s own band and remake the subculture itself. Thousands of people attended Black Flag shows because they offered a genuinely different experience than anything corporate capitalism had to offer. But once the internet made every band into its own promotions agency and youtube.com made it possible for everyone to appear on the equivalent of MTV, independent music was no less mediated than corporate music, and no less vapid.
Learning from Punk
Punk’s long run as a breeding ground for anarchism shows how much we stand to gain from social activities that are pleasurable and creative. In nurturing organic cultural currents, we can create social movements that do not depend on any one institution but are naturally self-reproducing. Ideally, they should be subversive while not immediately provoking repression—it’s important that the lines be drawn, but participants must have enough time to go through an evolutionary process before the police break out their batons. A sustainable space that nurtures long-term communities of resistance can ultimately contribute more to militant struggle than the sort of impatient insurrectionism that starts with confrontation rather than building to it.
As much as punk has been dismissed as insular, the success of anarcho-punk demonstrates how effective it can be for anarchists to invest themselves in ongoing outreach in a milieu of a manageable scale. All the better if it is a politically diverse space in which debate and dynamic change can occur and new people can encounter radical ideas.
At the same time, it is crippling for a social movement aimed at transforming the whole of life to be associated with a single subculture. Learning from years of anarchist organizing rooted in the punk scene, we can see the importance of creating spaces that bring people from many backgrounds together on an equal footing. Likewise, we can learn from the factors that both produced and crippled punk, such as the love-hate relationship with rock stardom. Channeling desires fostered by capitalist society into resistance movements can produce swift growth, but also fatal flaws that only come to light over time.
Today, in the anarchist movement, we sometimes miss the Dionysian spirit that characterized the hardcore punk underground at its high point: the collective, embodied experience of dangerous freedom. This is how punk can inspire us in our anarchist experiments of today and tomorrow: as a transformative outlet for rage and grief and joy, a positive model for togetherness and self-determination in our social relations, an example of how the destructive urge can also be creative—and vice versa.
The term “punk” has been used to describe a broad range of phenomena over the past four and a half decades. In this analysis, it refers to the social and cultural networks associated with the do-it-yourself underground, not to any particular musical style or fashion. ↩
On June 18, 1999, a global day of action coinciding with the 25th G8 summit, London was shut down by a Reclaim the Streets “Carnival Against Capitalism” that resulted in massive rioting. The independent news coverage of this event presaged the Indymedia network that was formed during the historic demonstrations against the WTO summit in Seattle five months later, and heralded a new era of anti-capitalist organizing. ↩
Anyone familiar with the inner workings of the music industry knows that few venues, fewer labels, and almost no musicians make money on their efforts. So where does all the money go? Perhaps to the gear manufacturers. One can find innumerable used amplifiers for sale that “never left the basement”—as usual, capitalists sell us impossible dreams, then cash in on our attempts to realize them. ↩
Starting in 1996, CrimethInc. released some of the most passionate and provocative music in the hardcore punk underground—bands like Catharsis, Zegota, and Trial. For the sake of posterity, in a grudging concession to the platforms of Web 2.0, we’ve uploaded the majority of these albums to a bandcamp page, where you can download them for free (though we won’t refuse donations). Please help us keep this chapter of our cultural heritage in living memory.
The do-it-yourself punk scene from which these bands emerged brought together the desperation and rage of the disenfranchised in a generative primordial froth. In the beginning, the riots erupting from these concerts pitted the participants against each other, as at the notorious Catharsis shows with Gehenna in Reno in 1997 and with Point of No Return in Belo Horizonte in 2000, both of which ended in mass violence. Later, this force was turned against the ruling order, as in the uncontrollable march following the Anti-Flag show after the 2005 presidential inauguration.
For more perspective on the relationship between hardcore punk and anarchism, read “Music as a Weapon,” which originally appeared in issue 7 of our journal Rolling Thunder.
Some of you will notice that this collection is not complete. Albums by Gehenna, Timebomb, Filastine, and Test Their Logik are already available through their respective Bandcamps. We are still seeking several other CrimethInc. releases in internet-ready formats, including all of the Inside Front compilations. If you have the ability to supply us with lossless files (FLAC/WAV) of any of these albums, as well as large (>1400px) JPGs of the album covers, please send them to us.
We’ve mailed out all 150,000 copies of the English printing of To Change Everything, our introduction to anarchism. In case that’s not enough, our tireless designers have prepared an imposed PDF version so you can print them out and distribute them wherever you are. Please help us keep this project in circulation over the years to come! Thanks again to everyone who helped us fund the original printing.
In our zine library, you can download online viewing versions and PDFs imposed for printing, in black-and-white and in color.
Altogether, over 240,000 print copies of To Change Everything are circulating now in over 30 languages, including more than 30,000 copies in German, 16,000 copies in Portuguese, and an additional 10,000 in English for the UK. Print runs of 1000 or more have appeared in Québecois French, Slovenian, and other less common tongues; versions in Arabic and Farsi were distributed along the Balkan route during the so-called “migrant crisis” of 2015; to our knowledge, it may be the only anarchist text printed in Maltese.
Having accomplished the goals we initially set for To Change Everything, we’ll put our energy and resources towards our next projects. If you are outraged that we are not making another printing of it ourselves, and you have access to considerable financial resources, please contact us and offer your assistance!
When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in September, flooding countless towns and temporarily turning the city of Wilmington into an island, anarchists involved with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and other grassroots projects swung immediately into action. Dozens of anarchists provided resources and relief work to residents of countless cities, towns, and rural settlements in over a dozen counties, spanning a great deal of the eastern part of the state. In the following accounts, participants describe their experiences and the obstacles they encountered along the way. As Hurricane Michael threatens to hit the same areas impacted by Hurricane Florence and climate change catalyzed by global capitalism generates increasingly destructive “natural” disasters, it’s more important than ever to understand disaster response as part of our collective efforts towards liberation.
I. Disaster Is the Status Quo
Anonymous, October 7
Where I live was mostly spared from the immediate effects of Hurricane Florence. While I was safe in my home, reports began to pour in about the increasing damage out east. Dramatic pictures of historic storm surge plastered the headlines alongside reports of people needing immediate rescue. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew taught us that the damage during the hurricane itself is only the beginning. Some parts of North Carolina received six months of rain in two to four days—historic record-breaking quantities of water. As the storm surge receded, the rain from across the whole state made its way east down the river basins to flood the areas that had already been hit hardest by the initial impact of the hurricane.
If we wanted to intervene, we had only a short window of time. In a few days, the floodwaters and the response from the Department of Transportation would block access to the worst-hit areas. It would take time for the disaster relief organizations to establish control of the effort, and the state needed time to cement control via their apparatuses.
Some friends and I had spoken in advance about what we might do to help out. We got back together the morning after the storm made landfall to discuss our options and lay plans. Other comrades were already in eastern NC on their way to Wilmington, where they had secured a space in which to base their operations.
The hurricane hit some of the poorest counties in North Carolina hard. Some of us had deep connections to those places. We decided to visit the more rural areas. It was likely that these counties would receive less attention than the well-known towns. We talked about what the residents’ needs might be and how we could prepare to help.
Eastern North Carolina has a few features that take newcomers by surprise. First, it’s flat for miles upon miles. The coastal plain was once dominated by the long-leaf pine savanna, an awe-inducing and amazingly diverse ecosystem that capitalist development has reduced to about 2% of its historical range via logging and fire suppression (since these ecosystems require wildfires to sustain themselves). Second, a good portion of eastern North Carolina smells like hog waste. There’s a good reason for this: it’s because there is hog waste everywhere. North Carolina has one of the world’s biggest hog industries. Along with massive chicken, turkey, and tobacco farming and similar enterprises, this has reduced one of the most diverse ecosystems on the continent to hundreds of square miles of industrial agriculture.
It’s estimated that there are approximately three times as many hogs as people in North Carolina. The vast majority of them are concentrated in the eastern and southeastern coastal plain. These hogs are shipped around the state to various processing facilities, including the biggest slaughterhouse in the world. Owned by Smithfield and located in Tar Heel, NC, it kills about 32,000 hogs daily—roughly the same number as the student body of UNC Chapel Hill, an affluent university in the center of the state.
The hogs’ waste is stored in gigantic retention ponds. There are approximately 4000 of these. Through complex capitalist acrobatics, the hog farmers are often trapped in rental contracts to the effect that one of the only aspects of their operations that they own is the hog waste. When the ponds threaten to overflow, the farmers often spray waste over their crop fields in order to avoid violations. This literally covers some of the poorest counties in hog waste. Flash floods, hurricanes, and similar events empty these ponds for the farmers, washing untreated waste downriver and causing massive ecological damage. A breach in one of these ponds is often followed by massive marine life die-offs, closures of water access due to toxicity, and well-water contamination, among other long-term consequences.
As we traveled east, the landscape grew more and more ominous. Gloomy skies gave way to heavy winds and intermittent rains. We followed flooded and closed roads around small towns without electrical power. Fallen trees lay across wrecked houses and power lines. Here and there, an abandoned car hinted at a dire story; out-of-place objects were littered around us. In one dramatic scene, we came upon agricultural storage tanks, some thirty feet high, that had been thrown across the road and rolled into adjacent fields.
When we arrived at the coastal town where we were staying, we saw even more damage. The storm surge had inflicted the highest water level in their history. Standing water crept throughout the streets of town; docks were torn apart; pieces of houses littered the streets. Boats were perched sideways atop the docks, perhaps having experienced a better fate than the boats now only slightly above the water.
After removing a fell tree from a house in the town, we drove around the county to see how we could help. Most of the residents hadn’t yet returned from the mandatory evacuation, so the already sparsely populated county felt even more abandoned. We chatted with some people who were just coming back home to their trailer park and passed along some water and food to them. The floodwaters blocked access to many of the regions we attempted to visit, but we also had many comforting interactions with residents of the county who were going around checking on each other, delivering supplies, and providing aid wherever people needed it.
As was widely reported, police and emergency crews from all around America came to eastern North Carolina as part of the larger relief effort. The relief efforts were staged in central locations, often near courthouses and jails. At first, we hoped that the people at these staging areas could help us learn how to plug into local efforts.
We went to a small town center and presented ourselves to the first person we saw—a cop from New York City, as it turned out. He cut short our introduction, warning us that there was a strict curfew in effect and that we needed to be on the watch for looters. He emphasized how dangerous the area was, insisting that these looters posed a serious threat. We gleaned no useful information about the needs of those who had been hit by the storm; our efforts definitely did not feel welcome. To me, it was clear that his role was to orchestrate the relief effort according to a prescribed agenda, so people in need would remain disempowered and criminalized.
Nevertheless, as the day went on, we found ways to help out. We delivered food to farmworkers whose employer had abandoned them without food or any idea as to when work might resume. We checked on people whose loved ones had not heard from them. We cleared trees from roads in the flooded neighborhoods to which people were beginning to return.
Then we stopped by the disaster relief center in New Bern. New Bern was hit particularly hard by the storm surge, which crested at over ten feet. We asked around for information and direction. Someone pointed us to the police sergeant who was overseeing the effort. When we explained what we were doing and asked if he knew where we could plug into relief efforts, his first question was “What kind of people are you trying to help?” We repeated ourselves, emphasizing that we were there to assist anyone who was in need of help as a consequence of the storm.
He knew were we could plug in, he told us. His wife owned a bar downtown that had experienced some flood damage, and he tried to assign us to help her clean it out. We politely declined. Then he sent us to a neighborhood fifteen minutes away that he said had been hit really hard, with instructions to tell anyone who asked that he had sent us in order that we would be perceived as possessing some legitimacy.
He sent us to a country club. It was true: their golf course, private lake, and large front lawns had taken quite a bit of damage from fallen trees. Yet in this neighborhood, there were many companies that specialized in relief work already clearing trees and working on home repairs. When the sergeant told us to go to this neighborhood fifteen minutes away, streets just three blocks from the relief center were blocked by fallen trees and lined with homes with standing water in them. There were no relief teams there to help them, no companies working overtime. People had just begun to come back to their homes; they were searching for a warm meal before picking up the pieces of their lives.
Some of the ways that the damage from natural disasters impacts poor people are obvious. Poorer neighborhoods are often built in areas that are more susceptible to disaster; the homes of the poor often aren’t in good enough condition to withstand a storm. Other ways that natural disasters impact poor people are subtle. For example, when police are positioned as the ones who conduct disaster relief efforts, this empowers them to utilize natural disasters as opportunities to target the marginalized and vulnerable.
We’ve become accustomed to hearing stories about gigantic amounts of food, water, and supplies not reaching the people who need them most. This is no accident. Rather, it is the completely avoidable consequence of an approach to disaster relief that serves capitalism at every turn. If that were the whole story—a cold and calculated approach to maximizing profit during disaster—it would be a horror, but this is not all there is to say about the ethos of the state. In addition to aiming to facilitate exploitation, representatives of the state also utilize disasters to hatefully eliminate unwanted portions of society. Every interaction we had with the police showcased how their role, as representative of the system they serve, was to ensure that undesired persons did not receive the help they desperately needed and to reinforce the systems and myths that have been constructed to block people from solving their problems without the state. In view of this, the amount of money that has traded hands in the weeks following Hurricane Florence is maddening.
Over the following weeks, we heard story after story about insurance money not coming through due to fine print (such as flood damage being covered, but not in case of a hurricane), or the payouts amounting to a fraction of the costs people were dealing with. As we tore molding insulation and ductwork out from under flooded houses, we heard how people were forced to work extra hours to make up the time they had missed due to the hurricane. We patched a damaged roof belonging to a man whose son was a roofer; the son had been making too much money due to the hurricane to come and patch his own father’s leaking home. A group of people who were accused of looting a store in Wilmington were arrested and displayed as trophies by local police even after the store requested that the police not press charges against them. In South Carolina, police drove a van containing two prisoners into rising floodwaters and lost control. They climbed out to await rescue on the roof while their prisoners drowned beneath their feet.
Many farmworkers, subject to precarious conditions in worker camps, endured considerable suffering. Farm owners, who are legally obligated to feed their workers, abandoned hundreds of them behind flooded roads without food or water.
We delivered supplies to some of these people. They told us stories about how they had been treated. Some had been told that if they weren’t present when the owner returned, they would lose their jobs, which would put their legal status in jeopardy. They were in limbo without food, water, or work, with their legal status tied to absent employers. In one case, we gave aid to a large group of women living in an abandoned building owned by their employer, who had cut off the power and left them with no supplies and no assurance of when he would return. These employers put their workers in incredibly dangerous situations without the basic supplies necessary for survival. When we delivered food and water to people who hadn’t had food for many days, they told us that we needed to be careful to visit only when their employers were away, because their employers didn’t want us helping them.
When one river crested days after the initial storm, a building inhabited by some of these workers flooded dramatically. They called 911 and requested a rescue, but no one came. It turned out that the landowner had called and canceled the emergency response, saying that the workers were fine. They stayed on their roof as the floodwaters overtook their housing, continuing to call for help with no response.
While coal ash full of arsenic, untreated wastewater, and hog sewage seeped down the waterways into the ocean, people were trying to get back on their feet. When farm work resumed, the crops were so damaged that in some cases workers could only make a fraction of their previous earnings on the few days of work they were offered. Farmworkers were pulling rotten sweet potatoes out of knee-deep polluted river mud for 40 cents a bucket, or leave their worksites in search of other opportunities. Residents queued up for home repair work that insurance refused to cover. Temperatures reached 90 degrees in an unseasonable warm spell while the insulation and air conditioning in flooded homes grew deadly black mold. Mosquitoes made the front-page news in many counties due to their massive breeding success, thanks to the record-breaking rainfall. People screamed at each other over how resources were distributed. Radicals were pushed out of relief spaces or ordered to pretend to be apolitical volunteers by organizations that aimed to control the relief narrative. Right-wing militants paraded in heavily armed anti-looting patrols to great patriotic fanfare.
All of this was avoidable. The state deals a death sentence to the people and landscapes it exploits. Massive amounts of wealth are centralized via these disasters. As catastrophes create the illusion of a blank slate for capitalists to reinvent reality according to a more profitable blueprint, the people who are attempting to put their lives back together are dealt a volley of hardships. Many people were still in the process of recovering from hurricane Matthew two years prior when Florence destroyed whatever progress they had managed to make.
This continues as supplies rot, guarded out of reach of those who need them most. These disasters will be in effect for years after their initial impact. Like Katrina and every storm before it, the damage Hurricane Florence caused will be quantified as a dollar amount, leaving out all the other forms of harm inflicted on people and animals. When you see the effects of Florence reduced to a billion-dollar price tag, remember—those billions are exactly what made it such a disaster in the first place.
II. The Anarchists Showed up First
Anonymous, September 27
We were sitting in our driveway in Wilmington, NC when a truck with a kayak strapped to the roof pulled up. The power had come back on just a few minutes earlier; it was the Sunday after the hurricane hit. Someone from the truck walked up and asked if [redacted] was here. I introduced myself and they told me that my friend hadn’t heard from me and was worried; they had stopped by on their way to make sure I was OK. The people in the truck introduced themselves as Mutual Aid Disaster Relief; they gave us a box of food and other supplies and asked if we needed anything else.
I was happy to see new faces after days of isolation without electricity, and even more so to meet people who were comrades as well. Before they left, we planned to meet the following day to start organizing a response to the destruction inflicted by Hurricane Florence. Not long after the truck pulled away, my neighbor came running out to flag down a cop car that was flying down our residential street in order to ask for updates. They learned very little. I pointed out that it was the anarchists who showed up first to check on us, whereas they had to flag down the cop, who had no intention of checking on any of us. Later on, some comrades came back to crash with us and plan for the following weeks.
The next day, we split up into crews. Some of us went to the space we were going to be working out of; others went to scout the neighborhoods to see who needed help with repairs, cleanup, tree removal, and the like. Florence had devastated some of the most already marginalized communities: whole bedroom ceilings had collapsed, leaving everything exposed and soaking wet; roofs had been torn off the tops of the trailers as if by a can opener; trees were impaled through houses; there were loose hanging electrical wires and downed telephone poles all over town.
We saw a considerable number of DHS and Border Patrol vehicles driving around. ICE was sure to be around as well. We notified local residents and distributed the number for the legal hotline, as well as cleaning up and starting to make connections with people throughout the city to learn who needed help and who else would be interested in helping. We regrouped afterwards to talk about the next steps. Our staging space was a small school located in the lower-income part of town, owned by the city but run by liberals. It was out of commission due to the hurricane; in the beginning, they welcomed us gladly.
Later on, another crew joined us, driving a box truck to and from the airport to pick up supplies that were being flown in from Virginia and parts of North Carolina that had not been hit by the worst parts of the hurricane. We were the first group of people—before any government agency or NGO—to arrange for supplies to be flown in and air-dropped for distribution to those who survived the hurricane. This aroused the suspicions of some military and police officials, who were perplexed and embarrassed that a bunch of strange-looking people were already responding to the disaster before anyone even knew when to expect FEMA or other state organizations to show up.
We began distributing supplies throughout the community as soon as our space was open. From the beginning, we ran according to the principles of mutual aid and gift economics: take what you need, offer what you can share, volunteer if you’re able. We shared food, water, medical supplies, hygiene products, soap, household cleaning supplies, clothes, blankets, shoes, baby formula, and diapers; trained first responders and EMTs were there to offer medical assistance. We also set up a table offering zines sent to us by Occupied Southwest Distro, covering topics including anarchism, mutual aid, policing, capitalism, prison abolition, feminism, disaster relief, responding to trauma, police violence, consent, and security culture; some recounted previous Mutual Aid Disaster Response experiences from prior emergencies, such as Hurricane Harvey. In addition to all this, there was also a phone charging station and a lounge area.
The first day our space was open, we distributed food throughout the community, sent crews out to other parts of town, and picked up supplies from the airport. We were already meeting people who offered to volunteer alongside us.
The next day, people from the community who’d visited the day before to get supplies showed up to volunteer. The distribution was already essentially self-managed by members of the community. This enabled us to focus more on the logistics of flying in supplies, and reaching out to other communities that were more isolated or located in the city’s blind spots. Every day added 100-200 people to the previous day’s numbers; by the third day, we served 400 or 500 people at the space, plus the crews traveling out to provide aid to people who were unable to get there. We reached many elderly and disabled folks this way, and brought food, water, and other supplies directly to many families who were unable to find transportation to us. We also had been helping with house repairs, providing tarps for roofs that were exposed, and cleaning up debris and fallen trees from homes.
Already the project was growing and thriving, practically running itself. Every day, I would see people come up unsure of who we were and what was going on at this school that had been turned into a space for the community. Often they were visibly upset, in need of help, dragging their feet towards the door, asking us if we had anything to eat. Of course we did—”Come right on in!” They would leave with bags of supplies and smiles on their faces.
Many members of the mostly Black and Latino/Latina communities were also interested in the zine table. I can still see the huge smile that greeted me as I said, “Those are great choices!” to the elderly woman who had selected titles including “Everybody Hates the Police,” “Life Without Law,” and “Learning From Ferguson.” But by the time the zine table was half empty, some of the liberals had also taken notice of the zines, as well. They didn’t read “What Anarchists Have Been Saying for Years, and What Liberals need to start Hearing” or “Accomplices Not Allies”—they just raised their eyebrows at the critiques of police. I soon noticed them passing the zines around to each other and staring at me; I guessed they were making phone calls to their superiors.
Within a few hours, some of the liberals that had been shadowing us and the community members who were taking the literature asked us not to distribute it, describing it as “divisive” and “too political.” We were asked to “keep politics out of it”—they told us that the facility was on good standing with the local police. We pointed out a strange dynamic that was emerging in the space: liberal, white staff members were the ones asking us to keep politics out of it, while Black community members would converse with us about the zines and talk about their experiences with police and city officials. The staff members were not happy with us pointing out this dynamic and stated that they were not racist. No one had accused them of racism.
This was the first sign of trouble, but we continued to bring in supplies, clean up debris and felled trees, and repair houses. We removed the zines to avoid drama, because we felt it was more important to have the space to be there for the community no matter what. But over the following days, people came up to me to ask for more zines, and we began to discuss other projects we could do in the community on a more long-term basis.
Community members warned us of what was to come. Soon, there would be visits from news crews—even Mayor Bill Saffo finally showed up a week and a half later for a photo shoot. We also started to notice an increase in attention from the local police, who would drive their patrol cars around the space periodically throughout the day and night. This was the same police force responsible for murdering two black men and a young white woman with a mental illness—the same police force that had purchased a brand new L-RAD device for “announcements” and introduced training for “peace officers” that thrilled the local liberal career activists.
For two weeks, the community came together to hold it down. We became good friends and met a lot of wonderful people throughout the city. I had people coming up to me after reading our literature saying, “I never knew I was an anarchist.” Intriguing conversations followed about our experiences, our aspirations, our goals. More and more people showed up to volunteer and help.
But what started with the principle of “everything for everyone” soon turned into rationing, as the liberal staff members peering over the shoulders of the community volunteers endeavored to spread paranoia about potential thieves and parasites who were supposedly coming in and taking way too much. In fact, we were continually getting in more and more supplies—why should we begin rationing when every day we ended up with more stuff than we had started with? We were traveling out to other towns and cities in the more rural parts of the state, like Lumberton, where the large indigenous community was hit hard with severe flooding, while still trying to recover from the previous hurricane, Hurricane Matthew.
As more and more volunteers came, more supplies were air dropped in, and comrades from all over came to help out, we all became both exhausted by and excited about the work we were doing. But one day, unexpectedly, we were informed that we would have to vacate the space by the following morning at 8 am so they could open the school as a daycare for children whose parents were out of work as a result of the disaster. We were all sad to have to leave so soon and without warning, especially since the staff had originally agreed that we would receive at least two days’ notice before we needed to pack up. But we understood that it was important for the kids to have a place to go. Besides, they told us, the school would still be open as a space for people to obtain food and supplies, and the outreach crews would still do supply runs and cleanups and repairs; we just had to vacate the back rooms where volunteers from out of state had been staying and holding meetings.
We packed our things and were gone before morning, seeking another space to use for storage and to house volunteers. However, visiting and conversing with some of the new staff members two days later, we discovered that they never intended to use the space for a daycare; they told us that the back rooms were just occupied by the staff that was doing the “managing.” Now the distribution utilized a ticket system and rationed food; we saw a huge news crew outside, and a trailer belonging to a massive non-profit organization offering medical services to fill the vacuum that opened up when we were told to leave. The staff had become increasingly unfriendly and passive-aggressive. It was clear that the real reason we had been told to leave had nothing to do with offering assistance or a space for children. It was about our physical appearance and political beliefs, and the fact that we were building relationships in the community and that the community was coming together for itself, without the help of outside government or NGO assistance—or the liberal staff members.
Although we lost the first space, we’re still operating, while searching for a new space. We’re still here; we will be here doing Mutual Aid Disaster Relief as long as it’s necessary. We’ll continue proving to people that this is possible—that we don’t have to wait for the state to come to our aid—that we are the ones who keep us safe.
We continue to work together to rebuild and strengthen our communities. We’ve already built lots of valuable relationships in the process.
III. Through the Eye of the Storm
An interview with MouseMouse from Blue Ridge Autonomous Defense, working under the umbrella of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, September 24.
What have you been doing, and where?
We’ve been doing a lot. Wellness checks in flooded areas using kayaks. Supply scheming and pick up and drop offs as a street team. Bringing supplies directly to impacted folks and communities. Basic first aid and harm reduction. Interfacing with community members and discussing disaster politics. Supply distribution center organizing. Hot food delivery.
We were in Washington, NC when Florence hit. We worked out of there for a day. Then we moved through the eye of the storm, through its back wall, into Wilmington. I was in Wilmington for seven days working in North Wilmington neighborhoods such as Love Grove as well as trailer parks near Military Cutoff Road. Then I moved up to Lumberton, NC along with another member of my group to assist in the indigenous-led relief efforts being organized in that community.
Describe your motivation and past experience with this kind of work.
My motivation for doing this work is multi-faceted. Capitalism’s insatiable desire for profit and new markets means that climate change and its associated extreme weather events will not stop, but only increase. So the need for autonomous, anarchist-led efforts will also increase as we struggle to meet the needs of impacted and devastated communities.
In addition, I recognize that there are very few opportunities in which the state will totally vacate territory, and natural disasters are one of them. This gives us unprecedented opportunity to build new methods of community organization in the ruins of the existing order. We can claim space and show that a new world is possible by reaching people in new ways.
And finally, as an anarchist, I want to practice mutual aid. I want to stand in solidarity with those targeted by the state, against the state.
This was the first time I’ve done anything like this. However, my group has a focus on street medic and community defense work using small teams. This disaster tested all of the skills we have been honing. It demonstrated that through praxis, we can shape the theory that guides us.
Can you share any lessons for the future?
One of the biggest lessons I learned from this experience is that regional networks involving organizations, affinity groups, and individuals can be utilized in emergencies to meet the needs of our communities. The logistical and operational push before and following this storm has been mind-blowing. In the first days following the storm, we were able to do things that even the state was unable, or unwilling, to do—and we did that by never separating our politics from our efforts.
The need for realistic planning and continuous preparation was also important. It would be easy to create a situation in which you too become a person in need in the middle of the disaster. Any sort of complacent act or careless planning could put you there.
Having appropriate supplies and vehicles is necessary, as well as being able to make longer-term commitments. Showing up as a group that can only commit a day or two or three to efforts drains resources and does not allow for the necessary long-term interaction and commitment required to build trust and community.
Looking forward, we can use the lessons from this response, along with other disasters, to refine the theory behind disaster relief and mutual aid in the age of extreme weather, resource exploitation, and mass extinction. We can say with confidence that we do truly keep each other safe, and that with a little bravery, the new world we hold in our hearts can take root in this world, as our collective future.
Last week, millions watched the dramatic hearings pitting Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh against Christine Blasey Ford, who courageously narrated her experience of being sexually assaulted by him decades ago. Once again, Americans were confronted with the brazen entitlement of the male power establishment. The hearings stirred up traumatic memories for countless survivors, ratcheted up partisan tensions, and catalyzed furious responses from feminists and progressives in view of the implications of the court shifting further to the right. With Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance, critics point out the horrifying irony of an unrepentant sexual predator potentially casting the deciding vote to block abortion access to millions of women and others across the country.
We applaud the courage of Christine Blasey Ford and everyone who has supported her through this ordeal. We don’t want to see Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, either. But should any man be able to wield that much power over the lives of millions?
What if the Trump administration manages to find a judge with the same views, but with no history of sexual assault? Would that render the confirmation process legitimate and their decisions of the Supreme Court beyond question? Should people of conscience accept the sovereignty of a nine-person elite over the most intimate spheres of their lives?
If you don’t think so either, you may already be an anarchist.
What does it look like to resist the nexus of rape culture and far-right power that Kavanaugh represents? The usual suspects propose the conventional solutions: calling representatives, canvassing for Democrats, taking to the streets to hold signs indicating our displeasure. But even if these efforts forestall Kavanaugh’s nomination this time around, they won’t disrupt the relations of power in which hundreds of millions are held hostage to the machinations of a small, mostly male elite. A victory against this particular nominee would only reset the clock; eventually, Trump will force through a new candidate who will rule the same way Kavanaugh intends to. And even if Trump is impeached or a Democrat is elected and a progressive nominee is sworn in—we’re still in the same place we started, vulnerable to the whims of a judicial aristocracy and alienated from our own power and potential. We need an approach that challenges the foundations of the system that put us in this situation in the first place.
Meanwhile, progressive critics such as Amy Goodman have demanded an FBI investigation as a way to give official weight to Ford’s testimony and hopefully discredit Kavanaugh as a candidate. Goodman points out, reasonably, that Trump’s claim to be in favor of law enforcement while hesitating to order the FBI to look into Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct reveals his hypocrisy. This logic positions progressives and feminists as the honest proponents of law enforcement—and police as protectors of women. Have we learned nothing from decades of rape crisis organizers explaining how the police and courts so often serve to retraumatize survivors, putting them on trial rather than those who attacked them? Can we ignore the feminists of color from INCITE to Angela Davis who call on us to remember that police and prisons do not stop rape but rather intensify poverty, racism, and injustice?
Democrats are trying to recast themselves as the real “law and order” candidates. This is not so much a change in strategy as a revealing of their true colors. Between the blue of “blue states” and the blue of “blue lives matter,” it’s only a matter of tone, not content.
In TV newsrooms and around water coolers across the country, the discussions about this case have focused on how “believable” or “credible” Ford’s testimony is versus that of Kavanaugh. Taking this approach, we become an entire nation of judges and juries, debating evidence and scrutinizing witnesses, choosing whose experience to legitimize and whose to reject. This adversarial framework has always benefitted those who wield privilege and hold institutionalized power. Even if we rule in favor of Ford, we are reproducing the logic of a legal system based in patriarchal notions of truth, judgment, and objectivity, a way of understanding reality that has always suppressed the voices and experiences of the marginalized, preserving the conditions that enable powerful men to sexually abuse others with impunity.
Unfortunately, calls for FBI investigations reinforce this logic and legitimize the murderous regime of surveillance, policing, and prisons as a means of obtaining justice rather than a source of harm. Rejecting the rape culture that Kavanaugh and his supporters represent necessarily means rejecting the patriarchal institutions through which they wield power. If we legitimize any of those institutions in the course of trying to be pragmatic in our efforts to discredit specific officials, we will only undercut our efforts: one step forward, two steps back.
This has broader implications for how we address rape culture in general. When we reduce the issue of sexual violence to the question of whether specific men have committed sexual assault or abuse, we frame these as crimes carried out in a vacuum by deviant individuals. As a result, entertainment corporations and government agencies can pretend to solve the problem by finding men who do not have sexual assaults on their record rather than addressing the misogynistic dynamics and power imbalances that are inherent in government, the workplace, and society at large. This confuses the social question of addressing sexual violence with the matter of finding candidates and nominees who can present a clean résumé; should they later turn out to also be implicated in doing harm, they can be replaced, just as the electoral system replaces politicians every few years without ever giving the rest of us self-determination.
Rape, abuse, and other forms of violence are a systemic problem within our society, not a matter of individual deviance. We need a way of addressing rape culture that cuts to the root.
Are there other ways that we can think about how to respond to the threat that a judge like Kavanaugh poses to our bodies and communities?
As anarchists, we reject the idea that judges or politicians deserve the authority to determine the course of our lives. Rather than only trying to pressure leaders to vote one way or the other in a winner-take-all system that reduces us to spectators in the decisions that affect us, we propose solutions based in direct action: taking power back into our hands by enacting our needs and solving our problems ourselves, without representatives.
As long as legislators and judges can determine the scope of our reproductive options, our bodies and lives will be subject to the shifting winds of politics rather than our own immediate needs and values. Instead of validating their authority by limiting ourselves to calling for better legislators and judges, we should organize to secure and defend the means to make decisions regarding what we do with our bodies regardless of what courts or legislators decree.
In practice, this could mean networking with health workers who have the necessary skills, and sharing them widely; stockpiling and manufacturing the supplies we need for all sorts of health care; defending spaces where we can operate our own clinics; fundraising resources to secure access to health care and birth control options for all, regardless of ability to pay; and developing models for reproductive autonomy that draw on past precedents but address our current problems. We can do our best to render the decisions of would-be patriarchs like Kavanaugh irrelevant.
All this has already happened before. For example, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, the Jane network, a vast clandestine effort centered in Chicago, provided illegal abortions to thousands of women. The fact that abortion was already accessible to so many women was a major factor in compelling the US court system to finally legalize abortion access in order to be able to regulate it. The most effective way to pressure the authorities to permit us access to the resources and care that we need is to present them with a fait accompli. Unfortunately, when it comes to standing up to elites like the Supreme Court and the police who enforce its decisions, there are no shortcuts.
We can extend the logic of direct action to every area in which a right-wing Supreme Court might inflict harm, from environmental destruction to indigenous sovereignty to labor organizing. All of the rights we have today are derived from the grassroots struggles of ordinary people who came before us, not from the wisdom or generosity of powerful officials.
FBI investigations and court processes will not end sexual violence or bring healing to survivors. To strike at the root causes that enable the Kavanaughs of the world to do harm, we have to tear up patriarchy and toxic masculinity by the roots. This involves a process of ongoing education around sexuality, consent, and relationships, developing strategies to intervene when we see violence of any kind in our communities, creating culture that models alternative visions of gender and intimacy, and reimagining justice as restorative and transformative rather than adversarial.
We can see how pervasive the problem is when we look at the narratives that underpin support for Kavanaugh. Leading up to the hearings, supporters focused on portraying Kavanaugh as a devoted family man. As multiple allegations of sexual assault surfaced, many commentators framed the question as a contradiction between Kavanaugh the loving husband and father and Kavanaugh the callous rapist, implying that these roles are mutually exclusive. Yet gendered violence continues at epidemic levels within proper heterosexual families; shocking rates of spousal rape and domestic violence permeate American marriages, while statistics on child sexual abuse indicate that family members make up a substantial proportion of abusers. Bill Cosby, the archetypical television husband and father, was recently sentenced to prison for drugging and sexually assaulting numerous women. The false assumption that a history of sexual assault is somehow incompatible with adhering to the conventions of heterosexual family life reflects the persistence of patriarchal norms and homophobia, as well as a refusal to honestly address the extent of gendered violence in our society.
No Supreme Court could solve this problem, even if it consisted of the nine wisest and gentlest people in the world. When it comes to social change, there’s no substitute for widespread grassroots action.
Some American feminists have drawn parallels between the Kavanaugh case and the #NotHim movement in Brazil, in which women are rallying against a Trump-esque misogynist politician running for president.
The struggle of Brazilian feminists to resist the extreme-right threat deserves our attention and support. Yet as anarchists, we can take that model further in responding to the Kavanaugh nomination. Rather than Not Him, we can assert Not Anyone—no man, rapist or not, deserves the power to decide the reproductive options for millions of women and others. Perhaps the more appropriate slogan for the struggle against patriarchy and the Supreme Court would be the rallying cry of Argentina’s 2002 rebellion: “Que se vayan todos!”—get rid of all of them. They all must go.
The sooner we can do this—the more we can delegitimize the authority of Supreme Courts to shape our lives, and the more powerful and creative we can make our our alternatives—the less we will have to fear from the Trumps and Kavanaughs of the world. Let’s build a society that enables everyone to engage in genuine self-determination—in which no man can decide what all of us may do with our bodies—in which no state can take away our power to shape our future.
Comrades in Germany, France, and elsewhere have prepared the following overview of the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg and the resistance it provoked. As a gesture of solidarity with others who fought the G20 and with those who will face it in Buenos Aires this November, we present their text here. You can also download it as a bilingual PDF in German, French, English, and Spanish.
This is a detailed report and reflection on what happened before, during, and after the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. At the same time, it is a letter addressed to the activists and residents of Buenos Aires, Argentina—where the next summit (protest) will soon take place.
The authors come from Paris and Hamburg; they took part in the protest week together. They began working on this book in September 2017, discussing and composing everything clandestinely because politicians and police have been alleging that an “international conspiracy” was responsible for the militant resistance. Organizing in different locations and languages took a lot of time. In the end, about 25 people from four continents participated.
The people who worked on this project all come from different political backgrounds and attitudes; some see themselves as militants, others as explicitly non-violent. The narrative they have composed of their shared experience of the events is a contribution to the historiography of the G20, casting light on events that have remained clouded by the smoke of tear gas, burning barricades, and above all, media representation.
For the Compas in Buenos Aires, this letter should help to prepare for similar situations—in order to avoid repeating mistakes and to make the most of the opportunities.
Proceeds from the sale of these books in Europe will go to support those targeted by repression in Buenos Aires.
Hello Buenos Aires, hello all,
We are writing to you to share our experiences of and to critically self-reflect on what happened in July 2017 at the G20 summit in Hamburg and in its wake. We regard its context a global one and, at the same time, we want to focus on concrete events.
We want to try to provide a context for the upcoming G20 summit in Buenos Aires. We want to express our solidarity to you as well as encourage you to organize resistance. We are on your side. Presumably, we will not be able to come directly to Buenos Aires, but we will try to get involved from here as directly as possible.
We come from Paris and from Hamburg, from left and radical left movements, from antifascist, ecological, refugee, squatting, and Right to the City movements. Accordingly, our respective histories and perspectives are quite different. We will discuss this in more detail later.
We assess the G20 protests in Hamburg as generally positive, but, there were also bad experiences and, of course, mistakes. Vehement state repression is ongoing, focusing particularly on trans-European connections like ours. Therefore, this “open letter” is anonymous. It has been written in a conspiratorial way.
In this open letter to you, French and German are the source languages. The third language, English, is used as a “bridge” language since we can write it reasonably well. Finally, there is Spanish which some of us speak fairly well. For English and Spanish, we have also consulted native speakers. Multilingualism is, in our view, now key to international movements, since English is the most widespread second language in the world. Therefore, we have added it to each of the different language editions with the same illustrations.
Our letter to you should also be a contribution to the discussion and collective memory of both this G20 summit and the protests against it. In this respect, it also contains some details that may be less exciting for you in Buenos Aires, but are much more so for those who were in Hamburg. In addition, the public debate in Hamburg and in Germany has been dominated by many skewed or simply wrong representations of the events. With this open letter, we aim to counteract this trend.
So as to avoid any wrong impressions, we would like to highlight from the start that we cannot speak for the whole movement, nor do we wish to. Our perception is by no means universally valid. On the contrary: we deliberately show here a variety of sometimes contradictory views. In addition, there are countless other considerations. Our literary as well as linguistic competence is limited. But perhaps this is a world-first: “passing the torch” of summit protest organizing in five languages, with a project that originated in two different cultural contexts (France and Germany) and was completed with the participation of people from four continents. It may also be the first letter of this length written by movements in Europe to movements in Latin America on behalf of a common protest.
From our point of view, resistance and protests at summits, especially on the occasion of the G20, should link up internationally and learn about and refer to each other. We have informed ourselves as much as possible about previous summit protests and repression: for example, the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. Some of us from France, and especially those from Paris, were present in 2007 at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany; some of us from Hamburg travelled to Paris in 2016 to join the international demonstration against the “Loi Travail.”1 We are following the movements and fights in Latin America as closely as we can. We are trying to go ahead and develop a common understanding in spite of all our differences.
We don’t think that the G20 is a kind of world government—to us, this simply does not exist. In fact, the global system of repression and exploitation has developed automated mechanisms. Clearly, we ourselves are part of it extensively. The times of the easy front lines are over. The G20 and other global meetings are an attempt to legitimize the existing conditions and those who represent them, even though they do so under the pretense of looking seriously at the problems of planet Earth and its inhabitants. However, in this world of destruction and chaos, where predatory capitalism is becoming more and more ruinous, this claim is less and less plausible, and there is little sincere talk of real, positive “progress.” In fact, the G20 is exclusively concerned with coordinating their common interests along with a demonstration of their power. Both attempts thoroughly failed in Hamburg—due to both the increasingly evident disunity and fragmentation of the respective political elites and also to our common resistance.
The only concrete result of the summit was the so-called “Compact for Africa.” Nothing was done to change the process of Europe closing its borders to the African continent, where people are becoming ever more impoverished. The goal was only to put an end to the circulation of photos depicting tens of thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Africa itself was not even involved in that deliberation at all.
At the same time, the streets and plazas of Hamburg were dominated by both colorful and militant protests. In the course of events, the aggregated German police, with all their expensive technology, lost control of the situation. While the heads of government listened to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the brand-new ultra-expensive concert hall, we took over the city.
Before the Summit
Where We Come from
We come from two strategically central countries and cities of Europe: politically, historically, economically, and culturally. In centralist France, anything of importance happens in Paris, whereas Hamburg—the self-styled “world champion of exports”—is the trade hub par excellence for Germany.
We come from the East of Paris, where the French revolution started, and the Paris Commune has its roots. We also come from the “Banlieues,” the dreary suburbs of “Paname”2 where there is no work, where the cops harass and sometimes even murder youngsters with African roots. We come from Hamburg, Germany’s so-called “gate to the world.“ The city is socially split like no other in Germany. Moreover, while Berlin is first and foremost a city of government and administration, Hamburg, with its big harbor, is the commercial metropolis as well as the media capital—most importantly, it has been the protest stronghold of Germany for some decades.
Most conflicts in recent years have taken place in the St. Pauli and the adjoining Schanze quarters. In 1987, we succeeded in creating a whole series of occupied houses by building up barricades. The autonomous, radical left cultural center “Rote Flora“ has been squatted since 1989. In 2009, when the “right to the city“ network was established, activists successfully squatted Gängeviertel. There are also several other left projects in town. However, these quarters are in the process of changing. Rents have exploded and forced many to move. But who are we to say this when the apartment situation is at least as bad in Buenos Aires?
In Hamburg, especially in the St. Pauli and Schanze quarters, the police regularly enact sprees of violence, brutally attacking demonstrations and street parties. After an escalated demonstration in 2014, the whole quarter was declared a “danger zone” for ten days. 80,000 people were affected when the state suspended several fundamental rights. They forbade demonstrations and searched the inhabitants without cause, especially youngsters and young adults. That didn’t stop us from organizing wild demonstrations against the “area of danger” every night, even if the demonstrations were undeclared and therefore illegal. In ten days, we wore out the cops so much that they eventually they gave up. Our protest symbols at the time were toilet brushes that we constantly carried as a “weapon” and waved during the demos.
Otherwise, in Hamburg there was and still is quite a well-organized “Antifa” (antifascist movement); for many years, they have succeeded in effectively disturbing fascistic, racist, or right-wing populist marches—sometimes even preventing them completely. An important part of “Antifa” is the leftist fan scene around the St. Pauli football team, our wonderful football club that is known throughout Europe. Even in Buenos Aires, there is an officially registered fan club with the excellent-sounding name, “Los Piratas Del Sur.”
Many of you might think that life here, generally, is a lot better than in Argentina. Of course, there are gigantic differences. The average income is comparatively higher in France or Germany than, for example, in Argentina or Brazil. And there is a higher standard of social security, education facilities, and health services here in Europe compared to your country or, more generally, to your continent. We are far from denying that these are quite fundamental differences for the people that live in such conditions. But we also know that in Latin America, the images of life here in Europe are often simplified and, worse, depicted as unrealistically positive. The reality looks very different from how it is presented by the media.
Like the societies of your continent, here, too, the societies are socially divided. Here, there are more and more people who live on the street, cut off from all social protections. There are even more people who suffer from the pressure of the system, some of them becoming ill due to their despair. In addition, increased social impoverishment leads to social isolation, which is often covered up by the illusions created by the new media. The economic pressure has strongly increased for many people. In large parts of Europe, youth unemployment exceeds 50%. Evidently, there were good reasons for the powerful youth revolts in Greece and Spain in recent years and in France in 2016. Labor legislation is being eroded everywhere and social benefits are being cut. In short, the situation in Europe is becoming increasingly precarious for more and more people.
Equally fictitious is the image of an ecologically advanced Europe. In France, one dangerous over-aged nuclear reactor stands beside another—in total, there are 54 of them. And in Germany, the supposed European leader of clean energy, dirty brown coal-fired power stations continue to smolder and cause extreme climate damage, even though alternatives have been available for a long time. It becomes downright vulgar if we take a look at the respective roles and responsibilities in global politics. France, recently supported by the German military in Mali, merrily carries on with its “post-colonial mode” in West Africa. Germany, on the other hand, supplies authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia with large quantities of arms: in particular, with small weapons suitable for civil wars, as well as bigger equipment like tanks or frigates.
There is no war, no stream of refugees, no misery on this planet that has not been at least decisively co-produced by “our” countries. In the final analysis, Germany even profits in a perverted manner from the stream of refugees. Currently, the biggest refugee groups come from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They consist almost exclusively of young, highly-motivated, well-qualified people of the middle class, which is rather small in those countries. While they are useful for capitalist labor needs in Germany, their absence in their home countries adds to the disaster there—the unproductive elites as well as the poorest remain. At the same time, refugees who are regarded as “useless” are unscrupulously deported to so-called “safe countries of origin,“ like Afghanistan.
The whole world, planet Earth, is being driven to the brink of disaster without any Plan B. Most likely, there won’t be any natural resources left for the next and subsequent generations. Ethically, economically, and organizationally, it has become clear that today’s capitalistic system has no reasonable answers.
In our era, there is no longer a general shortage of information. In the age of the Internet, many know about the main facts and understand the mechanisms of capitalism. We simply should—no, must act, intervene, and overcome our fear. You could say that here in Europe, we live in the “belly of the beast,“ while you in Latin America are allegorically in the “claws of the beast.“
In spring 2016, we in Hamburg took notice of what was happening in Paris. The young and obviously uncontrollable “Nuit Debout“ movement took the streets and territories of “Paname.” Pictures of street battles, strikes, and blockades reached us, in addition to several texts, for example, ones written by the “Invisible Committee.”
For many activists in Hamburg, France and the movements there seemed to be far away, while there already was an active exchange with movements in Spain, Catalonia, and also Greece. This sense of distance was also caused by a language barrier. In Hamburg, not many people are able to understand or speak French fluently. Then again, most French people traditionally spoke no or little English, which, fortunately, is changing with the younger generation. Accordingly, the initial English-speaking email list for the international mobilization was nearly “French-less.” However, their presence during the protest week was quite different. Presumably, there have never been so many French people protesting in Germany before. Many “movement-Germans” probably thought “Oh my goodness! Where are all these people coming from?!”—it was wonderful.
Several of our friends had already been to B’Aires, and some of them live there. We have a certain idea about how life is there, even though it is surely limited. We know that sometimes in the evening, the lights are switched off in the universities because the electricity cannot be paid. We have heard that young mothers are sometimes forced to sell their children just to survive. We noticed that the social conflicts have increased since Macri came to power and started to unrelentingly push capitalist interests: those of his own family, of the ruling clans that support him, but also international interests—in particular, after the election of Trump, US-American ones.
Not only are the needs of large parts of the population and the common welfare of the country more and more neglected: the state dismantles itself in a dizzying spell of new debts and sell-outs. Ricardo Aronskind, a professor at La Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, calls the current development of Argentina a “path to making a semi-colony of international capitalism.“
However, we have also seen pictures of demonstrations, of street battles with the police, and of a women’s demonstration against sexual violence. Of course, we have heard often that B’Aires, as you sometimes call your city, is quite an unbelievable metropolis: full of energy, culture, and a remarkable chaotic stubbornness. In addition, the porteñxs (people of Buenos Aires) are well known as cosmopolitan, but also as nearly ungovernable. That is really super! These are the best preconditions for a successful summit protest, and that spurred us to write you this letter.
Declaration of War
The decision to make Hamburg the place for the 2017 summit place was made in Autumn 2015 in Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel supposedly expected the city to give the summit a cosmopolitan feel. This decision had been coordinated with the mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, prior to the announcement. He hoped to strengthen Hamburg’s 2024 Olympic bid by hosting the G20 summit. However, the Olympic bid was rejected at the end of 2015 by a Hamburg referendum that had a slight majority against hosting the 2024 Olympics.
In February 2016, when Merkel publicly announced the G20 decision at a traditional feudal dinner in Hamburg, we could hardly believe it at first. The media, as well as different security experts, criticized the choice as “fatally wrong,“ mainly because Hamburg is well-known as a hotbed of protest. Not to mention that the suggested summit convention place in the “exhibition halls” is directly adjacent to quarters that are known for protests and the occasional riot.
Why not somewhere else in the country, like the previous large political summits in Germany? Why not in the slightly calmer Berlin? Why here? For us, it was a plain declaration of war—it was quite clear from the beginning that everything in Germany with a blue light on top would be sent to Hamburg.
Apparently, the summit was meant to be a party for the monsters of the world: a showcase of their power right on our doorsteps. They must present Europe, and first of all Germany, as a “stable, liberal, and reasonable“ part of their “world order.” When they do so, “constructive” criticism of single issues and “peaceful” protests are welcome, because those legitimize their power and limit the potential growth of an authentic protest movement.
First of all, they want to demonstrate that they are, anywhere and anytime, capable of pulling off their spectacle: that these are their cities, streets, and territories that they dominate and control. To that effect, they need images of powerlessness. They need to transform large parts of the city into a state of emergency to deter us from resistance. This is exactly what happened at the last big summit of this kind in a large Western European city—the 2001 G8 in Genoa, Italy. The police were unbelievably excessive with their use of force. One demonstrator died: a police officer murdered 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani by shooting him in the head.
From the beginning, we saw the G20 as a chance to clarify and demonstrate, before the global public, what we think of their ailing, futureless system. We saw it as a chance to emphasize the fact that they do not have everything under control—not even in Europe and in Germany, let alone in Hamburg—and that in the long run, our solidarity and our rage are stronger than their violent power.
They put all their eggs in one basket—counting on repression and power. We saw that materialize in the months following the announcement. They appointed Hartmut Dudde, known in Hamburg as an especially brutal police leader, as the chief of command of all operations. Dudde immediately started releasing pithy statements in order to spread fear and anxiety. Nevertheless, this seemingly unimaginative decision only increased the polarization in the city. Similarly uninspired and easy to figure out were the attempts to present the nearby residents an image that the G20 summit would cause no fundamental problems or disturbances. The mayor of Hamburg even dared to predict that the G20 would be like a “big colorful public festival, like the annual harbor birthday.” In any case, the police would keep everything under control—if necessary, with the “full rigor of the law.”
This constellation of forces seemed rather favorable for us. Our direct opponents were obviously “not completely up to snuff,” strategically, tactically, or personnel-wise. Instead, their disposition was rather “Germanic dull.” It was relatively easy for us to prepare ourselves for the things to come, and then to mobilize against them. To be fair, all these threats did seem to deter some people. Even if the menacing threats discouraged many, they ultimately allowed for more cohesion among the opponents of the G20 in the affected neighborhoods and beyond.
Quite a long time before the summit: Organizing and Campaign
On either side, the preparations for the summit started early. On the side of the opponents, several Anti-G20 platforms were built. The largest one, the “No G20 International,” included NGOs, whereas the most radical, “Welcome to Hell,” was a coordination of antifascist and autonomist groups. These different platforms gathered every two or three months for international action conferences. Additionally, in Germany, there were meetings almost every week, and, towards the end of preparations, in Hamburg every day.
Without hesitation, numerous German comrades travelled to France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Sweden, and Denmark. More and more meetings, debates, and events concerning the G20 summit took place in these territories. Our comrades helped many people understand the schemes for planned actions, as well as informed others about the localities for the planned resistance week. In addition, one can clearly appreciate the work of the German comrades who did not hesitate in taking risks: from clips of their graffiti campaigns up to direct actions that constantly increased as the summit approached.
Of course, there have been quite different forms and levels of organization.
We share a long history and have many experiences, above all with state violence. One of our most important institutions here is the “quarter assembly,” in which the people discuss and argue about questions directly concerning the quarter. It normally takes place once or twice a year. In November 2016, at one of these assemblies that attracted about 500 people, the assembled unanimously approved the following resolutions by a show of hands:
• We reject the G20 summit and its state of emergency!
• We live, reside, and work here—we stay in the streets whether the summit takes place or not!
• Together with friends from all over the world, we will show that another world is possible!
Furthermore, working groups were formed to promote and to prepare for protests, for example, “Arrivati Park”—but more on that later.
The autonomist scene
A part of the “autonomist scene” had been preparing the Welcome to Hell demonstration since autumn 2016. The demo was planned to take place on the eve of the summit. It was planned to be an expression of our capacity combined with a fundamental criticism of the capitalist system. The call was approved by many in the scene and quickly translated into different languages and sent around. This certainly contributed to making the radical left in Europe mobilize for Hamburg.
However, some—especially in Hamburg—decided to distance themselves, albeit individually, from this demonstration. One reason given was that the organizational framework was perceived as kind of “closed club.” Other parts of the autonomist scene focused on international mobilization, or on direct actions in advance of the summit. Still others founded another radical alliance called “Raiding G20“ (“G20 entern”).
The “Triad” was a centerpiece of the whole mobilization campaign. It consisted of:
1) An alternative (counter-) summit
2) Civil disobedience and blockades
3) A big alliance demonstration
From the beginning, structures across Germany were decisive in setting up this program. It was simply not possible to organize such a huge project without comrades from Berlin and other parts of the country. Our foundation was the experiences and connections formed during the mobilizations against the G8 in Heiligendamm in 2007, Blockupy in Frankfurt in 2015, as well as decades-long fights over the planned nuclear disposal site in Gorleben (between Hamburg and Berlin). The key players of the “triad” organization reflected these connections, which already had been central to previous protests:
a) The Interventionist Left (IL) – a grassroots left-wing radical organization in Germany
b) Attac – an international organization based in Paris critical of globalization
c) Party “Die Linke” (The Left Party) – a political party in Germany with 9% of the votes at a national level
In addition, various grassroots organizations, initiatives, trade union groups, and autonomist groups were part of the central mobilization. Here, we were talking about direct interventions that would directly disturb the summit, and, also, how to convey ideas of another world (or at least ideas against the summit). Simply, it was explicitly about shaping the protest successfully.
The most frequently discussed tactic was blockades, which is to say, obstructing the routes of the “G20 monsters” and their “Sherpas”—or, even better, stopping them from getting through at all. It was also about blocking the city’s main economic arteries, like the second largest port of Europe, or, at a minimum, some especially scandalous parts of the port. The groups discussed which routes the state leaders might take between the airport, their hotels, and, of course, the summit convention center. The focus of many discussions and action trainings became preparing for possible scenarios, such as police barriers on the transfer routes or general demo ban zones.
For the central blockade action on Friday, July 7, the Interventionist Left wrote a remarkable call: “Color the red zone.”
The “Summit of Global Solidarity,” planned for Wednesday and Thursday, was proposed to form a counterbalance to the official topics: a sort of think tank for alternatives to the ruling logic and politics of the G20. At the big demonstration on Saturday, the entire protest was supposed to take to the streets together on a massive scale. The demonstration would then end as close to the summit location as possible.
The self-managed leftist social centers prepared themselves to be contact points for foreign activists. The centers set up info points, restrooms, and first-aid stations. In addition to this, folks from all over the country installed large mobile kitchens. The Legal Team launched a preemptive information campaign with concrete tips about how to handle repression. As well, folks organized an emergency lawyer service and a telephone hotline for lawyers that would be staffed during the whole week of action.
In one part of the St. Pauli Stadium, an alternative media infrastructure materialized to provide direct information to the activists, and to counterbalance the one-sided coverage anticipated from the mass media. The plan was to establish a massive coordinated protest camp. It was clear from the beginning that it would be difficult to achieve this. As the summit approached, the camp organizers split on the question of whether or not the camp should be called “anti-capitalist.” That division weakened the original intention of the camp. Overall, the logistics tied up a lot of the local forces, but in the end, it panned out quite well.
“All for All”
This was the slogan of a mobilization of the so-called “hedonist” left, as well as musicians, artists, and several others. In recent years, they have been an important and especially creative part of the protest culture in Hamburg. They avoid direct conflicts with State power and deeply ideological debates. Instead, they focus on political actions that should be fun, the production of meaningful images, and inviting others to join in political actions. They had planned several actions for the protest week. In particular, Tuesday and Wednesday—the first lap of the protest week—was mainly designed by “All for All:” first the “Hardcornern”—a reclaim-the-streets action involving mass public drinking; then this was followed by a huge protest rave and the performance piece “1000 figures”—an artistic protest against a decrepit, isolating society.
The Queer-Feminist Alliance
The Queer-Feminist Alliance participated in various preparations with their own issues at the Welcome to Hell demo, the protest rave, the blockades, and also as a separate bloc during the big demo on Saturday. They were a natural part of the movement during the protest week with an independent point of contact in a formerly occupied house.
The St. Pauli fan organizations
The St. Pauli fan organizations have also been a very important factor in mobilizing and organizing the protests. There were various protest “Choreos” [choreographies] and discussion events in the stadium prior to the summit. They also mobilized vigorously within their own structures. During the protest week itself, the fan rooms served as one of the info-points and also provided food. Lastly, they organized a protest football tournament and a subsequent open-air concert to take place in the immediate vicinity of the summit convention center.
Youth against G20
Youth against G20 took part in almost all of the protest actions, but especially in the “triad.” They mobilized pupils and students both in Hamburg and around all of Germany. As an independent action, they set up an education strike with its own demonstration on the “blockade Friday.”
“Mexicans against Trump”
Our quarter has one of the highest pub densities in Europe. We have a special shot called the Mexican: a home-brewed schnapps mixture made from Vodka, tomato, and spices. In the end, more than 150 pubs—not only in Hamburg but also even in Mexico—participated in this campaign, and subsequently donated all of the proceeds to the campaign costs.
Right to the City
Right to the City is a network in which numerous initiatives and groups in Hamburg have been acting under together since 2009. The foci of their work ranges from gentrification, non-commercial open spaces, and democratic urban planning to urban ecology and to creating a city that welcomes all refugees. At its core, it is about defending our right to the city against the rulers: to constantly strengthen the city with our own positive initiatives and projects, and to build up a broad urban movement without hierarchies. In recent years, the Right to the City network has triggered various actions, including occupations. By doing so, it has influenced several debates in Hamburg politics and founded some independent projects—for example, the Gängeviertel.
The immanent occupation of our city by a “Parade of Monsters” was therefore the exact opposite of the ideas they espoused. Accordingly, the network set all levers in motion. People from the network decisively cooperated in the infrastructure of the protest week at nearly all locations of the logistics, but especially at Arrivati Park. Some of them took part in the international mobilization, the quarter assemblies, the “All for All” actions, the blockades, and, of course, in the big demonstration on Saturday, too.
The international mobilization
The different structures, such as fans of FC St. Pauli, the “IL,” or autonomist groups, started their mobilizations within their own contacts, but eventually went on to connecting into international networks. In addition, there was an open mailing list with its own discussions, working groups, and telephone conferences. The international call to action was written in English, then translated into French, Russian, Italian, Greek, Dutch and Spanish.
In April, as part of the big action conference, activists from all over Europe met to deal specifically with the international mobilization, with the various special concerns or simply questions from the internationals. Among other things, they discussed and ultimately decided to write an open letter addressed directly to the people of Hamburg. It was very well-written, but, unfortunately, it was only published in German.
The “bourgeois, reformist protest”
To our mind, the reformist protest played no relevant role, and only brought a few people into the streets. But in the run-up to the G20, there were at least critical discussions in trade unions, nature conservation associations, within the Green Party (which is part of Hamburg’s city government), and in Protestant church groups.
Decentralized, militant actions
In the lead up to the summit, a wave of different actions took place. According to a German domestic secret service publication, 152 so-called “crimes” against the upcoming summit took place in Hamburg alone by May 31, one month before the actual protest week started. In addition, there were 87 more “crimes” elsewhere in Germany associated with an anti-G20 sentiment. We think these numbers are quite realistic. While even “attacks” with “color-eggs” [eggs, glasses, or Christmas ornaments filled with paint] were counted, there were numerous riskier attacks, for example, ones on the cars and homes of politicians, fire attacks on police stations and multinational corporations, and, twice on the summit convention center itself. In one incident, half of a portal gate was burned after an attack involving perhaps 30 masked people.
As far as we know, this scale of “crime” had never happened in Hamburg before, and, in Germany, not since the 1980s. The good thing is that there were no arrests, nor were any people harmed. Moreover, many of the actions were accompanied by explanations; in other cases, the deed provided the statement. Similar actions also took place in other European cities, such as Athens. There, they referred mostly to a local concern, but at the same time made a reference to the G20.
The local press and politicians tried to use these militant groups’ actions to defame the entire “No-G20” campaign as “violent in any case.” They demanded more police, and urged non-violent protest groups to distance themselves from militant ones. The latter initiative did not succeed: only one online campaigning organization (“Campact”) and the Green Party left the alliance for the mass demonstration on Saturday. This did not appear to affect the overall mobilization.
As the summit approached
As the summit approached, the number of militant attacks increased, as well as the meetings for preparations and varied mobilization actions. While we were acting, the State seemed to be a little bit uninspired.
On March 17, 2017, Mayor Scholz’s guards’ police van was burned. On March 27, there was an intense attack on a police station. In the Eimsbüttel district, close to the city, eight police cars went up in flames. The next day, in one of the noble parts of town called Blankenese, three luxury cars of ultra-rich Investment and Energy Managers burned.
April 2017 had already been announced as a “month of action.” Indeed, there were nearly daily attacks in almost all the larger towns in Germany that referenced the G20: on private security offices, bailiffs, job centers, the advertising company that designed the official G20 logo, bank branches, vehicles of the Customs Authority and the Federal Police, international corporations, and more.
The Final Countdown
June 1, 2017: Police order a demo ban zone
The 66-page ordinance released by the Hamburg Police was quite a scorcher. For the two summit days, the police forbade all public meetings and demonstrations in a 38 km² area. This “blue zone“ included the airport and extended to the Elbe river in a strip between 4 to 6 km wide. The blue zone included the whole historic city center, the summit convention center, and the hotels of G20 delegations, as well as all possible routes from them. The size of the ban zone easily overshadowed any similar prohibition in Germany, or even at previous summits elsewhere. The whole issue was justified by a supposed “extremely dangerous situation” that would primarily be caused by the expected “massive and violent protests.” Police, politicians, and the media outlined in advance a terrifying picture of “black hordes from everywhere that will attack Hamburg.” For this, “the right to demonstrate must be abandoned”; one could exercise it “beyond the zone.”
The protection of the so-called “protocol routes” seemed to be the most important consideration for the police. Specifically, we are talking about the routes of all of the politicians and their several thousand “high-ranking delegates”: from the airport to the hotels, from the hotels to the meeting place, from there to the gala evening, and so on. Blockades or any other annoyances on these transfer routes, whether peaceful or violent, were obviously the most feared contingency for the Hamburg police, who had only experienced a handful of those kind of challenges before. In order to prevent any disturbance, the State directly, immediately, and without any juridical restrictions cancelled an important part of the German Basic Law.
June 9: Trump’s hotel search is finished
The Hamburg City Government offered to provide their guesthouse to Trump. The guesthouse is a relatively contemplative, rather small property—also, apparently, a makeshift one. There had been serious speculation that Trump would have to commute from Berlin to Hamburg. There were even running jokes that we would have to accommodate Trump in a protest camp. It was assumed that Trump would damage the image of a first-class hotel: the hotelkeepers surely did not want to put themselves into the focus of the protests by housing him. Whereas Trump would leave soon, the local radical protest scene would remain after, and it has already attacked certain five-star hotels with direct actions in Hamburg.
June 19: Sabotage on the railroad tracks
The headline news: various central railroad tracks have been completely stopped in Germany because of a clearly nationally-coordinated sabotage, in which several big cable canals next to the main tracks were burnt. The action is in the context of “Resistance against G20.” In an explanation, the group cites the Invisible Committee: “No longer waiting. Not only just hoping. Acting. Trying, failing, and trying once more, failing better. Winning, maybe. In any case, getting ahead. Going our way. Just living—Now!”
June 23: Water battle at the future Arrivati Park
Under the motto “Wet the Blue Zone,” approximately 200 people assembled and organized an “internal water battle“—everybody against everybody. It was fun and it got quite wet. The police watched suspiciously from a distance.
On June 24, approximately 500 people moved through Hamburg up to the “Central prisoner point” especially established for the G20, abbreviated to “Gesa.”3 In an area fenced in with barbed wire, the police had installed cells for up to 400 prisoners, as well as rooms for quick trials. A gigantic police platoon accompanied the demo, which acted under the motto “Gesa to Hell.” For a few hours, approximately 1000 people—among them, many refugees—demonstrated in the city center under the motto “We are here—Refugees and migrants demand: Stop colonization, exploitation, and war!” This banner referred to the forthcoming G20 summit.
June 26: Attempting to build a camp at “Stadtpark”
The State prohibited the camp in the Stadtpark (Town Park) on the pretext that the green areas there would be damaged. By contrast, a Rolling Stones open-air concert on the exact same giant meadow ten days after the G20 was considered “harmless” and permitted. After several other ban orders by the police and several complaints against them, the following juridical status emerged: on one hand, a camp must be generally allowed; on the other hand, the police could declare any restriction on how to camp. One of these was that sleeping tents were completely prohibited—which, as you know, is essential to a camp.
To no one’s surprise, the police blocked the area completely and prevented the first attempt to erect a camp. To police-logic, this seemed like an understandable step at this time: the Hamburg Stadtpark was situated exactly in the middle of their gigantic demo ban zone. In addition, the politicians’ routes from the airport to the city center were in walking distance of the park. But instead of compromising and offering a less problematic alternative, the police drew a new red line: “sleeping tents are not allowed in the whole city.” So we could be sure that, after setting up two or three tents in any park or front garden, there would be a police presence, at the latest, within a half hour. By the way, for the police, this was a rather unpopular and exhausting task.
June 27: Riot cops from Berlin have a scandalous party
Apparently, 300 police officers from Berlin, in groups of 100, threw a wild party in their hotel accommodations: a belligerent one that included urinating en masse, public sex, table dancing with a gun, and noisy screaming and chanting. They even had security guards who were ordered to look over this well-known “infamous troop from the capital,” and the guards documented everything with cameras. To partially restore the public image of the police, the three groups of 100 policemen were sent back home at once. We thought: Oh, that´s great!—300 fewer ugly hooligans in uniforms. During the protest week, we often joked with the increasingly irritated police: “Just have a wild party—then you can be sent home!“
June 27: Another large assembly in St. Pauli
Meanwhile, masses of police units were converging in Hamburg. The anticipated state of emergency for the quarter had become a reality. We came together to make our last commitments to each other. In a way it was an oath to one another: a promise that we would stand together and not let them prevent us from protesting. We went over the planned actions of the protest week. It was also finally clarified that, in spite of all the camp bans, we would be capable of sufficiently accommodating outside guests—even though it might mean that every shared space would have to accommodate twice as many people.
June 28: Activists hang a large banner on the main bridge of the Elbe
The banner appeared in the early morning hours. It read, in big letters “BUILD BRIDGES NOT WALLS.“ The banner was within the context of the G20, but also directed at the Trumps and others who want to exacerbate the situation for refugees. We began to see signs that those who practice solidarity with refugees had arrived, including an activist action unit of “Youth Saves” and another from “Seawatch”—groups that directly rescue refugees in the Mediterranean Sea from distress at sea—and “Never Mind the Papers,” a group involved in the “Right to the City” network.
June 28: The cops lift our water cannon
Then came the presentation of a discarded historic water cannon with the greatest registration plate: “AC-AB 1910.”4 It was subsequently recaptured by the police, probably because it had been parked near the flat of Andy Grote, Senator of the Interior of Hamburg. It’s a pity that we didn’t keep it until the protest days! Several weeks after, a judge decided that as the vehicle was declared and registered completely legally, the seizure had been illegal.
June 28: The Federal Constitutional Court permits a protest camp
The Federal Constitutional Court permitted a protest camp, but only as a “political assembly.” Nevertheless, this decision from the highest German court forced the police to the negotiating table once more. The police refused to concede their red lines: “no Stadtpark“ and “no sleeping tents.”
Starting June 29: Installation of movement kitchens and info points
There are several collective kitchen groups in Germany and in France that deploy mobile mostly vegetarian kitchens to political mobilizations to feed activists. They had planned to cook in the camps; a week before the summit started, they moved into left housing projects. This was cool for local activists because it meant a direct strengthening in their everyday structures. These enlarged culinary capacities enabled the production of 100 to 500 meals every day from each of perhaps 10 or 12 kitchens. Some were there during the whole protest week, others “only” from Thursday until Saturday.
The info points were linked with the alternative media center. Most of them were located in the same places as the kitchens. Here, people could find pamphlets and topical information and view the Livestream. In addition, there were PCs with Internet access, charging stations for mobile phones, and often showers or clothes-changing stations. There were also town maps, practical tips, and, later, contacts for the Legal Team and offers for sleeping places.
Some of these centers even offered free bicycles for lending. Approximately 80 old scrap bikes had already been repaired months in advance specifically for the G20. The bikes increased the mobility of visiting activists, and made it easier for them to obtain knowledge of the local area. (Later, some of the bikes were transformed into an “express blockade” by chaining them together.)
In these centers, there was always the possibility of an escalation—which we tried to avoid whenever possible. The goal of such sites was one of regeneration, reflection, and discussion, not direct conflict.
Starting June 30: Legal Team and first aid facilities
The Legal Team had installed a constantly accessible phone connection. They also provided many voluntary lawyers who were initially all working in a qualified legal capacity—a well-functioning structure that has existed in Hamburg for a long time. However, none had experienced this particular level of conflict before.
In addition, so-called “Demo Sanis” (first aid movement paramedics) from around the whole republic arrived and plugged into local structures to form a network for emergency care, which were mostly connected to the already-mentioned social centers. Moreover, “Out of Action,” a relatively new structure, formed to help people who had been traumatized by police violence. This way, our friends would not be left on their own and could obtain some advice for processing trauma.
June 30: Police permit a small camp far outside
A camp after all? At least some kitchen tents and meeting tents could be built near the so-called “Volkspark” (People’s Park). At the beginning, the police only allowed a few sleeping tents, but, later on, there ended up being several hundred. Since the camp was far away from the city center, the path to between the two led mostly through uninhabited, industrial areas. Thus, it could be easily supervised and controlled and could turn out later to be a trap. From the start, we thought that it was absolutely irresponsible to plan a camp there and urgently advised visiting friends not to sleep there.
Raids, border controls, red lines, macho baboons
The police got their first head rush: early on June 29, they carried out several raids against a group called “Roter Aufbau Hamburg“ (“Red Construction Hamburg”). At the same time, the police established border controls for France, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, and the Netherlands—all of which are EU member countries that haven’t had border controls in a long time. The justification: “Foreign violent criminals should be stopped on their journey to Hamburg.” We had expected this and were prepared for it. With some energy and cunning, we could avoid all controls—this was not particularly difficult.
Again, the police held press conferences and interviews reiterating their “hard line“; they proclaimed that there were about “8000 violent criminals expected.” All their numerous “red lines“ piled up so much that they could almost be perceived as a “red surface”—38 km² of the demo-ban zone, no sleeping tents in the city center, immediate intervention for any “law breakers,” etc. Head of the police operations Hartmut Dudde took to the new rhetoric of repression like a duck to water: “We have everything here [police equipment], and we are also willing to unpack everything if necessary”—“Our water cannons have no reverse gear“—“I want to hear no announcements about blockades, but only that they were removed.”
In a bizarre manner, the “press office” (i.e., the spokesman) of the “Welcome to Hell“ demo even took up this macho tone. Instead of expressing themselves responsibly and realistically, they cheerfully announced to the press the “biggest black bloc ever.” Perhaps this was a casual remark; however, it was not really perceived as such in the public.
June 30: Concert of “Irie Révoltés“ in “Rote Flora“
Apart from the fact that it poured rain and the whole event had to be moved inside, the concert was a success and a nice prelude to the next week. It was also really great that it was a protest band that had lyrics in French and in German. Unfortunately, it was probably their farewell tour.
Saturday, July 1: Final preparations
There were 1001 things to manage, both little and big: the concrete preparation of actions, kitchen equipment, or info points; picking up and welcoming guests; attending the plenaries yet again; or facing normal everyday life one last time before the hard week started.
The mood was down a little bit—certainly not combative or euphoric, as it was constantly raining. We had done a lot, given our very best, and the run up wasn’t so bad. However, the question was: what would happen? Would the police storm our social centers the next morning? Would people be arrested? Would a lot of people come, or would it be a flop in the end? How would we explain to the comrades why we failed at our task? And how could we get the job done?
Official news of the day: A Hamburg district court confirmed and clarified the decision of the highest Federal Constitutional Court to allow another camp with 300 sleeping places in the so-called “Entenwerder Elbpark.”
Meanwhile, the external police forces started taking positions everywhere. We were in the state of emergency: the police helicopters were constantly circling above us and police were lingering around every corner. And yes, we were impressed, but also frightened a little bit. On Saturday evening and on the night of July 1, the police forces were apparently occupied by a wild demonstration. In any case, the police moved around the quarter quite hectically.
During the Summit
Reader and Maps
Here, we are going to document parts of the “Reader” in English (it was also published in German). Both papers were handed out to the arriving activists. The Reader details the whole protest week, complete with events, routes, meeting places, info-points, drop-in centers, public kitchens, etc.
The Reader contained a lot of practical information about how to behave and act in demonstrations in general. For example, it presented information about preventive measures, affinity groups, first aid tips, etc. including nonverbal communication. It also took a clear position about the international G20 context. In addition, the Reader expressed a very lively understanding of protests, as well as an irreconcilable position in relation to the power structure and its repression: “Nobody has the right to obey“—a quote by Hannah Arendt. The concluding sentence: “See you at the barricades.” And yes, the crossed toothbrushes on the first page of the Reader symbolized that we expected that to be arrested at any time—but that did not deter us. Rather, we always carry our toothbrush with us.
The protest town maps—double-page printed in A3 and folded to A6—seemed a little bit confusing. But they were full of useful information, especially for out-of-town activists. In particular, the Reader showed the politicians’ possible routes and hotels, which might have contributed to an unrelaxed mood in the police headquarters.
Conspicuously, barely any construction sites remained near the routes and hotels at the time; they had been removed or previously scaled down. The G20 state guests were provided with a private area and terminal with its own exit at the airport.
As a French and German community, we found the “Hamburggallic survival tips“ of the “airport-map” in the style of Astérix especially funny. The media were excited because the map marked the rich quarters, police stations, and central management and production locations in the town.
Overall, it was really cool that the Reader detailed all of the aspects of the protest week, in addition to the town maps. All the logistics associated with the Reader were put into effect—except for the “Welcome to Hell“ demo, but more on that later.
Week of Resistance: Sunday, July 2, 2017
The so-called “Protest wave”
The demonstration of the pacifistic Campact campaign did not draw much participation from the local scene. With about 8000 participants, it fell far below the expectations of the organizers. Moreover, this result is interesting, because it seems to express that a majority of protestors did not necessarily support that position. It was more or less a defeat for the organizations who had led the alliance for the big common demo on July 8: this also meant Greenpeace, the BUND, the largest German nature conservation association, and the Green Party. As far as street presence goes, it illustrated their low mobilization ability.
In addition, at least half of the demonstrators, often the youngsters, took part in other demonstrations or actions later. Of course, the police were mostly reserved at that demo; however, they intervened immediately when some people on the outskirts tried to erect some tents at the square in front of the city hall. The “wave of protest” demo may have unintentionally contributed to their radicalization afterwards. It was too obvious that the ruling class dominated this sort of demo, and that it ultimately had no real effect. Many, including youngsters, said to themselves afterwards: “So this doesn’t work—clearly, we must become more disobedient.”
Picnic in the future Arrivatipark
The weather cleared up and we spread out our blankets and picnic baskets. We were maybe about 50 people at the time and, in addition, there were constant arrivals and walking. It was just a good mixture of all kind of activists, creative people, and neighbors.
The small central green space is bordered by round stands; it is situated at the Pferdemarkt, the largest and most important intersection in the district. It is the “hinge” of the quarters Schanze, St. Pauli, Altona, and Karolinenviertel. It is five minutes on foot from the “Rote Flora,”5 and ten minutes to the G20 meeting place and the Reeperbahn, the internationally known entertainment avenue in St. Pauli. While much of the Pferdemarkt, including all of its streets, was inside of the demo-ban zone, “our part“ was very close by. So we could assemble here and hold political speeches. No sleeping tents were permitted, but a picnic still seemed to be permitted apparently.
Of course, we were under the constant and careful observation of the police. As experience shows, we could become much more numerous, and at any moment quickly become uncontrollable. But the cops tolerated our presence. To our great relief, we could gather in public, even in a political spirit.
Next attempt for a camp—this time, brutally evicted
The so-called “anti-capitalist” camp wanted to exhibit a more radical stance. A second camping group aimed to be more moderate. Traditionally, in protest camps, the camp goes in procession to join the big demonstration or to organize other illegal actions.
After negotiations and a court order, this camp was scheduled to be moved to the “Elbpark.” But during the attempt to build it, police attacked the camp with batons and tear gas. This was still before the arrival of most foreign activists. The police injured people and confiscated or destroyed equipment (tents, streamers, tables, chairs, etc.). It was a cruel and brutal attack on about 400 people who had behaved peacefully thus far. It was the first time, as far as we know, that the police ignored a decision of the German Constitutional Court. Maybe they had heard our old German demo slogan too many times: “legal, illegal—we don´t give a shit.“
In the following days, we witnessed actions that we had seen before—the ones that hindered ”Nuit Debout“: confiscation of equipment, controls, obstructing food delivery, etc. The police harassment was constant, oppressive, effective, and illegal.
Week of Resistance: Monday, July 3
Early in the morning: Paint attack on the house of the Vice Mayor
This was already the second time in a short span that the Green politician received such a visit. As one of the ruling parties, the “Greens” had to take political responsibility for the brutal camp clearing the day before.
The small green space at the so-called “Pferdemarkt” becomes, officially, “Arrivatipark” (“Park of the arrived”). It was so named because all of the protest guests from all over the world came there. Also, we were concerned about the plight of the many refugees and people deprived of their rights who should also “arrive there.” In the evening, Arrivatipark hosted the first open-air concert. The police were decent for a change—for the last time.
Sleeping place exchange
Since the previous day, it had become clear that there would be no acceptable big camp solution. Instead, we opened up a “sleeping place exchange.” This was a way to connect those who wanted to welcome guests and those who were looking for a place to sleep. This idea quickly took hold. Many residents spontaneously decided to offer their places and welcome foreign guests: at the beginning, there were around 1500 places offered. Among them were rather bourgeois people, associations, cultural facilities, and families. In addition, we had already estimated from the start that there would maybe be 2000 places—as we and many of our friends and neighbors were already offering housing.
The public discussion on Monday
The discussion on Monday revolved around the previous day’s controversial camp eviction. The leading editorial in one of the biggest Hamburg newspapers began:
“The week of the summit begins in Hamburg—and the Senate delivers a scandalous spectacle. The Mayor rolls out the red carpet for the autocrats, kings, and Democratic-critics of this world, and he will greet them with a handshake, bask in the crackling flashbulbs, and proudly present the Elbphilharmonie. He invites Donald Trump to the guest house of the Senate—but for the citizens, who want to demonstrate against Erdogan and company; he does not even have a meadow for camping….”
The governing Greens and the ruling Social Democrat youth organization also criticized the police operation against the camp the previous day. The famous drag queen of Hamburg, Queen Olivia Jones, and some other bar managers in Saint Pauli declared publicly that their establishments were not open “to despots, like Erdogan, Trump, Putin, and company.” One despot, Salman—the old king of Saudi Arabia—cancelled his visit, even though camels had been flown in specifically to supply him with fresh camel milk. Another Head of State, Michel Temer from Brazil, finally decided to come to Hamburg, even though he had previously considered canceling his visit because of a corruption scandal.
Meanwhile the rampage of bannings continued. Access to the square where the Saturday demo was scheduled to end was prohibited; a demonstration called for by Attac for Friday was also banned, along with a “permanent protest” announced by the left-wing cultural center “Gängeviertel.”
Week of Resistance: Tuesday, July 4
The police commence a last big maneuver
Very early in the morning, the police sent numerous helicopters overhead. They also made moves on the ground, blocking streets and sending dummy convoys to simulate the ones conveying politicians.
We still don’t have enough sleeping places
Hamburg’s biggest theater, the Schauspielhaus, opened its doors; it could accommodate 300 people. The FC Saint Pauli made a similar move, offering 200 places. Meanwhile, the trade union federation and the Protestant church in Hamburg called on their members to provide housing to protestors.
People still attempted to set up camps in the city center, but those were immediately thwarted by the police. In the face of the police, a pastor defended the demonstrators who camped in the park around his Church: “The Protestant Church decides who can reside here, not the police. The campers are welcome here, especially since they are obviously in a dire situation that is not their fault.”
Other Protestant pastors and parishes followed his example. Little by little, folks built small camps in the neighborhood—one of them housed more than 1000 people. How scandalous and shameful for the police! For them, the situation was worse than a central, manageable, and easy-to-close camp, like the attempted encampment of the remote Elbpark.
Since the police prevented people from building a centralized camp, the entire program of workshops, discussions, talks, etc. had to be cancelled. The same was true for the good old tradition of protest camp culture in which people dance barefoot around the fire to the rhythm of drums. As convinced metropolitans, we considered it positive that everyone was already immediately on the street.
For example, Arrivatipark became the central hangout and meeting place every day after noon. This was not only for activists, but also for neighbors and kids from the quarter who liked to hang out at night. Surprisingly, the neighboring police station, responsible for issuing the permits for the Arrivatipark assemblies, was cooperative: they knew they would have to coexist with us after the G20.
The meeting place was Pferdemarkt, renamed “Arrivati Park” for the occasion. There was an exhibition, a concert, speeches, and people prepared protest materials such as signs and banners.
In addition, a Hamburg Urban Citizenship Card, in accordance with the name “Arrivati,” was issued. The model for this is the New York City IDNYC. This card, introduced in 2014, is issued by the city government. It is also free and available for all current residents in New York City who are older than fourteen, regardless of official resident status, a permanent place of residence, or linguistic proficiency. It is not only a legitimate identity document but it also explicitly entitles the holder to participate in public life, such as access to city hospitals, libraries, museums, or parks. In addition, cardholders receive discounts at many sporting and cultural events, at gyms, and on medicine.
The same thing is currently demanded by Hamburg residents, most notably for those who have a precarious living situation. In Arrivati, activists from everywhere became naturalized—even if only symbolically. The good news, however, is that the campaign is still running well after the G20.
The International Center for Alternative Media
In the evening, the International Center for Alternative Media opened at the St. Pauli stadium with a press conference that gathered different protest organizations on the occasion of the ban on camping. The FC MC [football club media center] livestream went online; it was probably the most useful medium for us to disseminate information. In addition, the alternative media center held daily press conferences, and provided working spaces inside for journalists and bloggers to collectively check and disseminate information. In addition, FC MC provided a home to the left-wing radio station “Free Transmitter Combine,” which aired information about the protests continuously.
This action was initially called “Reclaim the Streets,” which had finally been scheduled to occur in two days. The general idea for this action on Tuesday, July 4, dubbed “hard corner,” was to have a bunch of people hanging out and drinking together in the street before going to wild, unannounced demonstrations or direct actions. Approximately 3000 people appeared in the area.
However, it didn’t take long before the police intervened and aimed their water cannons at a quiet, calm crowd of people. Bottles began to fly. Some people shouted the slogan “Ganz Hamburg hasst die Polizei” (“All of Hamburg hates the police”). This defiant affect did not spread or generalize—the crowd mostly obeyed and scattered in the streets of Saint Pauli, ultimately entering the bars and café terraces. Their fury and frustration was palpable, but they did not explode. The general idea seemed to be to save our forces for the following days. The battle around the camps continued: one of the camps had just been evicted again. At the same time, a church opened a small park for demonstrators.
Some fireworks were set off on the roof of an Indian restaurant. The number of comrades present increased, and the number of repressive forces also increased proportionally. We began to see more and more anti-barricade tanks and water cannons.
The streets were full of complicit looks, instant solidarities, and meetings. The façades of buildings were covered with banners against the G20 and capitalism, each graffiti piece more inspired than the next. You could feel the omnipresence of a rebellious counterculture, which was hegemonic in this place. But the lack of response to police attacks confounded us. In Paris, it would be simply unthinkable that the actions of the police would not produce resistance.
From our vantage point, we felt that the police were waiting for a confrontation to obtain a “legitimate” reason to evict the Arrivatipark and thus deprive us of any meeting place for the next few days. For the first time, the police brought out their war-toys: at least six water cannons with their foreign troops massively mobilized. The latter, however, seemed a little disoriented by the opaque enemy and let the Hamburg police clear the street. Meanwhile, some musicians were bravely playing music on the Arrivatipark stage.
The police (especially the cells from Hamburg) had spent a lot of energy evicting the camps without achieving the desired result. Immediately after their eviction, people were meeting in the street at Arrivatipark again. The police once again turned the neighborhood and the media against them with this absurd operation. The crowd shouted, “We are peaceful. And you?”
In an official report released later, the police claimed they used the water cannons “by mistake” due to “communication problems.” This is almost certainly a lie, an attempt to absolve themselves of blame for escalating the violence from the very beginning.
Week of Resistance: Wednesday, July 5, 2017
“The 1000 figures are intended to represent a society that has lost the sense that another world is possible. They show us that it is not stock market news that determines our happiness, but healthy relationships, and that happiness is not defined by what we have, but what we are…”
This is the artist statement for the performance/protest.
We found the action very impressive and consider it self-explanatory. Visit the artists’ website here.
We would like to emphasize that we appreciate these forms of protest a lot, even though this text is mainly oriented towards direct confrontation with the ruling system.
The summit of alternatives
The alternative summit took place over the course of two days. It was a sort of updated version of the “world social forum.” It was, above all, a “world summit” and a “solidarity summit.” It was supported by about 77 organizations from 20 countries; more than 2000 people participated. All the major problems of this world, as well as their solutions, were discussed in countless forums and workshops. We note that representatives of YPG Rojava fighters attended.
The hindered journeys of activists
It was a great action: a train chartered to go from Switzerland through all of Germany with many activists onboard. Unfortunately, at the border, eight Italian comrades were prevented from entering the country. The train was detained for a long time. The same thing happened to a bus convoy from Scandinavia, which was searched for hours at the Danish border. At the same time, throughout the country, the police stop supposedly suspicious vehicles to harass and arrest the passengers.
With all these border controls—which are currently not valid in the European Union—strangely, a comparatively small amount of activists were detained (“only” 62 in total). However, 782 arrest warrants were executed concerning people who were randomly inspected, although they had nothing to do with the demonstrations. The police targeted a bus of peaceful young trade unionists, all of whom ended up in the so-called “GeSa” prison, where the police abused some of them. The police later reported that this was an “accident.”
Rather Dance Plenty than G20
“Reclaim the Streets,” part II! This time we threw a “Demorave.” This is kind of a mix of demo/party/rave, somewhere between what the French trade unions do and a techno parade. The Demorave involved lots of radical anti-capitalist and anti-police slogans. Sound systems installed on about 15 trucks played Techno, Hardtec, and House. The DJ collectives that made the party happen were apparently well-connected with the local activist scenes.
At the event, we really discovered Hamburg. It was a hit: instead of the expected 10,000, a crowd of 20,000 to 30,000 people strolled through the streets of the city. Once again, fireworks were set off from the roofs. Many locals enjoyed the spectacle—cheering, applauding, and waving flags and streamers from their roofs, balconies, and windows. We felt a strong sense of solidarity from them.
As the demonstration approached the red zone, the police intervened and attacked the demo. “Tout le monde déteste la police” (“Everybody hates the police”) became a hit in the demo, as well as “Das ist unsere Stadt” (“This is our city”).
It seemed like the crowd would have responded more to the police if this had happened a few days before. But there was a palpable frustration from the events of the week: the police have been attacking us daily—each time more and more oppressive—combined with the omnipresent noise of helicopters. Despite the high number of radical activists, the police set the tone. Note that the motto of these two days of “Reclaim The Streets” is, in German, “Alles Allen” (“Everything for All”).
Still, there were some smallish brawls with the police and, finally, a smaller demonstration started. That march was attended by Vandana Shiva, Indian scientist, social activist, and globalization critic; Haidi Giuliani, mother of Carlo Giuliani, the demonstrator shot in Genoa; and Ewald Lienen, legendary trainer from FC Saint Pauli. Unfortunately, the police prevented the demo from entering the exhibition halls.
Red points against blue bruises
Over the preceding few days, but mostly during the Demorave, folks distributed stickers with small red points. Many people, even “normal” residents, stuck these on their doorbells. During the Demorave, people also put them on their foreheads and noses. The stickers meant “Protesters are welcome”—in particular, if they were being hunted by the police.
Welcome to Hell: Thursday, July 6, 2017
Arson attack on Porsche
This took place early in the morning to the north of town. Ten luxury cars were completely burnt, and two other ones were heavily damaged. In their explanation, the activists referred to the police’s camp bans, among other things.
The State’s guests arrive
Most of the heads of state arrived earlier than had been announced and planned for. The police had already slated their no-demo ban to start Friday morning, reasoning that heads of state must be escorted safely from the airport to their hotels and to the venue. But now, they enacted their plan a day in advance.
This caused total chaos for traffic in the city, mainly because no drivers knew this was going to happen. From the perspective of liberal governance, the fact that the police were able to enforce their zone of prohibition 20 hours before it was legally valid puts the whole enterprise into question.
Because our blockade was planned to happen on Friday—the day the Heads of State were supposed to arrive—they managed to surprise us. Morale at the police headquarters probably improved considerably that day, especially since the “Welcome to Hell” demo—a fundamental part of the radical protest program—concentrated a lot of radicals far away from the roads taken by the politicians. In addition, the police successfully prevented the Stadtpark protest camp, which was located closer to those roads.
“Welcome to Hell“ Demo
Much ink has been spilled about the police attack on the “Welcome to Hell“ demonstration, but we would like to add a few reflections. First of all, the chosen meeting and departing place was probably not ideal for a demonstration that aspired to be the “biggest black bloc ever in Europe.” The meeting place, the Fischmarkt, is located in a square that is below street level, and the exit is a long, narrow avenue surrounded with red brick walls. Nonetheless, the number of masked and black-clad comrades was impressive—it was roughly estimated to be several thousand people. In total, about 12,000 people came out for the demonstration, and most of those people dressed in black.
The place turned out to be a terrible trap—the police surrounded us in large numbers. We also heard microphone announcements asking comrades not to respond to police provocations because the organizers were trying to negotiate for the event to continue. However, in the moment, from a French perspective, this negotiation seemed entirely unrealistic, as it was obvious that the police were not going to let the demonstration advance.
Here, we would like to raise two points: first of all, the fact that the black bloc had hardly reacted to the police encirclement of the procession allowed the riot police to advance on the sidewalks. Secondly, the human chains that the protesters made broke down fairly quickly. That being said, we must acknowledge that the police acted terribly violently, rapidly, and forcefully, and this explains why the chain technique didn’t work.
It was apparently a failure for the activists: the police succeeded in causing a general panic and hindered the crowd’s movements. As a result, the fighting spirit intensified—the crowd began to look for a better answer to the situation. Demonstrators started throwing stones and bottles, and fires also broke out. Our solidarity persists, even though the police attack created disorganization on our side.
This is where opinions differ on the police’s strategy: was it a success or a failure? The attack on the demo specifically caused an explosion of rage for the next few days. The results of the demo unleashed this anger on the whole territory, whereas the “Welcome to Hell” demo would have limited it to a specific part of the city.
In the media, the footage is shown in a realistic way:
“The intention of the police was obviously to prevent the demo from starting, then to attack them before the demonstrators could carry out violent actions. The ‘ideal moment’ to attack the demonstration came when a large part of the front had already been unmasked, while some others did not obey this command. The unmasked people were in front of hundreds of cameras, while the masked ones served as a sufficient excuse for the police attack. “
The police seriously injured a lot of demonstrators with the brutality of their attack. They violently pressed masses of people against the high floodwall. Fortunately, a lot of people were able to scale the wall and escape thanks to those who gave them a boost over it. This was dangerous if anyone were to fall. At the same time, the front lines acted extremely courageously: in an impressive display of collective intelligence, those in the first line sacrificed themselves. Their bravery provided the much-needed delay for others to escape.
Despite the disaster, the panic, and the numerous injuries, most people escaped over the wall. The police later admitted that they had not expected the bloc to do that. In a split second, the police found that they occupied a terrible strategic position, as many of the demonstrators looked down on them from the top of the promenade. From there, they rained down on the policemen everything that was lying around.
Running straight into the wall
Those who defended the gathering point argued that “the international press will protect us”—this was not only naïve but also irresponsible. The second argument, concerning the proximity of the formerly squatted houses of Hafenstraße that have been defended for 30 years, was absurd and nostalgic—specifically due to the distance between the conference locations and the roads. Given the trap in which we fell, it is easy to see why the police approved the demo. The most radical demonstration against the G20, which was planned to march on the route leading directly to the conference, including the exhibition center, was the only one approved without any conditions. Clearly, the police planned from the outset to stop us, specifically when the demo formed in the high-walled passage.
That evening and night
The participants didn’t surrender. Instead, they formed a spontaneous demo in Reeperbahn, the famous red-light district nearby. There were also many other people around, in contrast to the meeting at the Fischmarkt before. Here, the cops were much more cautious; we ended up demonstrating with maybe 10,000 people.
Other protesters went to small group actions. From that moment, people attacked the police wherever it seemed possible, often with support from the neighborhood. Many people had to be hospitalized, while others were too traumatized to continue through the night. The number of people wounded during the “Welcome to Hell” event could not be precisely quantified, but it seemed like more than a hundred.
That evening, several fierce militant marches roamed the district, erecting burning barricades, burning cars and police vehicles, and attacking symbols of capitalism, along with the Altona Courthouse. The clashes lasted late into the night in the districts of Stern, St. Pauli, Karolinenviertel, and Altona. Traditionally, the weekend in Hamburg includes Thursday nights, when many people from the neighborhoods go out because the tourists aren’t there yet. In part because of this, we were numerous and the situation was chaotic. The police ran around like headless chickens. They deployed their water cannons everywhere, but the effect was limited because the water had become warmer during the day.
At 9 o’clock, protestors attacked the residential building of the Senator of Internal Affairs, Andy Grote, in the middle of St. Pauli. The attack scared the guards, who had to retreat into the entrance. Late at night, there were numerous decentralized attacks on, amongst other things, a luxury shopping street and a police station. The fury discharged in various parts of town was purposeful, well-organized, and much too fast for the police, who could hardly keep up and often had flat tires from scattered crowbar attacks.
The illegal exclusion of journalists
“The summit admitted 5101 journalists. The Federal German Government took away the press accreditation from 32 of them on July 6. Starting on the 7th, nine journalists were not allowed to enter the press center of the Hamburg fair halls anymore, and had to give back their press passes without no reason given. As a consequence, they were banned from the important politicians’ photo ops and press conferences. On October 19, 2017, the Federal Criminal Police Office (the “BKA”) explained that, on July 7, it had given the Hamburg police a list of 82 names, 32 of them journalists. After some hours, someone recognized the list as illegal and retracted the order. According to the Hamburg police, officers employed at the Media Center did not receive this information; therefore, those denials were illegal.” (From German Wikipedia)
“Global Citizen Festival“
This festival was the contribution from several German and international stars, such as Herbert Grönemeyer, Coldplay and even Shakira, to the “global rescue.” Despite the free concert, the biggest hall in Hamburg did not even completely fill up; it seems the time for this so-called “world-improvement” has passed. It was also an absurd situation: as the German police hunted and beat protesters in St. Pauli, the German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Gabriel celebrated, in a speech between shows, the “great and important protest” of artists and visitors. Incidentally, under his term, Germany has become the third-biggest weapon exporter in the world.
Empty streets, divided city
From the beginning of the week, Hamburg residents stopped using their cars, to the effect that some parts of the city were now virtually car-free. In addition, the landscape contained endlessly appearing permanent gates and police columns interrupted bus traffic. Having a bike was clearly an advantage. The city center was completely paralyzed. Most shops were closed and boarded up with wooden panels, but this did not affect business because customers weren’t going shopping there anyway. As well, politician’s convoys were constantly escorted through the 38 km²-wide security zone. At least on the ground, this increasingly led to a de facto division of the town into two sections: East and West. Under the city, the metro still ran; above it, like a swarm of hornets, the helicopters whirred constantly, throwing their floodlight on the streets.
Since large parts of the city were aggressively restricted and staked out by the police, the city seemed ghostly. Many families with small children left the town and fled to friends’ or relatives’ homes. However, those in the neighborhood still gathered in the streets, had a drink together, played music from loudspeakers on the windowsills, and exchanged news. Some in the neighborhood played spontaneous football games, while others counted the helicopters.
Block G20: Friday, July 7, 2017
Early in the morning: Rondenbarg
At 6:30 am, a small demo of about 200 participants took place in a purely industrial area on the outskirts of Altona. They attempted to head to the city from the camp near Volkspark, probably to participate in the blockades. Federal police special units and four water cannons awaited them at Rondenbarg street, where they attacked from both sides without warning—a brutal trap that only the locals could have predicted. In this situation, some stones flew, as well as tear gas, and some of the people were masked.
The demo had no chance against the superior force of the police, the protesters being completely alone and almost without witnesses. Worse, they had no escape routes. In a panic, people knocked over a fence that exposed a fall of two to three meters. Again, there were many injuries, including exposed bone fractures.
The police arrested as many people as possible—more than 70. The biggest part of the overall arrestees were captured in this police attack—unfortunately, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. They had neither committed large material damage nor physical injury, but were beaten and targeted with water cannons anyway. The guaranteed right to demonstrate—granted by the Constitutional—was simply cancelled. This repression primarily targeted foreign protesters, for example, an 18-year-old Italian named Fabio, who was imprisoned for a long time—but more about him in the following chapters.
“Swath of destruction” across Altona
At almost the same time, 5 km south of the neighborhood, approximately 200 other completely masked demonstrators gathered on Elbchaussee street, which is famous for its many rich villas. However, in that quarter, mostly “normal” people live at the beginning of this street: the concentration of bourgeois villas starts 300-500 meters away.
Some unpalatable images and news were transmitted about this action: From the inside of a crowded public bus, someone filmed a seemingly-menacing mob breaking the glass of the bus entrance door, amongst other things. Other videos showed a large group setting fire to nineteen parked cars—including some smaller cars—while moving at a rapid clip.
Since the G20 police were otherwise occupied in other neighborhoods and the city center, the group advanced. It attacked two police cars in front of the local train station, as well as the controversial new IKEA building with Molotov cocktails. In the central shopping street of the Altona district, just about everything that had to do with capitalism was smashed. After no more than 20 minutes, everyone was gone—there were no arrests.
Strangely, the police did not mention this action in their otherwise-detailed press release at 10:25 am. Three hours later, they only reported the attack on the police at the rail station, even though, across the whole city, one could see the black smoke columns above the Elbchaussee. Subsequently, the police maintained for months that the people were probably violent perpetrators escaped from the Rondenbarg. They eventually had to retract both comments because that narrative was chronologically impossible.
“Block G20” starts to move
At the same time, the so-called “fingers”6 assembled at various meeting places. At the beginning, there were maybe 2000 people, but our numbers grew quickly. The goal was to get as close as possible to the routes the politicians would take to summit’s venue. The mood was cheerful, fierce, and determined.
Some fingers were stopped far away from the protocol routes—for example, the “green finger“ was stopped in the Altona district and again at the Volkspark camp.
The police seriously attacked the “purple finger” in Landungsbrücken shortly after it began to move. The group tried to bypass the police lines, then re-formed, but ultimately was stopped again.
The “red finger,” however, succeeded in reaching one of the most central routes and blocking it efficiently for over two hours. Among others, the German Minister of Finance, Schäuble, and the EU Council President, Junker, had to turn around and cancel their event.
After dealing with some police controls on the transit system, others left the port by the harbor to protest and block it. From all sides, small groups started to head that way, looking for opportunities to intervene. At some points, ten or twenty people sat down in the street, were evicted, then tried again elsewhere.
Traffic backed up so much that it completely shut down the center and other parts of the city. Police drove and walked everywhere (except at Elbchaussee). The situation was chaotic and, in the early hours of the morning, some “bad fingers,” like most of us, had not even hit the road yet.
Generally speaking, the official summit kickoff took place, but a lot of events had to be improvised. Schedules were disordered and some things were completely canceled, like the meeting of German and American foreign ministers. A conservative Hamburg newspaper with a rather large readership, The Abendblatt, published about the “situation of police intervention” between 5:55 and 11:00 am—using one source: Hamburg Police.
Police reinforcements requested
According to a report later published by the famous weekly Der Spiegel, who supposedly received internal reports from the police, the police requested reinforcements. Someone woke up Dudde, the chief of operations, at police headquarters after only a few hours of sleep.
Due to the announcements, Dudde made an emergency call to the so-called “Federal Reserve Police.” These were the only operational groups of the German police not yet in Hamburg. Large helicopters brought them into town; with these reserves, there were a total of 31,000 police deployed during the G20.
We only slept for a few hours. When we woke, we could see a number of fires smoldering from our balcony. We heard that the harbor had been blocked, that Melania Trump was trapped in the guesthouse of the senate, and that many delegations had some serious hurdles to clear in order to move.
Throughout the whole city, the dense territorial cover of various actions, with different forms and levels of engagement, seemed to effectively disturb the summit. On that day, there were countless reports of a wide range of events: demonstrations, blockades, direct actions, and also a sea-battle between police boats and Greenpeace. It would go beyond the scope of this text to report on all of the actions in detail. It was the amount, the variability, the determination, the duration, and the huge expanse of the protest activities that decisively determined the disruption on Friday.
Der Spiegel provided a clear map, which they published immediately after the summit with the apt title “Out of Control.” Their map was not even comprehensive—many smaller actions were not documented anywhere, but nonetheless were considered effective. Others, like the harbor blockade, happened beyond the map’s borders.
“Block the G20—color the red zone”
From our point of view, the concept, “Block the G20—color the red zone,” constructed a solid base and frame that defined a day that saw approximately 20,000 people participate in a wide variety of protests. We document here the action consensus, or the short version of the “action picture”:
“Our goal is to noticeably disturb the proceedings of the G20 Summit, and to disrupt the staging of power that the summit represents. We will commit a publicly announced mass breach of rule. Our actions are those of a justified means of resistant mass disobedience.
Our blockades are human blockades and creative material blockades, consisting of everyday objects. We will
– pursue our goal level-headedly and with determination,
– take care of each other as participants in solidarity and
protect ourselves in order to defend our right to physical integrity. We will not start any escalation.
We unite in solidarity with all those who share our emancipatory criticism of the G20.”
The harbor blockade
The harbor blockade was mainly organized by the “Pour le Tout” alliance. They met up early in the morning near the harbor to form a demonstration/blockade march. Their rallying cries: “Let’s fight the logistics of capital! Hamburg city strike! Let’s close the port!” Nearly 1000 people marched toward the harbor, eventually reaching a central crossroads in the middle of the port area. Demonstrators blocked for harbor for a few hours, and the action considerably disturbed the harbor’s functioning.
The plugging of the harbor meant that there was a three-day work delay on undelivered goods and services, according to the Hamburg Port Authority. The police behaved cautiously, even though they arrived with massive reinforcements.
We consider this action noteworthy and extraordinary because of its impact: it was not just concerned with the spectacle of the summit, but directed against the madness of global capitalism. The Hamburg harbor is indeed a strategic interchange point in this worldwide system.
It was a warm but not terribly hot day. We walked a lot of kilometers—sometimes we ran, sometimes we took the subway, sometimes we used bikes. We were hunted, sometimes beaten; we got broken up, then rejoined, reoriented ourselves, and then continued. At the info points, like “The Oasis at Gängeviertel,” information was constantly circulating, and there was always enough water and food.
Education strike and youth demo against the G20
Several schools and most universities cancelled class on Friday anyway. Some went on strike; in others, pupils were pressured not to take part in protest actions. The teacher’s union, as well as a representative body of students, supported the “youth against the G20” protest. The protest’s motto: “Our future is unwritten—let’s fight together.”
Students and teachers participated in the blockades, which were mostly supported by young people. But there was also a demonstration in the city center in the morning with about 3000 participants, this time approved by the police. At the beginning, a convoy of summit participants appeared by surprise at the meeting point of the demonstration and was spontaneously blocked and forced to turn back. The demonstration was noisy and colorful and escorted by Hamburg policemen who were visibly exhausted.
A part of our tactics
Part of our tactics was to avoid clear front lines. That way, we could flank or assemble behind the police lines, which significantly hindered their attempts to gain ground. Thanks to a strong showing of locals, we transformed the streets and squares into a chaotic system, countering the police force’s ideal of order and transparency. In the end, the police armada even blocked itself—their rows of vehicles stopped the rest of the traffic, creating disorderly traffic jams everywhere. This video shows a convoy of summit participants getting lost, stopping on Reeperbahn, and the subsequent police action.
An anecdote offering a certain tactical intelligence: the march knowing how to be silent, hiding behind buildings, crossing a park at full speed to better surprise the police and reach the bridge of the Elbphilharmonie while the park was held by the police.
We also want to share an anecdote that revealed a specific tactical intelligence: a fairly large number of people knew how to stay utterly quiet, hide behind buildings, cross a park at high speed to better surprise the police forces, and ultimately were able to reach the pedestrian bridge to the Elbphilharmonie. Unfortunately, the police eventually reconquered the park. However, the presence of numerous scouts, the fact that people listened to them as well as each other, and the level of solidarity were all considerable weapons in our struggle.
The police, running to nowhere
The police, at this point, were using their water cannons wherever they could. In total, they deployed 44 such cannons in Hamburg. At full pressure, the cannon’s stream can inflict serious injury. But their main tactical function was to disperse crowds of people by soaking them completely. This tactic did not work very well this time, mainly because of the summer heat, which made getting wet not so bad. As a result, the police sent more and more officers into battle. They were forced to sprint again, often over long distances. Most of them wore helmets, and many wore black masks. Their uniform: an all-black knight’s armament that included high-strength plastic protection. Each officer was carrying an extra weight of 15-20 kgs in the summer sun. Weighed down like this, the police were properly “grilled” when they were sent running all over the town from Duddes’ air-conditioned headquarters. Meanwhile, we moved around mostly in t-shirts and sneakers, constantly getting fresh water from the locals.
Due to the combination of their self-imposed zero tolerance stance, the fatigue from the previous days, the high temperatures, their apparently poor food supply situation, and the non-stop protest actions, the police forces clearly seemed to be frustrated and exhausted. Their condition produced a notable sluggishness and slow pace; more and more often, they violently attacked people at random. Sometimes, several people were detained for a short time, then quickly released—presumably, the police did this solely to minimize their own immediate stress.
Evidently, the foreign police units did not want (or were not able) to make distinctions between residents, tourists, activists, and journalists, and even less between peaceful, nonviolent demonstrators and those who increasingly wanted a confrontation. There was less and less of a grey area between “exhausted, hanging around“ and “blindly pummel everything that walks around without a uniform” and “use the water cannons on every crowd at random.”
Enough with colorful and fun
The events moved increasingly in the direction of Landungsbrücken: the harbor where another demo was slated to start. In addition, the nearby Reeperbahn was full of demonstrators. The police obstructed the route in the direction of the city center and the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, and, by doing so, blocked railway traffic. The conflicts intensitified minute by minute. The hatred grew—more and more people overcame their fear. Wherever the police appeared, the crowd chanted, “All of Hamburg hates the police!“ and “Cassez-vous! Cassez-vous!” [“Fuck off!”]. At Landungsbrücken, some demonstrators actively took the offensive and threw stones at the police.
We ourselves became increasingly more furious and more uninhibited in view of the fact that those damned G20 assholes were still holding their summit, as well as the fact that we had to deal with these shitty cops—and, of course, we had not forgotten what they did to us at the previous day’s demo. Anger dissolved the pain in our legs: with more speed and energy, we shifted the tempo up a gear and gathered in a larger mass. However, we could only move outside the city center, which was completely occupied and blocked by the police; the only paths that were free were the ones protected for politicians. To get to the east side of the city, one had to travel around to the north and around the Alster Lake.
Hamburg: a city under siege.
“Ode to Joy”
Meanwhile, the police escorted the politicians from the summit venue to the Elbphilharmonie. After nothing substantial emerged from the meetings, they at least wanted to celebrate in a decent manner. The Elbphilharmonie suits the G20: it is one of the most scandalous constructions in Germany in recent memory. Initially estimated at €70 million, the “Elfi” cost €800 million (approximately $1 billion). In this pompous building, they hold concerts for the elite, paid for primarily by city taxpayers who work hard for their money. Now, there is a shortage of money for kindergartens, schools, accommodations for refugees, and small cultural projects.
As the heads of state arrived, Greenpeace succeeded with their protest on the Elbe.
In the media, on the other hand, the street protests dominated the airwaves. The television news channels showed, live and in parallel, the images of the pompous Beethoven concert and the escalating situation outside.
Critical and colorful mass
At 7 pm, the set meeting place was the Dammtor railway station; it was the last peaceful protest scene of the day. Near the already seriously escalated situation, approximately 3000 bicycle riders and skaters joined. Their motto: “We don´t car,” but also “this is our city.” Critical Mass is a traditional and somewhat successful mobilization of the bicyclists in Hamburg. That day, it was a reaction to the G20 summit and, in particular, against the “brains of the combustion engines” that dominate it.
While the state’s guests celebrated themselves by listening to Beethoven in the Elbphilharmonie, the mobile demo comprised mostly of people from Hamburg bypassed the fortress and headed in the direction of the hard-won Schanze district. The police seemed to be relaxed at first, particularly as their “real problem”—the militant demonstrators and the state’s guests—were the priority.
In the evening
Some had called for a revolutionary demonstration on Reeperbahn at 8 pm. However, at the last minute, it was canceled because the person in charge had been arrested; instead, the demo was converted into a sort of party with music. Further to the north, however, all around the Rote Flora and the Arrivatipark, the confrontations were increasingly intense. The police helped to push people in that direction. To put it differently: it was simply impossible to expel or disperse people from there for any serious amount of time, despite several unsuccessful attempts from the police.
In the early evening, the police forces were still stuck elsewhere, guarding the routes between the “Elfi” and the hotels. In addition, in many parts of the city—not only the St.Pauli and Schanze districts—folks had established dumpster blockades in the streets. Some were on fire; in other cases, local residents simply threw them in the streets to protest the permanent “Lalülala” [police occupation]. In any case, the police were constantly running behind to clear everything away. We also saw some police units in the alleys, ostensibly giving themselves a well-earned break.
The Schanze evolved into an area to protect ourselves from police violence—perhaps the only one at that time in the entire region of Hamburg. In the Schanze, all of the restaurants and kiosks, as well as most of the smaller shops, remained open as they normally would. In the early evening, the basic atmosphere was even relaxed and festive. This video shows the beginning of the situation that night; it was shot from a scaffolding that would play a bigger role later.
Out of Control
These are the events that are mostly deeply ingrained in our minds. It is hard to get an entire overview: already, at the beginning of the night, the number of burning barricades was difficult to count; in any case, there were a lot more than on the previous night. What we call autoréductions[^6} in France were taking place, primarily at big chain stores like Rewe, Budnikowski,[^7} and Apple. Then, folks made barricades with paving stones, the same way demonstrators in Paris had in May 1968. People also tore up the wooden panels that had been put up to protect boutiques and used them as shields against the water cannons.
The large local participation in the autoréductions surprised us. Sometimes, it was young unmasked women who were happy to help themselves at the store free of charge: it was evident that they enjoyed consuming without paying. We also observed workers at local stores throwing stones at police officers. The police were pushed out of the quarter for hours.
That said, another party of residents, albeit a minority, tried to attack the rebels by force. And if a certain euphoria seized us in this unusual moment of collective power, it must be put into perspective with the existing obstacles.
This in no way detracts from the strength and passion of this moment: the spread of insurrectional practices on such a scale in a part of the city, the solidarity of a part of the population, the high level of fighting spirit. But people also had to break up fights between merchants or angry inhabitants and rioters, even though other inhabitants participated with joy in the revolt that aroused a fighting spirit in the district.
We also want to highlight a striking incident: A corner bank branch was smashed and burned. We were told that the action succeeded in actually liberating banknotes. These were then distributed outside in the same manner as the winnings from other autoréductions. We didn’t have time to linger; the battle-light glowed above the Rote Flora, where the police tried to penetrate the Schanze again. We deployed another impressive technical innovation: we used big sunshades from the restaurants to protect us from the water cannons. This idea was extremely effective—it made a group of water cannons simply impotent, even at full strength.
This must be said: only a few people wore protective equipment against tear gas, mainly because the German police had rarely used it in the last few years before the G20, preferring pepper spray.
On Friday, the police also shot a round of live ammunition. Thankfully, they did not injure anyone. The Schanze died down after about 5 am.
The map shows the situation in the Schanze at night for several hours. In fact, the situation wasn’t generally static. Conspicuously, the G20 meeting place was located only 300m away, and, for hours, the shortest route was supposedly “free” from police forces. However, this route led through an industrial area that could have been easily surrounded and trapped. Almost all access routes to the “Out of control area” were free as well.
Failure of the police tactics
There are surely a number of reasons and forces that led to this escalation, that explain why a kind of “situation of anarchy“ ultimately emerged. Maybe the most important one, from our point of view, was that the police tactics failed. We can identify three major points here:
1) The police planned and bound themselves from the outset “to respond to any kind of disturbance or crime with immediate intervention.” This tactic only works if it frightens a large part of the protesters into accepting that oppression and giving up.
However, that scenario did not happen—not only with the rowdier of the protesters, but also with other courageous pacifist-oriented protestors. And if that was the police’s self-proclaimed objective, the necessary conditions must be produced over and over again for a number of days. This kind of operation requires a lot of strength and power, especially considering the relatively warm weather, the expanse of the city, and above all, the huge number and variety of protest actions. The police brutality, which was constant, direct, and excessive, created a palpable sense of solidarity in the already critically-minded neighborhood, further complicating police operations.
2) During the weeks before the G20, the Hamburg police were ordered to the front lines for every kind of action: the “obvious” ones, like the “GeSa to Hell“ demo, and also to the absolutely harmless student demo on Friday morning. In addition, the routes of the politicians required constant activity from the Hamburg police because of their territorial knowledge. We believe that the Hamburg cops were completely exhausted, and were sent on a break or were given time to rest on Friday evening. In any case, on Friday evening, we didn’t see any Hamburg cops in the Schanze riot, and, also, no Berliners.
Instead, South German and Austrian cops, who had little or no street fighting experience or local knowledge, stood at the front line. Then, these units (or their leadership) mutinied and, at a certain point, refused to advance, the last time being on Schulterblatt. In German police jargon, this movement is apparently called “remonstrieren” [“to remonstrate”]. In its official release about this incident, the Bavarian7 Ministry of the Interior used this word—up until now, a unique occurrence in Germany. In his headquarters, Hartmut Dudde, presumably, was not amused when he got word of their actions. Especially since other police cannot have been particularly eager to take the place of these units, who were known to be particularly robust.
3) As we mentioned, the centralized operational and communication structure of the police is old-fashioned and, well, German: nothing happens without orders from the top, and the structure has a strong center. However, that meant that the variety, number, and duration of our actions overwhelmed police communication; they could not coordinate in real-time.
There is no other way to explain why, for example, the Bavarian cops, next to the Rote Flora, who were trying to attack a group of protestors in the park, attempted to cross a skateboarding bowl, falling down by the dozen in the process. Or, a recurring event: a section of the cops fought to gain a section of the main street, Schulterblatt, in Stern, only to realize that none of the other units had followed them; in fact, the others remained waiting 200 meters away. This was a tactical disaster for the police, but it was surprising and beneficial to us.
And what about us?
On Friday evening, we felt pretty fresh, we were not at all centrally controlled or tied up, and we felt full of hatred from the events of the week. Moreover, we received a new influx of a least 1000 activists from all over Germany who had been working at their jobs all week.
Then, as in most such situations, there were some people who joined in that we would have preferred did not. Sometimes they threw stones from the eighth row, hitting other activists; other times, even worse, they played with fire around people’s houses.
We had not considered the possibility of such a situation, so we were poorly prepared for it. Therefore, we had no good infrastructure to deal with these events. Hypothetically, a group with more than 20 experienced comrades, who are tight-knit and know the terrain, who have the express goal of dealing with danger to people not involved in the riot—by force if necessary—could have prevented a lot. We definitely could have seen it coming. After all, there were disputes in or near the district during the early evenings, in addition to our own anger against the cops. What we could not anticipate in advance was that the mob of the German riot police would reach the limits of their own capacity.
There are different perceptions
There are different perceptions about what took place on Friday night. On the one hand, a common opinion among the local population, often suspected in the liberal media, is that politicians and police may have wanted riots in the Schanze. Possibly, they even pushed the riots in order to delegitimize our whole protest week and to relegate our real concerns and issues to the background. According to this narrative, the police also had this plan in order to overshadow the earlier negative media coverage about them, since the media had strongly criticized the excessive police violence and the de facto suspension of the fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.
However, we do not believe this narrative. The attempts that police made to conquer the main street Schulterblatt in the Schanze were simply too aggressive, even if the details were poorly organized. On the other hand, it is also true that the police prioritized protecting the state’s guests: their routes, their hotels, their places of celebration, and so on, and therefore did not dedicate enough attention or resources to the Schanze.
In addition, the direct and short route from the district to the summit venue was completely free of police units for hours—the police apparatus must have been going haywire.
However, that truth is also that there were a lot of well-organized young people from all around who really gave the cops hell. This gave everyone a good amount of time to prepare for the next attack—building barricades, looting entire construction sites full of material, and gathering thousands of stones. The police also neglected to bring along enough shelter shields and seemed increasingly distressed.
The police confronted people who were full of hate from the whole week, especially after the “Welcome to Hell” demo. Hate can be a powerful driver in helping to overcome fear. Their 25th hour came when it became increasingly clear that the police would start the second half with their B-team and without shoulder pads.
In addition, there was a wide influx of rebellious youngsters from all over town who realized that “The cops in the Schanze are taking it on the chin.” Some of the residents probably also thought “Oh, there’s looting again—super, I can’t miss this.” However, there were also some residents who were simply afraid. This was understandable, especially since some drunks were acting mindlessly. At a certain point, the situation became ominous: two houses burned, but firefighters never arrived. The atmosphere radically deteriorated and an obviously apolitical mob increasingly took control.
At some point, organized comrades left the scene because of the possibility that the police were going to carry out their final attack in the foreseeable future. Comrades changed their clothes,8 but remained in the area. The police even forced media representatives and their bosses to leave the area, while the previously mentioned influx of youngsters continued.
SEK (Special Anti-Terrorist Forces) Operation
For the first time in post-WWII German history, the police anti-terror units, equipped with war weapons, were ordered to act against a demonstration, riot, or disturbance. For the G20, they had been conscripted exclusively for the guests of the immediate protection of the state.
At that time, only a small part of the Hamburg riot police would have sufficed to recapture the district.
It was also incomprehensible that the numerous water cannons positioned in the nearby Pferdemarkt did not advance onto Schulterblatt in the Schanze. We also couldn’t figure out why they did not extinguish the barricade at the entrance from a distance, because this is usually a standard maneuver for the Hamburg police.
Supposedly, according to their latest justification, the police feared for their lives—mainly because of some people on the scaffolding and roof of a corner house by the street entrance. However, the new generation of water cannons is equipped with an armor plating that can handle blows from concrete roofing and water cannons are obviously difficult to set on fire. But, locked in their own dynamics, and under the pressure of justification—perhaps also just to make an example—a scenario reminiscent of Mosul or Aleppo played out in the middle of Germany.
On the roof and scaffolding, there were no “dangerous autonomists,” paving stones, Molotov cocktails, or other weapons. On the other hand, the police arrested several bloggers—among others, a right-wing German and Russians who made more favorable comments about the police (one of their videos is included later herein). On Friday night, only thirteen people from the “influxers” were arrested, but no organized comrades.
After the police “reconquered” the Schanze, the Hamburg officers magically appeared and locked down the area. Elsewhere, the confrontations continued. Among other events, another supermarket was looted and a G20 delegation vehicle was set on fire.
Saturday, July 8, 2017
Morning hangover in the Schanze
The Schanze district has experienced a lot of riots and destruction in the past, but it seemed like this kind of scale had never been seen before Saturday morning. The pavement was ripped out everywhere and debris blocked the streets. Most residents were shocked and furious at the police as well as at the black bloc and everyone else who had taken part in the riot. It should be noted that the riot hit mostly big supermarket chains, banks, and global brands, like Apple or other expensive boutiques. Smaller, owner-operated stores, restaurants, or social facilities were mostly untouched.
There were some serious exceptions, like the window of the “Jesus Center,” a social facility that cares for homeless people and houses young solo refugees. Next door, there was a fire in a bank. The youngsters—already traumatized—had to be evacuated. In addition, the storage area of the REWE supermarket, which is connected to the sales floor and is located below residential apartments, burned.
There were a lot of stories circulating about the riots: drunken hooligans or even extreme right-wingers, disgusting men who were openly sexually harassing women. There were also rumors of other fires, but those were soon proved wrong. However, the fact is that firefighters could not enter the neighborhood for hours and there was a risk that the fires could have spread uncontrollably.
The Schanze has long-standing experiences with major police operations. There have already been several occurrences of lootings and improvised barricades. Until July 2017, police forces had always prevailed in the neighborhood. This time, no one believed that such a large police force needed to wait so long to do the same thing. Now, many imagined that the Schanze was deliberately “sacrificed” by the police and, ultimately, by the politicians.
Media hype and statements of politicians
As expected, the Hamburg media wigged out and railed against the “violent mob.” In addition, the national television broadcasting stations only talked about one subject: the supposed “civil war” in Hamburg. Initially, it was mostly ignored that, after all, there had been a history of excessive police violence. The real G20 and also all the other protests against it were only a footnote on Saturday.
Mayor Scholz positioned himself wholly behind the police, demanding harsh punishments for the “violent criminals.” However, he also had to answer for the fact that he had promised the citizens of Hamburg a “colorful, international party of democracy—much like the harbor birthday“ (the city’s big annual party). The Senator of Internal Affairs, Grote, underlined the “success of the police operation“ in the days before. He then portrayed an image of “unprecedented organized violence that was not afraid of anything.”
The Rote Flora separates itself
The Rote Flora separated itself from the events of Friday night through an interview with their longtime spokesperson, but we must take into account the fact that they were expecting the SEK (special anti-terrorist forces) with many injured demonstrators inside: “… It is a riot that refers only to itself. It is no longer a question of political content, but only of the event. Tearing up the Schanze is a political error…” Further: “A line has been crossed here… Fires in a store in a residential building is a no-go…”
A few days later, a longer explanation from Rote Flora appeared with the title “We are radical, but not idiots.” The piece reflected on more context from previous days and police strategy before talking about the campaign against Rote Flora.
Foreign comrades scapegoated
On Saturday and during the next few days, the official applicant and spokesperson for the “Welcome to Hell“ demo publicly distanced himself from the riot with several statements—among others: “We represent the moderate autonomists in Europe and have not invited these people. The groups that we contacted have by no means come with the intention of pillaging and of violence. We reject this in general,” and, further “I have heard Italian, Spanish, and French myself. But we did not talk to them, and they also did not talk to us before.”
These statements were not only politically deadly—they were false. First, we mobilized radical circles in all of Europe, particularly for the “Welcome to Hell” demo. Second, he suggested that the foreign comrades were mainly responsible for all the violence and destruction, which was also the media narrative of the police.
In reality, our friends from abroad neither represented the biggest acting group, nor spontaneously triggered something all alone, nor did they take the initiative decisively or without consensus. On the contrary, it would be fair to say that young, left-minded people from Hamburg and other radicals from all over Germany constituted the largest organized groups by far. These Germans were actively supported by foreign comrades, who for the most part demonstrated discipline.
It was probably the drunk, presumably “completely apolitical,” and younger people from Hamburg who were responsible for the undeniable excesses that occurred, such as setting fire to residential housing. That said, more experienced comrades from Hamburg were also responsible for not sufficiently intervening.
In publicizing such statements, the spokesperson of the “Welcome to Hell” demo virtually threw the foreign comrades under the bus. The effect was not just limited to the public imagination in the following days, but also had consequences for the prosecution and subsequent judicial proceedings. We will discuss this in detail below.
Fortunately, other parts of the protest spectrum reacted much more cautiously and focused on the whole context; thus, they avoided distancing themselves from the actions in the media.
International mass demonstration at midday
The biggest common event of the week took place on Saturday, July 8: a mass demonstration that united practically all the platforms and anti-G20 groups. The slogan of the demo was “solidarity without borders instead of the G20.” It was an alliance of 180 organizations from the Social Democratic Party to youth and autonomous groups. You can read the call here.
The call to action involved the entire protest movement. In Germany, it’s rare to have such a broad alliance around such a call that is so critical of the system. Those who felt that this call or that the sense of the protests was too radical called for a parallel demonstration, but it only drew 4000 or 5000 people.
Considering the unleashed fury from the evening before and all the propaganda about the violence, we feared that fewer people would show up. Yet an imposing mass of about 80,000 people rolled through the streets of Hamburg. This demo was enclosed on either side by a large police platoon in a sort of movable lobster trap. A good number of the police were masked. Helicopters continued to circle in the Hamburg sky.
The whole atmosphere was substantially more relaxed and far less aggressive than the evening before. This time, there was not one single black bloc, but smaller ones in the march. Other radical militants probably preferred not to come and risk arrest.
The hunt for young foreigners, “filling up the GeSa”
In fact, at the end of the demo, the police carried out arrests. However, they had a target in mind: dark clothing, “Southern”-sounding voices or accents, or, in general, young people with “non-German characteristics.”
Those who match one or several “criteria” got inspected, their personal data verified, and their clothes and backpacks searched. In the case of “finds,” like a firecracker, they could get several months in jail. Even for totally insignificant reasons, some people were subsequently banned from the city, while others were arbitrarily detained or arrested.
The arrestees were then transferred to the “ Central prisoner point” (“GeSa”). From the police point of view, the number of prisoners so far had been poor. The “GeSa” was more than half empty on Saturday morning, which was difficult to explain to the public after the events of Friday morning and night, especially since the previous prisoners were mostly those who had been locked up there throughout Friday, like all the people arrested in Rondenbarg. Now, the police needed bodies, and especially in quantity. Preferably, they needed “big game,” like the “violent, foreign criminals” from Friday night.
The politicians depart
The politicians departed as soon as possible. An after-party does not seem to have been planned, nor bilateral or smaller meetings. Such events are usually customary when everybody is already in the same place. But the politicians only wanted one thing: to leave quickly. Of course, nobody stopped them.
During the whole G20, Trump only tweeted twice. Now, having had to go “cold turkey” for days, he sat down in Air Force One and immediately tweeted “Law enforcement & military did a spectacular job in Hamburg. Everybody felt totally safe despite the anarchists.” And afterwards, a propagandistic personal video from the G20:
Beforehand, in Hamburg, there was supposedly one more tug of war about the final statement on climate protection. In the end, everybody but the USA committed to the Paris climate agreement—what an achievement by humankind!
In the evening
In the evening, people assembled in Saint Pauli and in the Schanze all around the Rote Flora. The atmosphere was laid back and festive.
In the span of a few minutes, the scene quickly changed into a dystopian nightmare. The police deployed an operation to maintain “order” in the fastest manner that many comrades had ever experienced. Thousands of policemen attacked the streets with the help of water cannons, clearing tanks, and special forces. They carried out a lot of arrests. It is likely that this plan already existed throughout the day and was simply put into place after the heads of state left. In addition, a lot of cops who were stationed in the red zone before were not needed there anymore.
In front of the Rote Flora, the protest was actually rather harmless. Now everybody seemed to want to avoid conflicts and arrests. But this police action produced a strange labyrinth of roadblocks and controls, like an all-encompassing cage. It took us more than an hour and a half to navigate a total of seven police checkpoints before we could get out of the neighborhood, which was only four streets. The atmosphere was extremely stressful, and the police were not clear with their actions at all. A police operation here, a police operation there, sometimes they searched, sometimes they didn’t. Once out of the maze, we saw the relics of the previous day’s fight: smashed shop-windows, the remnants of barricades—but the whole district was now occupied now by riot police units.
In addition, the SEK appeared in full-gear at the Pferdemarkt for no discernable reason.
We had to make a loop around the whole red zone to finally reach our lodgings.
That night, we heard that a group of neo-Nazis had appeared in Saint Pauli. They injured five people before people finally expelled them near the former squats of Hafenstrasse. On a related note, some problems appeared from the commercialization of a subculture: certain comrades insulted some people wearing St. Pauli t-shirts, but did not react at all when the neo-Nazis appeared.
The heavy cost
One of our friends, among more than 300 others, remained in police custody—the special prison had to be filled up. We estimated the number of injured around several hundred. The police said publicly that they were looking for French and Italian people; in their judgment, those were the ones responsible for the preceding day’s riots.
After the Summit
Sunday, July 9, 2017
The “cleaning mob” strikes
In the morning, 1000 people (according to the press) or else 10,000 (according to police) assembled, mobilized by a private individual in Hamburg via Facebook with the phrase “Hamburg tidies up.“ The day before, the “orange bloc”—Hamburg Municipal Cleaning—had cleaned the streets completely; in fact, the streets actually seemed more clean than usual on a Sunday morning. Despite the municipal cleaning, people at the district’s railway station distributed cleaning equipment donated by a chain building supply store. Then the “cleaning mob” went over to the “attack” site. No bottle cap, cigarette butt, or graffiti was safe from them—it was a sort of “reclaim the streets” for middle-class Hamburg. Most inhabitants of the Schanze gathered to watch in disbelief at these activities on their streets, but some also took part.
Among them were many mothers with young children. They were just glad that now “everything is over,“ and wished to go back to their normal lives (even if those were anything but beautiful and simple). However, the G20 and the events of Friday night took its toll on them, too: the schools and kindergartens were closed, and, in view of the escalated situation, they were not even able to go outside in the streets. In addition to the violence everywhere, masked police with guns drawn had stormed some houses, ostensibly to “secure“ the roofs. To help the children process these experiences, a school in the Schanze encouraged children to express their impressions by making drawings.
Federal President Steinmeier arrived at the district for a short press conference to express his “dismay.” However, Mayor Olaf Scholz preferred to address the people of Hamburg exclusively via the media. He wanted to avoid photo ops in the Schanze, as well as possible demonstrations against him. He did not want to make any moves that could affect his career.
Chancellor Angela Merkel also tried to keep herself out of the whole “affair,” even though it was actually her idea to select her hometown of Hamburg as the venue. In the media, she supported the mayor and the police. She asked her conservative party to forget any resignation demands directed toward Mayor Scholz, the social democrat.
A demonstration against repression near the prisoner collection point (“GeSa”)
Shortly after waking up on Sunday, we noticed that a lot of police cars appeared around us, almost at every street corner. They stopped, checked, and frisked people, expressly looking for French and Italian nationals. Their actions affected us by preventing us from going to the anti-repression demo for fear of being arrested. However, more than a thousand people attended.
In the GeSa
Nevertheless, the police finally reached their goal of getting their GeSa more or less filled up. On Sunday, approximately 300 of 400 places were taken. In the 10,000 m² big hall of a former building center, there were tiny single cells and big shared cells; rooms for interrogation, identification, and processing (fingerprints, etc.); rooms for public prosecutors and judges; and rooms for lawyers to talk with the prisoners. Cells were often constructed without windows, mattresses, or fresh air. It was a dreadful installation, planned with “German thoroughness,“ and fortified like Fort Knox.
According to news agencies, the police, over all days surrounding the G20, announced a total of 186 detentions and 225 “safe-keepings.” In total, 82 were arrested and sent to custodial judges who enacted 37 arrest warrants. Never had there been such a balance after a police operation in Hamburg. According to the police, 132 of the 186 arrested were Germans. Eight were French and seven, Italians. All those arrested and, in addition, those still in “safe-keeping“ sat in the GeSa.
As defined by German case law, most of the prisoners were innocent. Many did not run away from the police because they thought—wrongly—that the attacking police would just pass them, because they weren’t masked or taking part in any protest action. Some had the bad luck of falling into a trap set by the police, like Fabio. Others had been collected by the police during their “fishing-for-foreigners” mission on Saturday. Everybody was completely searched, including their genital areas. They were left for many hours with nothing to eat and had to wait nearly two days before they were summoned to a custodial judge.
About 120 lawyers had voluntarily registered themselves at the lawyers’ emergency service. They were forced to wait, sometimes for a few hours, to enter the GeSa to talk with the prisoners. In one case, police physically attacked a lawyer. The “Republican Lawyers Association” names several examples of violations of fundamental rights. We cite here two such cases:
“ […] An injured young woman, who was delivered on Friday (July 7) at noon to the GeSa with suspected broken nose, did not receive food over the course of fifteen hours. Her injury was not X-rayed. She was summoned 40 hours after her arrest to a custodial judge who discharged her from the police safekeeping at 11 pm on the same day because of the absence of evidence. The law prescribes a prompt hearing before the judge.
Several female clients reported that no hygiene products were made available to them, even though they needed them. Toward a young woman, the refusal was accompanied by the comment “protestors do not get their period.” In another case, a young woman reported that she “had to insert a tampon in front of a watching officer.”
Luckily, many of the prisoners were released on Sunday. They were welcomed and supplied at a contact point installed by the legal team on the edge of the GeSa and constantly staffed. Friends pick up most of the liberated. However, others remained locked up for weeks, months, and even longer—more on this below.
Once again, Nazis in St. Pauli
At 3 pm, we heard about alleged neo-Nazi groups on Reeperbahn in St. Pauli. We went into a bar and came out two minutes later with two prepared comrades who were inside. In a few minutes, we became ten. We met a young, rather sporty person with a T-shirt reading “Nazi Hunter.” He joined us for a moment, then, not finding any traces of the fascists, went to warn his friends, who were scattered all over the neighborhood. Within a short time, a beautiful anti-fascist response took place. Apparently the neo-Nazis quickly thinned out, even though they found enough time to show up in front of the Rote Flora without being chased away.
Our small troop was still quite interesting. In a short time, we were a little better-equipped, zigzagging around to avoid the ever-present police cars. The Nazis waited for the moment when we were weakest, recovering from the police attack the day before and with numerous comrades in police custody. Next time, an anti-fascist watch should be maintained, especially through the social networks.
Helicopters away, everybody back safe, we celebrate
After a week of almost uninterrupted helicopterror above our neighbourhood, it was finally quiet. The police squadrons left the town in big columns. All that remained were some patrol cars, occasionally circulating on patrol.
The huge strain of the preceding days slowly dissipated, particularly as we had been fortunate enough to get off without heavy injuries. A swelling here, a blister there, but everything relatively minor; from our immediate area, no one remained imprisoned. We had been fortunate, but above all careful and cohesive, as well as benefitting from our previous experience.
Everything spoke unambiguously in favour of good cooking and eating together. Said and done, with several close comrades and friends invited. In the end, there was a small banquet, which seamlessly transitioned in a party with some alcohol. It was a lovely international evening to conclude a week of protest and resistance—from our point of view, at least broadly successful: a good way to conclude a wonderful experience with people from the other side of the river Rhine.
The week after
Controls at airports and at the frontiers
Leaving the country raised new problems: six Italians were detained at the Berlin airport for over six hours. One must always have a bit of cunning and luck as well to leave such places behind without problems. Once more, vehicles were also stopped and searched on the return journey in many places, with police especially targeting buses and once again carrying out various abuses.
Agitation against Red Flora
Now the Rote Flora must serve as a symbol of the opposition to the G20. The autonomous cultural center, which has been occupied for nearly 30 years now, had also mobilized for the protests alongside the rest of the left scene. But the Rote Flora was not the organizational “fulcrum and pivot” that the police chief alleged some months later. On the contrary, the Rote Flora and above all its longstanding official lawyer, the spokesperson of the “Welcome to Hell“ demo, had issued that statement distancing themselves immediately after Friday night.
The younger groups that participated in the street battles and other militant actions had only few or even no relationships with Rote Flora. This may be a sad development, but it had begun a long time before the G20. Consequently, the Rote Flora was without any direct influence on militant struggles during the G20, in particular on Friday night.
However, this did not prevent the authorities and the media from pouncing on the Rote Flora to denounce it as a putative “command center of terror“ and to demand that it be evicted as soon as possible. Along with general calls to “drain the left terror marsh in Hamburg,“ this cry resounded especially from Berlin and Bavaria.
In Hamburg, as well, the conservatives especially joined several media outlets in demanding “immediate consequences.“ Also, the co-governing Greens—which had once sometimes been a party of protest—thanked the police and proclaimed that “something must change in the Rote Flora.” The mayor, Scholz, announced “It must be discussed whether the town can tolerate the left autonomous center Rote Flora any longer.”
On the other hand, Scholz attributed a “heroic mission“ to the police and even asserted that there had been “zero police violence.“ At that point, there were already countless documented cases proving that police violence had taken place on a massive and systematic level throughout the entire week of protest and in particular at the “Welcome to Hell“ demo. This police violence had contributed substantially to the escalation, certainly much more than the Rote Flora possibly could have.
When the smoke cleared
Assembly of the quarter 10 days after
This took place once more in the Millerntor stadium; once again, more than 1200 people came, mostly local residents. The only subject was a general reflection on the G20, especially the events of Friday night and the resulting question of the menace of the Rote Flora. The question of police violence was discussed alongside the destruction and violence of Friday night. Everyone was united in rejecting the assignment of blame to the Rote Flora.
But neither the supporters of “consequences against the Rote Flora“ nor those who considered the street battles of Friday night justified took the microphone. They would likely have been isolated in both cases. Nevertheless, both positions could be heard in the quarter; in this respect, this assembly did not live up to its own goal of not sweeping differences under the carpet. However, for the most part, the priority was to oppose something to the accusations directed at the Rote Flora.
The left argue because of the dissociations
A large part of the radical left flatly rejected the above-mentioned public statements and criticized them publicly. Some went beyond productive criticism or solidarity to imitate the “disassociaters.” It was necessary to organize personal protection for the person who registered the “Welcome to Hell“ demo, who was threatened several times—an internal fiasco.
Six weeks later, the long-time comrade publicly criticized and largely retracted his earlier remarks. With reference to the foreign comrades, he emphasized that they were very well “invited.” However, the media, the general public, and most leftists were no longer interested in the subject. In his five-page statement, he made it clear that after the riots he was put under extreme pressure by the media as the supposed “spokesman for the autonomous” and simply did not stand up to it. Part of the truth, however, is that there was not a sufficient collective structure among the, shall we say, “senior autonomists” who should have dealt better with public pressure in this situation.
Quite apart from that, the whole of urban society was very divided in its perception, evaluation, and interpretation of the events. The only point of agreement was the assessment of the police operation: a grandiose failure.
Repression/Anti-Repression: During the summit
“Police – SA – SS”
This is an old demo-battle cry in Germany, which is still chanted at the police when they are particularly brutal. The “SA” in Nazi fascism were Hitler’s thugs, a terror group inside of Germany, and the “SS” was the elite force of the German army, which committed the most serious atrocities throughout Europe, especially against the Jewish population.
On the one hand, the comparison of today’s police with SA and SS is highly questionable; the slogan was seldom shouted during the G20. On the other hand, we do believe that the German police have a structure and brutality that is unique in Western Europe. Germany employs a particularly large number of police officers, and they are usually very efficiently organized. In addition, there are several secret services operating in the interior, as well as special forces equipped with military-grade weapons. Furthermore, the German police have the most comprehensive and above all the most modern arsenal of weapons and surveillance technology in Western Europe. Police technology made in Germany is considered a “high-quality export.”
As “Police Commandante” Dudde said before the summit, obviously proud of his entire arsenal and: “We have everything here and if necessary we will unpack everything.” “Everything” included 31,000 policemen, including all the units specially trained for street fighting, the so-called BFEs and USKs, as well as the militarily equipped “anti-terrorist units,” the so-called SEKs, and on top of that, 2500 BKA officers (comparable with the US FBI), plus 44 water cannons, 28 helicopters, drones, more than 3000 police vehicles—among them approximately 50 “special vehicles,” such as street-clearing tanks, 30 boats, 70 horses, and 185 police dogs. In addition, Germany borrowed special units from Austria and Poland, as well as mobile roadblocks from France.
The G20 security was the largest police operation in Germany since World War II—and also the largest ever at a political summit meeting. The police were equipped with advanced arms that despots and dictators all over the world probably dream of. And when the “if necessary” case occurred, “everything was unpacked,” right up to the anti-terrorist units.
The whole operation was led from a newly established police leadership control center built for the G20. There, Dudde and his 30-man strong executive staff sat in front of a 30-square-meter video wall and directed their forces. The atmosphere there may well have been a mixture of Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair”9 and the NASA control center during a missile launch in Florida.
This police force inflicted countless injuries; luckily, there were no dead. Also, the condition of the very seriously injured protesters was not as bad as, for example, what must have been the case in Genoa. But the number of people who were beaten with the truncheon or received heavy kicks, who were hit with CS gas, or who directly experienced the jet of water cannons reaches the lower to middle four-digit range, and many of them are still struggling with violent trauma. The autonomous paramedics and the normal medical service of the city experienced a kind of 9/11; they had no time to take statistics.
Starting Thursday, the cops switched to “rustic solutions.” The police tactics were “southern style”: they beat people indiscriminately rather than arresting them—because the police “at the frontline” increasingly lacked the capacity to do so. Their reaction was to intensify the beatings. Altogether, the total police violence might generate, according to “normal punishment“ under German law, surely more than 100 years of jail time for the police officers involved. The cops “cooked the books” regarding their own injury statistics: according to the police, there might have been approximately 700 police injuries, if you include the numerous sick certificates.
Repression/Anti-Repression: Immediately after the summit
The police, but also the judiciary
The police and the judiciary had to make do with slim pickings on one hand, but on the other hand they have to deliver. The ruling politicians were demanding this, alongside some of the media and civil society. The subsequent arrests were intended to solve that problem. Many of them were carried out unlawfully and under dubious circumstances; most of them were based on little evidence. The objective, however, was to produce as many long-term imprisonments as possible “because of the overall context.” Consequently, “individual guilt” played a subordinate role. This became particularly clear with those arrested at the Rondenbarg. On the one hand, they had done little to nothing illegal and on top of that, they had a flawless alibi for the time when mass violations of the law indubitably occurred—because they were already under arrest in the GeSa.
“SoKo* black bloc”
Immediately after the G20, the Hamburg police, supported by “specialists” from Berlin and other parts of the country, formed a special commission called SoKo10 “Black Bloc.” This still exists today, over a year after the summit; according to official sources, it comprises 165 police officers.
The last time a commission of such magnitude was established was in 1977 during the so-called “German Autumn.” At that time, the President of the German Employers Association and an airplane with 86 passengers on board had been kidnapped to force the government to release several political prisoners of the so-called “RAF” (Red Army Fraction). At that time, the whole country was in a state of emergency and a unique wave of repression ensued from which it took the German left several years to recover.
Now the largest special commission of the German police in 40 years was set to work, looking at terabytes of material and probably analyzing papers, structures, and the like. The mission was clear: “identify offenders” and “decrypt the structure of violence.”
They were using brand-new repressive technologies such as computer programs that could supposedly read the specific movement anatomies of people in order to identify individuals who are masked in one video and not masked in the next. They also used surveillance technology to evaluate the huge amounts of data supplied by smartphones, virtually free of charge. This includes location reports every minute as well as communications, processes, structures, and habits. In addition, they analyzed an alleged 450,000 hours of video material from the surveillance cameras of the Hamburg public transport company alone.
SoKo “Black Bloc” swung into action on December 5, 2017 with a total of 24 raids across Germany targeting people who had been arrested at Rondenbarg. Among them were completely non-violent union youths. It was leaked the day before to the scene that a big raid was imminent. The authorities also initiated preliminary proceedings against three senior autonomists and the spokeswoman of the IL on the charge of “incitement to violence.” The allegations were baseless, speaking in terms of both judicial process and evidence, and the proceedings were all discontinued later.
In December 2017, the SoKo “Black Bloc” took another step that was reminiscent of 1977, announcing a public manhunt. In many cases, it was a matter of pure conjecture or of crimes such as running around in a previously looted supermarket. From a legal point of view, the charges were not sufficient to warrant such a public denunciation with potentially seriously personal consequences. However, the tabloid press and several more serious newspapers did not consider themselves too good to publish the mugshots. Unmasked young women were displayed on the front page as “Riot Barbies” to a reactionary mob.
The result was that approximately 20 of the accused surrendered “voluntarily” to the police. Most of them believed that the warrants must have been a misunderstanding. The SoKo “Black Bloc,” however, reported this as a “complete success” for their public search. There was also talk of “up to 3000 investigations” which had either already been initiated or were to be expected—an astronomical order of magnitude that the Hamburg judiciary would probably not even be able to handle, which has not yet even vaguely begun.
Furthermore, SoKo “Black Bloc” outlined a conspiratorial picture of “internationally organized violent criminals with helpers in Hamburg.” Among other allegations, the latter were said to have set up depots with equipment on a large scale so that the “international criminals” could devastate the city. However, no concrete proof has emerged until now for these accusations that were made so publicly.
It remains unclear what exactly the165 officers of the SoKo “Black Bloc” have been doing for the last twelve months. Certainly for security and space reasons, but presumably also to avoid public scrutiny, the SoKo established—bizarrely—its accommodation in the previous GeSa. From there, very little reaches the public. One can imagine that the cops are now stewing in their own jail without windows or fresh air.
“Enemy criminal law”
While at the beginning, 132 of the 186 detainees were Germans, this proportion changed rapidly. After the first round at the custodial judge—that is, 48 hours after they were arrested, at the latest—51 remained in prison. By the end of August 2017, another 23 were released, leaving 28 in prison. Most of them were from other European countries; only a few were from Germany. Most of the Germans facing similar accusations were released before their trials started, but not most of the non-German prisoners.
In many previous proceedings and judgments, so-called “general prevention” had to serve as a justification for the “considerable interest of the state to prosecute.” Regardless of individual guilt, the objective was a) “to restore the trust of the citizens in the constitutional state “ and b) to achieve a “high degree of general deterrence by high punishments.” This is explicitly expressed in several actual judgments, with the consequence that the people must serve their services in their entirety.
The tightening of the law
Immediately before the G20, the law had been changed to expand the application of the so-called “violation of the public peace” considerably. Now it is punishable to stay in “group that is by tendency violent“ or to carry “potentially dangerous objects“ in demonstrations, such as a bottle in the backpack. Any “physical disobedience“ against policemen, for example the attempt to liberate oneself from a police clutch, is evaluated as “a violation of the public peace”—minimum penalty: three months.
In addition, in many of the previous G20 trials in the first level of jurisdiction, a single video sequence was sufficient as “proof.” The same happened with statements from so-called “TaBo”11 policemen, who are exclusively responsible for “observing offenders” and then pursuing alleged “perpetrators” until there is an opportunity to arrest them. “TaBos” are usually dressed in civilian clothing but do not hesitate to pull a weapon if they experience distress.
Special attrition for “non-Germans”
The lengthy pre-trial detention of non-Germans played a major role before the trials. Several of them were impatient to get out as soon as possible in order to return home.
This is easy to understand on the part of people who were isolated from friends and family in a jail where they could not even communicate normally. They were at the mercy of a judiciary that was eager to use foreigners as scapegoats. In addition, most of them (still) had a permanent job or university that they urgently needed to return to, or were concerned about their worried parents or partners back home.
Then the prosecutors attempted to lure these arrestees with “deals” like “extensive confession and public remorse“ for “probation instead of imprisonment.“ In the consequence, several arrestees chose to “confess and regret.“ Sometimes they confessed to “actions” that they had not committed at all—we know of at least one case specifically. The hands of their lawyers were bound by these “deals,” so that they would omit possibly exonerating but process-delaying arguments. Part of the “deals“ was that the arrestees would not contest or appeal the judgments. This is an insidious system in which the defendants first must “deliver” hoping for “mercy” from the court afterwards, virtually without any guarantee.
The experiences of the G20 legal processes so far, however, confirm what we learned in previous political trials in Germany: resisting, defending oneself, and refraining from confessing is almost always successful in court. In the worst case, the result is the same at the end as it would have been if you made a “deal.”
The judges of Hamburg
The Hamburg judges are notoriously overburdened, even without the G-20 trials; they constantly kick a huge mountain of cases down the road. As a result, they usually prefer plea deals, as a way to shorten the legal process. But there is also a faction of “leftist haters“ among the judges of Hamburg. These become like bloodthirsty hyenas when they sense that they have political backing.
“Judge Merciless “
One of these “law-and-order” hardliners, Ronald Barnabas Schill, was once Senator of the Interior and vice-mayor of Hamburg, in 2001. Schill was the one who appointed Hartmut Dudde boss of the Hamburg riot police, the man who eventually became the head of operations during the G20. Dudde directly ordered the police violence during the G20; half a year later, he received a promotion—perhaps a “deal” of a different kind. After several severe scandals and proven violations of the law, the police even searched for Schill internationally after his resignation in 2003. He had already gone underground, financed by his comfortable pension from his time as a judge. Reporters finally tracked down him in Rio. He had apparently become a cocaine addict there.
Consequently, expectations for the G20 trials were low. Unsurprisingly, the actual judgements have all been absurdly exaggerated, especially in view of the often rather slight charges. Mostly, the convicted have been accused of throwing bottles at police officers, with scant evidence. Most of the defendants had never been previously convicted and are still very young. It would be beyond the scope of this text to address all the cases in detail individually, as there have been over 40 trials so far. We’ll present summaries of just a few examples and one particularly scandalous case in more detail.
A 21-year-old Dutchman with no prior criminal record allegedly threw two bottles at Berlin policemen after the “Welcome to Hell” demo on Thursday. The only “proof” was the testimony of two “TaBos” from Berlin who had allegedly observed a person throwing two bottles at their colleagues. However, their description of the person did not fit at all to Peike: the witnesses said that Peike wore “noticeable dreadlocks,” which he did not have during G20. Even more bizarre, the fact that he was in a fetal position when he was arrested was interpreted as “resistance against executory officers.”
Verdict: 31 months imprisonment without parole. Judge Krieten, known as a right-wing hardliner par excellence, went ten months beyond the prosecutor’s request. For comparable charges in the past, people were sentenced to probation at the very most. The trial is still in the second instance, while Peike has been sitting in prison for over a year. Peike has not expressed himself in regard to the charges.
Ümüt is 28 years old, a real “Hamburg boy“ with Turkish roots. He grew up in the quarters of Schanze and St.Pauli. Like many others in his social environment, he has been previously convicted several times. The news about the riots reached him in front of the television in the working-class quarter of Barmbek. According to him, he had already taken “some drinks” and spontaneously decided to head for the Schanze as many others did. There all his hatred discharged—it is visible on several videos that Ümüt is unmasked, acting in the front line.
Ümüt is one of the few who have been charged because of the riots on Friday night. Neither his “remorse” and in any case superfluous “confessions” nor his German passport gave Ümüt any benefit. He is sentenced to three years imprisonment—without parole. On top of that, his current parole because of a burglary is cancelled. Ümüt has been excessively sentenced as a scapegoat.
Christian, a 28-year-old German, originally from the conservative region of Bavaria, had previously been convicted several times. At the time of the G20, he was free on parole and without permanent residence. Like Peike, he is accused of throwing a bottle at Berlin police officers in the Schanze after the “Welcome to Hell“ demo. He also faced the hardliner Judge Krieten—with the statements of so-called “TaBos” from Berlin being the only evidence for the charge. However, during the trial, an email correspondence became public between those “TaBos” and the leading police officer of the SoKo “Black Bloc” in this case. The email confirms a broad top-down coordination of the reports and statements of the “TaBos” to conform to the preferences of the SoKo “Black Bloc”—testimony should be identical and incriminating.
For good reasons, however, witnesses in Germany cannot arrange their testimonies before the hearing, let alone coordinate according to instructions. If they do so, not only do they incur a penalty, but their “statements” may not be used further by the court. That is why Christian’s lawyer demanded an acquittal. Judge Krieten countered that that was an “arson by attorney“ and condemned Christian to three and a half years of custody. Once more, this exceeded the demand of the prosecutor by 10 months. It remains the heaviest sentence from the G20 up to now. Christian remains in custody and his lawyer has gone to appeal.
Alix, “Tortue” (“Turtle”)
Alix, a 28-year-old from Paris, has been in jail, like Christian and Peike, since the first riots in the Schanze on Thursday. He too is accused of having thrown a bottle at a police officer. Again, the evidence is scant and contradicts itself. The allegedly incriminating videos were made after the time he was arrested. The “TaBos” who arrived masked at the hearings could not explain this. A solidarity campaign in France for the popular activist raised the necessary bail of €10,000. Tortue is free for the time being.
Fabio, a 19-year-old factory worker from a small place in Italy, was arrested alongside many others early Friday in the Rondenbarg (see chapter 11). Fabio had not been previously convicted; it was his first demonstration abroad, in fact his first foreign tour without his parents. Now he is to serve as a kind of “test case” for the entire so-called “Rondenbarg complex.” As his trial starts in October 2017, he is the last demonstrator remaining in custody from the 70 arrested in the Rondenbarg. Fabio is not accused of any concrete “action” yet, but only of having been part of a “collectively acting group of violent criminals.“
His parents have offered €10,000 bail, the lawyer lodged a custody complaint at the constitutional court, videos show Fabio looking after the numerous injured persons instead of running away and going around with bright-colored trousers—but to no avail: Fabio, the youngest of all the G20 prisoners, remains in jail. The higher regional court has made various far-fetched imputations: Fabio had “considerable idiosyncrasy or education faults,” he showed a “deep-seated readiness for violence,” and also, in general, “injurious leanings.” Moreover, for Fabio, “human dignity is recognizably of no importance.” And finally, the Higher Regional Court, as second instance, announced that Fabio has to expect “a high prison sentence.” The trial had not started even for the first instance. What incredible prejudice and impudence!
It gets worse: Fabio’s mother, who moved immediately to Hamburg after the arrest, now must request judicial permission to visit her son—a strange process for a 18-year-old pre-trial detainee without any previous convictions. The two decided on the “escape forward” strategy and went public. The television program “Panorama” visited Fabio in the juvenile jail and interviewed his mother as well as well-known criminal lawyers. The entire situation at the Rondenbarg was analysed in the broadcast.
The media coverage began to turn to Fabio´s advantage—meanwhile, even in his Italian hometown, people were demonstrating for his release. In Hamburg, the trial dates became political rallies against this flagrant arbitrariness of justice. Fabio himself remained silent about the concrete charges, but wrote a remarkable statement to the judge, the jury, state lawyer, and the juvenile court assistant. Fabio read it publicly during a day of trial in November. It ends, “I do not like violence. But I have ideals and I have decided to fight for them.“
In the trial itself, it is all about the entire situation at the Rondenbarg, the alleged “civil war-like outbreaks of violence” with “more than ten but less than a hundred stones,” as a police officer said. No witness for the prosecution can remember Fabio himself. But it’s not about specific allegations against him. And it’s actually not about the so-called “Rondenbarg complex,” either, because in fact there was little violence there, apart from that carried out by the police force.
Rather, Fabio’s case is about enacting punishment for other situations in which the police not only lost control, but—as previously described—no one or only “unorganized perpetrators “ were arrested. Actually, it is about the cars on fire in the Elbchaussee and, above all, about Friday night in the Schanze—in which Fabio could not take part because he had already been arrested. In addition, it is about publicly punishing all the G20 protests, in particular international participation. And finally, it is apparently about the careers of the young judge and the prosecutor. Both women are happy to follow the given political guidelines: the top priority is “general prevention.” Individual guilt is a secondary matter.
Finally, on Friday, November 17, 2017, it seemed to be the day that Fabio would come out after more than four months in prison. The district court ordered the end of his custody. Fabio’s mother and several supporters went to the youth jail to pick up Fabio. However, the public prosecutor’s office lodged a complaint at the higher regional court so Fabio remained locked up. In response, some people smashed the windows of the public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg on Saturday: paint-filled eggs landed on the façade and the big street in front of the office was blocked with burning tires.
Then, finally, on Monday, November 27, 2017, Fabio was released—in return for a payment of €10,000 as bail and under the condition that he would present himself three times weekly at a Hamburg police station. Nevertheless, it was a tremendous relief.
However, the process continued for several days of hearings up to February 27, 2018. The judge did not appear on this day of the trial—she was on sick leave for a longer time. Shortly after, she took maternity leave. In an instant, the entire trial was suspended until further notice. The court speaker announced in front of the press: “we cannot say yet what will happen next”—and since then, nothing else has happened. Now, in any case, all of Fabio’s juridical obligations have been lifted—he is once more at liberty, his dignity unbroken. We owe it to him and to his persistent lawyer that the whole so-called “Rondenbargkomplex” end may end in a shambles for the ones who purport to enact justice. For us, Fabio and his upstanding mother are true heroes.
United we stand
Here, we want to point out the solidarity work of the “United We Stand“ campaign and strongly recommend their web page. It contains several contributions in various languages: for example, numerous letters from prisoners.
For us, it is particularly pleasant that “United We Stand” maintains equal solidarity with all those targeted by repression. It does not decree “from the high pulpit,” if prisoners supposedly behave with less “political consciousness.” Moreover, it do not bore with excessive juridical details, instead rightly placing the political and human dimensions in the foreground.
They have been mobilizing rallies in front of the jail the first Sunday of every month. They raise money with solidarity events and a donation campaign, look after the prisoners directly, strictly observe all the trial dates, and make successful counter-publicity. More is not possible! From our point of view, an old rule of thumb remains valid: “The strength of a movement is shown by how it treats its prisoners.” “United We Stand” has done a great job so far, even if until now, there is no prospect of an end to the trials or of the repression in general.
This was not necessarily to be expected after the G20: many activists were exhausted or had to give priority to their private lives. Some had quarreled fiercely because of the dissociations, others were just afraid that they would end up in the mills of repression if they stood up for prisoners—as has happened often in German history.
Proceedings against police officers
In fact, there have also been 138 preliminary investigations against police officers, most of them because of bodily harm. Only one case has been opened so far—it involves a police officer from Bavaria who had been out of service visiting his girlfriend in Hamburg. Out of “curiosity,“ they went to the Fischmarkt to see the “Welcome to hell” demo. When the situation escalated, the unmasked police officer dropped a full bottle from a bridge towards his colleagues. His photograph ended up in the internal search images and other Bavarian police officers recognized him. He was suspended for the time being.
Despite some of them being extensively documented, none of the orgies of police violence against demonstrators have resulted in any consequences up to now. Supposedly, the policemen carrying out beatings could not be identified—whereupon Amnesty International demanded a universal marking for German riot cops, for example, a recognizable number on the uniform. But even without such numbers, the units were often easily recognized—however, the police officers provided cover stories for each other, even in cases of serious criminal offences. If there were a real interest in pursuing the charges, procedures could easily be opened and judges could summon police officers as witnesses. Then they would be legally obligated to give testimony—presupposed they would not incriminate themselves.
Judge Merciless II: Prejudiced!
In 2014, Judge Johann Krieten rejected a lawsuit against squatters—because his adopted son was involved! But now Krieten (see Peike and Christian, above) is allowed to rage on until his imminent pension with a third G20 case in front of his shotgun. Several times, this father personally pulled his son out of demonstrations and also out of parties in the Rote Flora. Now father Johann can take revenge and at the same time “preventively deter,” even in his own family—all “completely legally.” Perhaps this part of the story enters too far into the personal realm, but more than three years of jail for Peike and Christian are even more personal.
Militant actions against the repression
After the G20, there were also a number of attacks against justice buildings, party offices, and police stations—in Paris, the German embassy was attacked with a Molotov cocktail on July 17, 2017. On July 19, in Bielefeld, a small student town in Germany, six police personnel carriers were burned at once.
In the communiqués or left slogans, the actors showed solidarity with the G20 prisoners and demanded their release. Moreover, these actions were also an answer to the police brutality during the summit. Nobody was injured and no one has been arrested up to today.
The ban of “Indymedia linksunten”
On August 25, 2017, the Federal Ministry of the Interior banned the left Internet platform “Indymedia linksunten.” At the same time, police searched several flats and a left cultural center in Freiburg, a small town in the south of Germany. In the reasons given, the G20 protests stood first in line. Indeed, linksunten (“left from below”) was a very important forum for communication and information—and not just for the G20. Calls for action, discussion papers, videos, reports, communiqués: linksunten provided everything that was interesting for leftist activists before, during, and after the summit, as well as some more things that were released uncensored.
The repression apparatus could not catch the people who carried out the militant actions or demonstrated solidarity with them. Instead, in response to these actions, the authorities set out to ban the most important discussion platform and to put a stop to the conversation about left-wing projects and how to broaden mobilizations. This hit the radical left as a whole, but especially structures that depend on transregional interlinking and information, such as the so-called “Antifa” (antifascist groups) or struggles in rural regions. For us, linksunten offered the best access to authentic information about the movements in France.
In addition, the suppressing of “Indymedia linksunten” constituted a serious attack on freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In April 2018, two of the alleged operators filed suit at the Federal Administrative Court against the prohibition of the association that had operated the registered platform legally. They emphasized that the forum included a great deal of controversy and disagreement, often including criticism of certain actions or forms of action.
Repression is a test
It is important to follow the trials of the accused, because the judgements will set a precedent for the juridical repression of the future. It is incredible that some should suffer for everyone else’s actions, that some should serve as scapegoats.
It is just as important to follow what happens with the Rote Flora, an important meeting place and thus a target for every effort the authorities make to show their strength. Their goal is to reassure the conservative electorate and also to limit how activists can organize by fomenting fear and normalizing the discourse of “security.”
Even if we had escaped, the repression would have been directed against the activists. This is a terrible trap, and the system of power often emerges victorious because it can strengthen its repressive arsenal by gaining a social acceptance for it through the denunciation of violence.
The militarization of the police apparatus
With the operation of the SEK, the “Special Anti-Terrorist Forces,” on Friday night during the G20, including the explicit use of active military firearms, a new era of direct repression has arrived in Germany. Since then, the SEK has been deployed several times at demonstrations or has appeared heavily armed alongside other police forces—for example, at an anti-fascist mobilization against an annual march of Neo-Nazis in a small town in eastern Germany a few weeks after the summit in Hamburg.
The state is also responding to the challenge posed to its monopoly of violence that Friday night with an arms buildup and by expanding police competence towards military standards. The areas of responsibility of the police and the military, which were separated in Germany for obvious historical reasons, are now becoming increasingly blurred. In France, the police—traditionally closely linked to the military—have already used tear gas explosive grenades against protesters for a long time, leaving one dead and many seriously injured. In May 2018, for example, a young demonstrator in Nantes lost his right hand.
The latest news from the SoKo “Black Bloc”
Since March 2018, the police in Hamburg have arrested several individuals they claim to recognize from photos taken during the G20, in some cases seizing them directly out of demonstrations. However, it turns out that there do not appear to have been police files regarding the arrestees. Only the arrests serve to identify them. Thereafter, a preliminary investigation “against unknowns” becomes a concrete case against a specific accused person.
In addition, on May 16, 2018, the SoKo launched a second round of public raids, publishing over 100 photos once again. This time, the mug shots were not related to any specific demonstration or “action”—instead, they simply stated that the wanted persons were “involved in crimes committed during the G20.” Almost as an aside, the SoKo announced that the search was now expanded to cover the entirety of Europe, publishing a total of 91 photos Europewide.
Less than two weeks later, on May 29, 2018, the SoKo (together with local special units) searched various flats and social centers in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and France. They “justified“ the coordinated dawn raids by referencing the incidents in the Elbchaussee (see page 100), and further claimed that the “perpetrators” were identified via video footage and DNA tests. An accused Swiss citizen was arrested for a short time, despite there being no international arrest warrant. In addition, boxes of material were confiscated—especially hard drives, laptops, mobile phones, and the like. During the press conference that day in Hamburg, the chief constable made clear that the raid was less about the specific suspects than a way to emphasize that: “the arm of the judicial system reaches even as far as to Italy, France, Switzerland or Spain… this is the message.”
The next strike of SoKo “Black Bloc” took place on June 20, 2018. In a concerted action including the French police, eleven searches and eight provisional arrests took place. This time, the attack targeted activists opposing the planned nuclear waste repository in Bure, France, where an entire region is to be exposed for an indefinite period of time to the incalculable risks of nuclear radiation. The protest movement against the nuclear waste repository has been growing for several years—shortly before the raids, a demonstration had taken place with several thousand participants.
In Gorleben, just 120 km from Hamburg, such an “atomic loo” has been delayed for 40 years by mass demonstrations and sometimes acrimonious resistance. By contrast, that movement is already being forcefully repressed in the nuclear state of France: in early 2018, police violently evicted a resistance camp, a so-called “ZAD” (Zone to Defend).
The SoKo “Black Bloc” from Hamburg delivered new ammunition against these local activists—a new type of repression. The accusation against two of the provisionally arrested was “encouraging the black bloc in its fight against the police.” A large number of Hamburg residents could be accused of this charge. In addition, both are accused of “directing” one of the street battles from the edge; the absurdity of this charge will strike anyone who has experience in demonstrations.
In the other searches and short-term arrests, allegations are made in reference to various protests in the town of Bure—so there was a kind of “mixing” of accusations. That was certainly no accident. Rather, the militant protest in Hamburg was being used to attack the activists in Bure as “internationally active perpetrators of violence” with the aim of dissociating them from the rural population. On the other hand, the SoKo “black bloc“ aspired to confirm its narrative about an “international conspiracy,“ as well as to deliver a concrete outcome of its own work.
In addition, for the French and German security authorities, this might be a method of linking French and German resistance and protests, which are both, in their view, quite dangerous. The action seems to fit this concept: after all, several activists from Germany have been in Bure and quite a lot of activists from France travelled to the G20 in Hamburg.
A week later, on June 27, 2018, the SoKo turned out once more—this time in Germany with a total of 13 searches. Five arrest warrants were executed. A 19-year-young woman from Cologne was accused of looting and four young men from the metropolitan area of Frankfurt of being involved in the action at the Elbchaussee. They were just 16, 17, 18 and 23 years old at the time of the G20. Like most dangerous criminals, the five are transferred immediately to Hamburg and are put in the investigation prison. It remains unclear if SoKo “Black Bloc” actually has any evidence against them. The eldest two remain in custody while the three younger ones have been released by the custodial judge.
The leader of the SoKo, Jan Hieber, threatened in a press conference that “we will still get many of you.“ Senator of the Interior Grote added fuel to the fire some days later, recommending that radical demonstrators “give Hamburg a wide berth“ from now on. Grote stressed that “delinquents in Hamburg can feel by no means sure that they have emerged unscathed from the situation…“
On July 9, 2018, the Chief of Police in Hamburg, Meyer, announced that the SoKo would be integrated as an independent unit into the so-called “state protection section” of the police by the end of the year, being reduced from 165 to about 40 investigators. He assumes that the SoKo will continue to investigate throughout the entire year of 2019. In the interview, he referred to the action at the Elbchaussee: “To the Argentines, who will arrange the next G20 in Buenos Aires, I have given advice to take along one thing: It is easy to tell you that they have duped us. They will try to dupe you also at some stage. Above all there is one conclusion: We must collect again more knowledge about the extreme left-wing scene. We need to be able to recognize such actions in advance and that’s only possible with covert investigators and other conspiratorial measures.”
The latest news from the black bloc in Hamburg
The just-quoted interview had already been conducted but was not yet printed when some militant left groups struck—or more precisely, struck back—in coordinated ways. On the night of July 8, cars caught fire in various districts of Hamburg and the residences of politicians and high-ranking security functionaries were “marked.”
Just at the Elbchaussee, three cars were burning, this time exclusively unique luxury cars. The home of the Senator of Justice Steffen (of the Green Party) was targeted by a paint attack (including slogans), as were the houses of Lenders, the boss of the right-wing “German Police Union,” and Domres, the vice-chief of the Hamburg section of the so-called “constitutional protection” (the German domestic secret service). All three were responsible for the repression during and after the G20. They were not physically harmed, but their “peace” was interrupted at home, on their street, in their neighborhood. On top of that, a car belonging to the company “SIXT” was burnt. The context was the lending of cars to politicians and especially “Sherpas” during the G20. The next burnt car belonged to the fleet of the French company “Spie,” which is involved in the nuclear business, among other things.
It was not so much the material damage of the attacks that caused a sensation, but the content, the versatility, and the success of these actions, just in time for the anniversary of the summit and the protests. The local press quoted and even linked to the activists’ statement. This was published on de.indymedia.org, the chapter of Indymedia that existed before “Indymedia linksunten” and now thankfully compensates, in part, for the latter’s prohibition.
The persuasive statement ended, “Make the G20 summit in Buenos Aires a disaster. Senator of the Interior Grote advises rioters to avoid Hamburg. We emphasize: Hamburg is a great place for riots and insurrections! Let´s end with the summit hangover!”
First Review and Second Reflection
One year later…
…We can say that our rage is unbroken and we still have a lot of work to do. The mass media have certainly leaped on the pictures of the burnt cars. The tabloid newspaper “Bild” even took on the work of the police by publishing photos of participants in the protests—sometimes masked, sometimes unmasked—and called for people to inform against them. The media is a huge problem, as is the public narrative about what happened in general. The whole protest at the counter-summit resulted in several successes but also defeats. Yet numerous activists have not recognized many of the successes, nor has the general public.
Our protest was successful
It is clear that the summit could not be prevented. However, it was significantly disrupted—much more than previous summits in the preceding years. Some official meetings started one or two hours late. The German Finance Minister even had to cancel his special conference completely. Melania Trump was stuck in the Senate guesthouse and skirmishes took place in front of the hotel of Macron. Parts of the port of Hamburg were blocked for some time, inflicting a direct financial damage of several million euros that also took several days to fix completely. Some of the heads of state could only move by helicopter. There were blocked delegations, “autoreductions,” and a spread of revolutionary practice.
There are some good reasons to assume that this resistance week was strong in various forms. It was by no means foreseeable before that such a strong collective force would succeed. The press described the Hamburg summit as a failure or even as a “disaster.” The press even criticized the police attack on the “Welcome to Hell“ demonstration. Of course, the press had no compunction whatsoever about denouncing the numerous burnt cars and other acts of rebellion and sabotage as “left-wing extremist violence.”
Much seems paradoxical…
There were indeed many paradoxical situations at this summit, such as Neo-Nazis strutting around our neighbourhood just when our power was weak. While in this situation a spontaneous antifascist group formed in an instant, consumers of the “St. Pauli brand” were apparently incapable of reacting rapidly against the fascists.
On one hand, there was as a huge strength on our part and many revolutionary practises rarely seen before, on the other hand they were confined to small areas. It feels like we could have done better, but it is not possible to maintain such a level of revolt.
One criticism often heard is that “the uprising should have taken place in the rich quarters.” This is not quite fair, as many of the numerous attacks took place outside the “popular” neighbourhoods. Moreover, historically, there have been few examples of rebellious moments taking place in richer districts. The French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Spring of 1977 in Italy or, more recently, the unrest in the Exarchia quarter of Athens, which continues today… all of these examples were centered in poorer neighborhoods. Yes, of course, burning a car that belongs to a worker is open to question. But when in history have people been able to maintain an insurrectionary practice at an intense level beyond their own quarters?
This does not mean that revolts must always be limited to sympathetic neighbourhoods in the future and should not extend to less known territories. But the revolt in Hamburg cannot be considered a failure just because it was limited to a certain area. In any case, this criticism does not generate much progress, especially if one considers the collective reaction against the atmosphere of police violence of the preceding days. It seems even more absurd when—as we saw first-hand—young people also took part in the clashes on a massive scale and even merchants from the neighbourhood. The general apathy ceased, even if the location was favorable and the whole thing was temporary.
The taste of victory
That is a victory—and we should regain the taste of victory. It is a success when a district frees itself from the police, from capitalism; when the local population participates—even if some vehemently opposed it. It remains a victory even if it is temporary and limited. One would perhaps have to shout it out a little without forgetting the limits that we have already mentioned. Far too often, people express resignation, even those who struggle.
Although the city was in a state of emergency, with more than 31,000 police officers armed with an impressive and cutting-edge arsenal of weapons … it was sometimes possible to make their mission a failure and produce serious disruptions—certainly for the summit as well as the smooth functioning of capitalism for a few days.
It seems that the events in Hamburg represent a new step in the fight against international summits and capitalism. This is a response to the events in Genoa in 2001, where police murdered a young man, inflicted more than 1000 injuries, carried out over 1000 arrests, and created scenes of torture and violence. Hamburg was the strongest protest against a summit event after Genoa, thus the second largest in history. In the present conditions, that is positive. And it can help to overcome the trauma of Genoa.
Success for the “Multitude”
What is different from previous summits is the diversity of forms of protest that took place in Hamburg. Foreign observers who had taken part in summit protests since Genoa were surprised by this variety. In the months before the summit the city government, police, and media had been trying to create a general security hysteria to divide the protest coalition and deter non-militant protesters—but to no avail.
The multitudes of protesters in Hamburg demonstrated a wide range of forms of action from artistic to militantly violent. It was essential for the success of the multitude that the campaign was not limited to the summit days themselves, but extended across a whole week of protest, during which there was time for all the various ideas and alignments to be expressed without rivaling each other.
Many people and ideas were united in this multitude: creative Hamburg, left-wing projects, pastors, parts of the media, the young insurgents of the city, international rebels, nonviolent activists, outraged residents, leftist intellectuals, frustrated youth, feminists, old autonomists, hippies, football fans… The multitude was multi-lingual and cross-generational. It looked like a swarm comprised of differently colored birds all heading in one direction. This confused the attackers because they could not make out the borders of the swarm.
In general, the multitude acted, and the other side responded—a huge advantage for the multitude, especially in a struggle taking place over a long period of time, in a large field of action, with each side possessed of completely different means. And even if the reactions were often very violent, the swarm may have split up in different ways, some paused, others joined, but overall, the swarm simply flew on to the next actions. Thus, neither the square heads in the Hamburg police leadership nor the foreign police units could have handled it adequately.
Participation of local Residents
There is a latent rage within the population against the prevailing general conditions, even if it is suppressed. The residents of St. Pauli, Altona, and the Schanze showed their solidarity; they were often indistinguishable from left-minded activists. This was a new phenomenon resulting not only from the police violence and all the impositions of the G20, but also from earlier experiences in the time of the danger area in 2014 (see chapter 2) as well as countless further situations, not to mention a general rejection of the system that the G20 represent.
Demonstration – Blockade – Barricade
In addition to the “multitude,” i.e., the versatility of the forms of action and actors, there was also the dimension of increasing intensity and determination. This had to do with the escalating police violence, but it was also partially self-determined, even if not entirely planned. It is no coincidence that the reader included the greeting “see you at the barricades.”
We demonstrated in a variety of ways before the summit—not once but quite often. This level of action was temporarily suspended with the “Welcome to Hell“ demo, but not only because it was smashed. Then came the blockades, well planned as such, even if they did not work out as some of us had hoped.
It is a big step from the demonstration to the blockade. A demonstration is ultimately about a presentation, whereas a blockade is a direct intervention. One form expresses a collective opinion or attitude; the other creates a material obstacle. The blockade, too, is intended to demonstrate an attitude—sometimes with the hope for respect from the police, since it is, after all, a “political demonstration.“ The pacifist blockades, however, were by no means “treated lightly” by the police. As soon as enough forces were available, the police evicted them immediately and often brutally. That’s why the “classic blockade” was no longer an option for most people by Friday afternoon.
From the blockade to the barricade, the road can be short—at least, that’s the way it happened in Hamburg. Since Thursday, there had been countless quickly built barricades, which were not (yet) defended. From the outset, the barricade anticipates and prepares for the violent intervention of the police. Depending on the assumed balance of power, the attitude of the actors, and the level of trust between them, that means either escape at the appropriate time or defense. With gray areas in between, of course. The barricade can be the last option—when other forms of protest seem impossible, as became the case in Hamburg at some point. It also offers protection, enable people to defend against a better-equipped power, at least temporarily. Behind the defended barricade, other laws apply than in front of the barricade.
A rudimentary assessment of Friday night
If any of the actions of the whole protest week was especially successful, just, and necessary, it was the “night of the barricades in the Schanze quarter“—notwithstanding all the shortfalls on our part and also acknowledging all that the residents of the quarter suffered.
Without that turmoil, without that street fight won against the police and others… our takeaway would be quite different. The G20 protests would be remembered as dominated by repression, which would reinforce an attitude of resignation. Instead, we successfully undermined their entire repressive “security concept.” In addition, we made quite clear before the worldwide media that there is no peace with “capitalism á la G20,“ but rather, determined resistance against it.
This would probably not have been possible in the Schanze on Friday without the participation of many young people from the Turkish and Kurdish communities. The minimum consensus is: “All Hamburg hates the police”—and sometimes much more.
Without Friday night, there would not have been any discussion about a “concrete uprising against the general conditions.” The space of the imaginable and the expressible has expanded after the G20 in Hamburg. Furthermore, after the whole protest week, including the night of the barricades, it´s quite sure that no similar “monster meeting” will be held in any other metropolis in Western Europe over the next few years, in any case not in Hamburg—this is a great success for us. Hamburg has shown for the future that summits in Western European metropolises can no longer be planned and controlled, even with the maximum number of police forces.
However, a fairly successful street battle against the police is not yet a “successful uprising“ and still less a sign that capitalism is breaking down. We have defended ourselves successfully once, have struck back quite hard once—no more, no less. Maybe we have encouraged future summit protests—not to give up even if the repression is incredibly violent and overwhelming.
What we cannot really understand
We cannot understand why after that disastrous police operation, those responsible—the police leadership including the senator of the interior—got away without resigning. Unfortunately, this is also evidence that the media are incapable of investigating these relatively obvious processes, or unwilling to make a scandal about them. Moreover, it shows that the police apparatus itself apparently has no structure that would enable it to reflect rationally and critically, in their own interest, and take the appropriate steps. In Hamburg, in the past, senators of the interior or chief constables had to resign because of much smaller altercations.
Since the G20, then-mayor Olaf Scholz has risen to Federal Minister of Finance and Vice Chancellor of Germany. However, this is also a consequence of the self-destruction of German social democracy. Wearing out its leading executives at a breathtaking pace, it has become dependent on guys like Scholz.
Special Parliamentary Committee
Already, eight weeks after the G20, a special committee of the Hamburg city parliament was formed with the objective of “investigating the riots.” As a starting point, police files were made available to committee members. However, the passages that were probably most interesting and critical had been blacked out by the SoKo* “Black Bloc,” in a way reminiscent of the former “Stasi.”12
From the outset, this committee had no substantial powers, such as access to the complete files or the capacity to interview witnesses under oath. For that, a so-called “parliamentary committee of inquiry” would have been necessary. The opposition could have forced that through, if they had acted together. Angela Merkel probably called down her local Christian Democrat party colleagues from Berlin. In the end, the Hamburg government coalition established a toothless “special committee.” For hours, leading policemen, politicians, and intelligence officials were interviewed and given the opportunity to spread their interpretation of the events extensively once again. As might be expected, the result is that there was hardly any significant revelation.
The committee ventured out of the town hall just once, in an act of being “very participatory,” to face the questions of the residents in the affected quarters. This public hearing took place in the same church that first allowed protesters to camp on their ground. Residents did not miss the opportunity to confront politicians with their perspective, loudly demanding the resignation of Senator of the Interior Grote and the suspension of Police Chief Commander Dudde. After that, the committee resumed meeting in the quiet of the Town Hall.
Summit results and trends
One G20 decision was to transfer millions of Euros to Libya, a state ruled by warlords, in order to effectively move Europe’s borders to the African continent and thus deter refugees. Consequently, this promotes the reactivation of direct slavery there. A CNN report about this, released in November 2017, provoked worldwide protests, especially in France.
The problems of Latin America were not even directly addressed. Instead, the continent was only marginally involved in the coordination of free trade areas, without input from the affected nor any mention of their concerns. The participation of NGOs, which had been announced in advance by the media, was either completely cancelled or had zero effect.
Most previous summits were dominated by the “classic Western democracies,” but those times seem to be over, at least for now. Rather, that faction was obviously busy trying to find somebody capable of dealing with Donald Trump. In addition, their “leader in reliability and continuity,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was also embarrassed because of the numerous protests and riots in her native city. The only “clear political winner” of the summit was the “despotic faction” among the G20 leaders. Erdogan, Putin, the Saudis, and their colleagues were treated as a “natural part of the event” and thus accorded more legitimacy.
The G20, “expensive fun” for German taxpayers
Another consequence of the summit was its enormously high costs, which are still hidden from the public. There is no accessible accounting of the bill. It is only known that the federal government, that is, the German state, spent about €125 million on the G20. According to the estimates of the opposition party, “The Left,” the (additional) costs for the city treasury of Hamburg were between €100 and €200 million. This does not include the significant loss of business, property damage, costs of the judiciary, or purchases of police equipment. Let’s start with a conservative estimate of €300 million in total costs of hosting the G20 summit. We are talking about the cost of 2000 new apartments of 75 square meters each in Hamburg or a new metro line in Buenos Aires—both of which would be much more reasonable state investments.
The problem with the media
While planning for the G20, some of us have thought about how to change the way media outlets report on summit protests. It is well documented that the media have not illustrated the breadth and diversity of the protests since Genoa, but have parroted the official narrative of politicians, who immediately denounce the protests and use them as an excuse for further repression.
Unfortunately, after the G20 in Hamburg, we have to acknowledge that we have not succeeded in breaking this pattern either. Although many media outlets were critical of the clearing of the camp in Entenwerder and the attack on the Welcome to Hell demonstration, this critical perspective completely disappeared from their coverage after the events of Friday. All of them, even more left-leaning media, accepted the interpretation of the Hamburg Senate after July 7 that there had been no police violence, that the riot in the Schanze had discredited the whole protest, and that the entire left-wing scene had to be punished. The Senate and the media managed to arouse a veritable “popular anger” against any leftist protest, including plenty of dog whistles to fascism.
We could see it coming in the days before. For example, a TV team from Reuters was sitting in a restaurant right next to the 3000 protesters during the “Hardcornern” on July 4. It was not until the police opened up their water cannons that the TV team started moving. They didn’t join the crowd and ask them about their motives for protesting. They simply didn’t care. They just wanted the usual sensational pictures.
In the end, even the impressive infrastructure of the media center FC / MC and the widely-used social media platforms were not enough to establish counter-publicity against the superior power of the mainstream media. To accomplish that would probably have required more direct connections. We should have built this up three or four months earlier, especially with international correspondents who are based in Berlin, not in Hamburg—such as El País, The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, and CNN. Most of them did not even get to know Hamburg until the summit week, and then they quickly reproduced the dominant interpretations—not least because of a lack of “trustworthy alternatives” in Hamburg’s protest scene. In Buenos Aires, on the other hand, many international correspondents reporting on southern Latin America have been accredited there for years. They know the city, not just its location on a map. This could be an advantage.
Meanwhile, there are numerous publications, statements, and analysis about the G20 in Hamburg—probably more than ever before after a [German] summit. Too many to read all of them, but we chewed through some of them while writing this. Since the vast majority are in German and almost nothing is written in French, we are speaking expressly about those of “us” from Hamburg.
We found noteworthy among other things that in almost all publications any reference to previous summits is missing, along with any reference to the upcoming summit in Buenos Aires. One positive exception was the final statement in German, English, and Spanish from the alternative media center FC MC. They offer direct support for an alternative Media Center during the G20 in Buenos Aires. This appeared immediately after the peak of public hysteria following the violent riots.
Recently, just in time for the anniversary, of the G20, the Legal Team (EA) published a very interesting brochure focusing on the repression, clearly naming and describing both the strengths of the protest and our mistakes.
The left intellectuals in Germany
Left intellectuals have also written a lot about the G20 and “Riots.” Among other publications, a 250-page book has been published with contributions from 14 experienced writers and intellectuals. The authors ambitiously analyze the “riots” in historical context, looking back to pre-industrial England of the 19th century and emphasizing the participation of various parts of the population.
The report about the protests themselves is left to summit-experienced anarchists from the United States and various parts of Europe. Nevertheless, it is basically in accord with our assessment. The report is well-illustrated and freely accessible in the English original.
Otherwise, the book is certainly not directed at “normal people,” as it is largely unreadable without a big lexicon—even less so for an audience from the “surplus population” that is supposed to be the “modern revolutionary subject.” At least the authors made clear that they wrote from a subjective perspective when they titled the book “What was going on in Hamburg?”
Another 100-page pamphlet was published under the title “Traffic problems in a ghost town.” This is signed by a “Committee 17”—surely in reference to the “Invisible Committee” from France, particularly as there are numerous references and comparisons to France that are rendered in a conclusive tone. This reflection evidently originated in the quarter as well as with some activist background. Their (German) language is not only understandable, but intellectual, and of a literary quality above our modest level.
Committee 17 describes and evaluates the diversity of the protests and the excessive state violence in a very similar way to how we do. However, the authors devote a large amount of space to speculating about the strategy of so-called “preemption” by the security apparatus. In this account, the menace scenario is “self-generated” by intelligence agencies in order that they be able to set the rules of the game.
Speculation about secret services
It is certainly true that various secret services were active during and around the G20 in Hamburg. It is also probable that there are undercover agents active in the German radical movement, as well as in the European Left—regardless of the G20 summit. These were certainly also involved in the summit protests in the course of surveilling “their” groups or organizations, with the task of exploring left-wing structures and finding out who is participating in which clandestine actions or accelerating anti-systemic dynamics. In addition, it has been proven that “agents provocateurs” acted at the 2007 summit protests in Heiligendamm and especially in Genoa 2001. This raises the question about the activities of intelligence services during the protests in Hamburg.
There is good cause for speculation—for example, about the trap at the “Welcome to Hell“ demo. As revealed later in trial, there were at least four masked “TaBos” (see page 172) inside the black bloc. The hours-long retreat of the police forces on Friday night produced similar speculation. However, we consider it unlikely that there was a trend-setting influence of the so-called “second level of repression “—that is, the intelligence services acting independently of police leadership—in these two events, at least not in an authoritative sense. If there had been, then in retrospect, the repression presumably would have been much harder, but above all, more targeted against leftist structures.
Larger parts of the left scene suspected that the 200 masked demonstrators in Elbchaussee on Friday morning had been infiltrated on a larger scale or even “controlled” directly by secret intelligence services. The seemingly indiscriminate burning of small cars, the smashing of the glass door of a local bus full of passengers, the alleged threats to local residents—apparently without cause—these are by no means “standard” in the autonomist scene here, at least not to such an extent.
This provided considerable ammunition for the right-wing media and police leadership, leading to an erosion of solidarity for the left-wing protests among more than a few people. There was no public explanation of that action afterwards by the initiators, which could perhaps have ended or limited the speculation. In addition, the complete absence of the police is difficult to understand, when various helicopters were in the air and columns of smoke were visible for kilometers, when numerous residents called the police emergency number.
But there is also the point of view within the left-wing scene that this action should be considered a relevant contribution to the protest, and even as forward-looking. What contradicts the speculation that this was staged by secret services is that the police were left empty-handed—with only one mobile phone video that shows people changing clothes.
Cloak-and-dagger, without pigs…
We noticed that the numerous decentralized militant actions before, during, and after the summit received little attention in later publications. Yet their quantity and the large area they covered certainly had a significant importance for the protests against G20. They too reached a new quality in their multitude—at least for Hamburg, but also for summit protests in general.
In Hamburg, there were attacks on the homes of several politicians, including the mayor (twice), the Senator of the Interior, a senior police officer, and a high-ranking business manager. In addition, several important buildings were attacked, including the summit convention center itself (also twice), alongside countless other targets. These were successful in that nobody was caught directly. To our knowledge, the arrest rate for these attacks is 0.0% in Hamburg up to today, and no one was physically injured either.
If a form of action was successful on its own terms in the protests against the G20 in Hamburg and beyond, it was the “decentralized clandestine actions” of small- and medium-sized militant groups. Also, the actions were executed in a political manner, utilizing effective methods, and they were accompanied by a multitude of explanations in a pretty cool way.
The district 12 months after the G20
Probably the most serious, lasting change for the “Schanze” quarter after the G20 is that tourism has noticeably increased once again. Nearly all Hamburg visitors now visit the quarter. The terraces of the restaurants are bursting at the seams and guided tourist groups are lining up to “explain” the “legendary” Rote Flora from the other side of the street.
In particular, there is an increase in visitors from France and “movement visitors” from all over Europe. In any case, there is no lasting “damage” to the quarter by the G20—on the contrary, the brand “Rebellious Schanze” has gained heavily in terms of its worldwide “reputation.” The immediate winners are the restauranteers, the bar and pub owners, and the local hotel sector. Once again, renters are the chief losers.
Almost all of the damage to the shops was repaired a long time ago. The two looted supermarkets on the street Schulterblatt have been decorated with “trendy” graffiti since their reopening. The bank branch that burned during the G20 was recently demolished. It will be replaced by a much higher and more stylish new building.
The movement in Hamburg 12 months later
Immediately after the G20, the activities of the left were scaled down a lot. Now, the scene is gradually recovering and the number of demonstrations and related activities is increasing again. Recent priorities have included solidarity with the region of Rojava in Kurdish northern Syria, weekly demonstrations against right-wing attempts to establish regular rallies in Hamburg, efforts to respond to G20 repression, and protests against racist police profiling of alleged drug dealers with African roots.
None of the left social centers has been evicted; recently, a much-publicized “Antifa Congress” took place in the Rote Flora, as well as the performance of a play about “proletarian shopping” in Milan in the 1970s. At that time, women in supermarkets had paid only what they thought was justified—which sometimes meant: nothing. That was when the term “autoriduzione” was coined, which later became the French “autoreductions” already mentioned.
On the anniversary of the summit and the protests, a weekend commemoration took place including a colorful program of discussion events, film screenings, a jail rally and, finally, a “demo-rave” with about 2500 participants. The opening rally at the Arrivati Park also included a cool speech about the next summit and protests coming up in Buenos Aires.
In general, there has been neither a major breakdown nor a major departure of the Left in Hamburg. There are a few young, newly involved activists who entered the organizing structures of the movement after their first demos during the G20. On the other hand, the older “warhorses” of the autonomist Left have declared that their time as “organizers of big black blocs” ended after the “Welcome to Hell“ demo.
While “the street” is increasingly rejuvenated, many of the older structures from the times “before G20” are stagnating. That is more likely to bring about a standstill than what we see as a necessary departure, especially after the G20 experiences. Probably more self-confident activity from the younger people and more open-minded understanding from the older people could change this. These self-critical views are slowly gaining ground—certainly also inspired by the G20 experience.
Powerlessness or self-empowerment
In the end, for all who participated in the G20 protests in Hamburg, two basic experiences remain—one of powerlessness and one of self-empowerment. All of us experienced powerlessness at least once, but most of us have felt empowered, too.
The experiences of powerlessness are all similar: police violence and repression—in different forms and dimensions, but always disgusting, dishonest, unjust, and violent, and sometimes inhumane. The enforcement of powerlessness was systemic, programmed. It was targeted to nip any self-empowerment in the bud, as soon as activities exceeded a certain, arbitrary line beyond which protest became supposedly uncontrollable.
The experiences of empowerment, however, were varied, colorful, always collective, and sometimes wild and courageous. Some of these experiences were planned for a long time; others were excitingly spontaneous. Often, they combined “planned” and “spontaneous” together, sometimes in the form of a chain reaction or an unplanned simultaneous event. Sometimes, these experiences of self-empowerment were possible within the frame of action permitted by the police. In general, however, they were hard-won, yet at the same time demanded flexibility in confronting the system of powerlessness. They often included a high personal risk.
The system that seeks to impose powerlessness functioned most effectively when it was possible for it to present a static framework such as “macho against macho,” when it succeeded in depicting a “black ghost ship of menace” to the public. In that case, police could attack in an almost medieval manner, as if in a computer game, allegedly to “save the Ham-Burg.”13
On the other hand, our own experiences of empowerment primarily occurred when we became unpredictable or gained the element of surprise. This could mean showing up in places and carrying out actions without the police having any advance warning, as happened many times. It could also mean refusing to provide a fixed target on the street and instead positioning ourselves left, right, or behind the police force, undistinguishable from the residents who often expressed solidarity with the protest.
It also involved practicing solidarity and creating community. This is what made the experiences of self-empowerment possible in the first place:
• The community of the left social centers in Hamburg together with the cooking groups that mastered the mammoth task of hosting people.
• The solidarity and participation of larger sections of the population and “liberal Hamburg” in the protests, from Protestant pastors to rebellious youth.
• The community and solidarity activists showed each other – especially against repression and the organized system of imposed powerlessness.
• The respectful and friendly manners of guests from outside Hamburg.
These factors have all left an impression in our way of thinking. We have learned a lot from our comrades: their self-understanding in the resistance, their determination, their discussion culture. For this reason, we do not want to withhold from you the second open letter of the international mobilization to the people of Hamburg. It was written chiefly by non-violent activists from France and published a few weeks after the summit.
We conclude this section with a quote from the text “Ghost Town”:
“The experience of having acted, resisted in one way or another, not just being an extra in the staging of power, left a sense of empowerment.”
That is exactly what it was for us, and it clearly outweighs the experiences of powerlessness that we also faced.
The demo on Saturday was the greatest of the barricades
It was a mass expression of standing together, of not being deterred, in spite of all the hate campaigns. As it turned out later, the police would have liked to stop this demonstration, to set an example of their enforcement of powerlessness. One could sense the desire for revenge from the police headquarters when the Hamburg riot police appeared at the demo completely masked.
But the demonstration was just too massive and united, despite the many differences between groups—especially in how they interpreted the previous night. The demo was a symbolic barricade, an insistence on empowerment, a vow to use our own strength. This was stronger than the intended program of powerlessness. The barricade we formed together was indestructible for that reason alone. If the police had cracked down on it, an “out of control” protest would have spread throughout the city while the summit was still in session. So for us, the summit ended with another experience of empowerment.
From “Ratlines” up to G20
The “rat line”
In order to better understand the relationships between our respective countries and continents, it is worth looking at history—especially if it helps to explain the actual connections.
After the Second World War, Latin America—especially Argentina—became the primary site of exile for German and other Nazi war criminals. They fled via the so-called “rat line,” abetted by the Vatican, Franco’s Spain, US intelligence, South American militaries and, last but not least, Juan Domingo Perón. In your country, “old Nazis” could live undisturbed for decades with their inhumane worldviews intact. Precisely how many were there is still unclear. The numbers vary from a few hundred to the five-digit range. They founded right-wing clubs and published newspapers; even today, some of their descendants maintain bizarre “German colonies.”
Croatian fascists even proclaimed their own government in exile in Buenos Aires in 1945, which was not recognized by any other nation. Their leader, Pavelić, acted as security adviser to Perón.
Except for Israel, apparently no one was interested in actively persecuting them. There were reasons for this: old Nazis with secret service experience actively supported all sorts of military dictatorships and often ended up on the CIA payroll. In addition, Francoist Spain actively promoted the old “German comrades,” sometimes offering them asylum. After Franco’s death, explosive documents were shredded in Madrid, while a bi-partisan consensus agreed to “let the fascist Franco era rest on its feet”—a fatal mistake with effects that last to this day.
The continuity of fascism
West Germany by no means thoroughly cleaned up its Nazi scene after the war, as many, especially abroad, assumed—very few were convicted for their crimes. After a short break, many Nazi officials were back in important positions in the judiciary, the police, the new military, government offices, or as diplomatic representatives.
Even open neo-fascism still exists in Germany with structures in numerous sections of society. To name a current example, the complex around the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which is responsible for horrifying acts, shows the involvement of the state in the right-wing terrorist milieu and confirms the complete structural failure of the authorities, politicians, and judiciary to do anything to halt its growth.
Between 2000 and 2007, the NSU murdered nine men of immigrant backgrounds and one policewoman, committed 3 explosive attacks, and carried out 15 armed robberies. The number of its nationally networked supporters is estimated to be between 100 and 200, including high-level officials of right-wing extremist parties. Particularly scandalous and never explained, let alone punished, is the indisputable involvement of over 40 undercover agents of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (“Verfassungschutz,” or VS), which also supported the NSU directly with the procurement of explosives, vehicles, and weapons. After the NSU became known to the public, officials of the VS destroyed relevant files and sealed others for 120 years—a “Vatican dimension.”
In the course of the trial, which lasted over five years, as well as in numerous committees of inquiry, the VS showed no interest in explaining its involvement in the right-wing terrorist scene. One of their agents was present during one murder in an internet café in Kassel; he declared that he had not noticed it at the time. In addition, remarkably, five witnesses died shortly before giving testimony in the NSU trial, under dubious circumstances. Police never instituted a central special commission; instead, the investigation was led regionally, focusing on “family quarrels” and “organized crime”—though the same weapon had been used in all of the murders.
The verdicts were delivered on July 11, 2018. The chief defendant, Beate Zschäpe, was sentenced to life imprisonment, demonstrating the special gravity of the guilt. On July 17, 2018, less than a week after the verdict was pronounced, the alleged NSU head and strategist, Ralf Wohlleben, who had been convicted of aiding and abetting murder in nine cases, was released on time served in pretrial detention. This is an insult to the relatives of the victims. German and European neo-Nazis celebrated the release.
The German Wikipedia entry offers extensive information on this topic, and the English and the French versions are at least serviceable. However, information in other languages is scant.
The German state television has presented a remarkably informative 42-minute documentary, translated into English, Turkish, and Spanish.
Consequences of continuity worldwide
Most relevant today, however, is the near-seamless transition of many convinced fascists into key areas of the German economy and finance sectors after World War II.
For example, before 1933, Deutsche Bank had helped the Nazis to take power with generous donations. Later, it promoted the armament of the Wehrmacht and benefited significantly from the subsequent war. A few years after the end of the war, the same bankers sat on the board again, continuing their work as if nothing had happened. No interruption in the fascist lineage of Deutsch Bank ever took place—there was never even any sort of evaluation. Today, the Deutsche Bank is a “global player” of the worst kind, especially in Latin America. In Colombia, for example, it finances coal mining and earns millions on the people’s misery and the destruction of nature. In Spain, it was the main trigger causing the so-called “housing / property crisis,” which directly affected over 2 million people—many of whom were forcibly evicted.
Another major German bank, the “Dresdner Bank,”14 has now intervened in Argentina’s current inflation crisis. The former head of its Latin American division, Heinz Mewes, spoke to the internationally renowned state news station “Deutsche Welle”15 in an interview. He “explained” the crisis to the Germans with the severe drought that has led to export defaults, the recession in Brazil, the currency erosion in Turkey, and a “still too hesitant austerity course” by the Macri government. His “solution” is “consistent implementation of the necessary reforms,” and a policy of “building confidence in international markets.” This sounds plausible to many in this country and quickly became a “guiding opinion” in the media, underpinning the already existing narrative. Mewes did not mention that, in real terms, this means the most severe cuts in all social areas and, moreover, that Argentina is largely ceding its sovereignty to the international financial system for a long time to come. Also unmentioned is the context of “corruption,” indeed a major cause of the financial misery… and Macri’s business clan is directly involved in this.
Today’s Deutschbankers do not greet each other with “Heil Hitler” in their offices in Buenos Aires. But their banks, their system, and their acts are just as inhumane and profit-oriented as ever. As before, these big corporations and banks determine the economic and foreign policy of their countries. It is not an exaggeration to say that the german banks have more influence on the international German political strategy than Chancellor Angela Merkel does. This applies to the entire G20, not just this particular case.
This brings us to one of our “key concepts”: we are talking about the same actual enemies, the same mechanisms and overlapping histories here as there. The history and current business policy of Deutsche Bank is just one example.
The G20 today and in the future
The G20 leaders will continue to organize policies that benefit the rich and powerful. From our point of view, hoping for reform, responsible rationality, or even a positive vision would just be naïve. The representatives of the 20 most powerful nations are not able to act differently; they cannot do anything other than what it takes to function in the existing system, as they are replaceable at any time. There are differences among the representatives, probably even significant disagreements—but in the end, their tight-knit frameworks are aligned in only one direction. No argument, no smart analysis, no dialogue can change this. They will continue without braking until the system itself is stopped.
From the system, we see the destruction of the livelihoods of all, the increasing impoverishment of most, wars on almost every continent, repression targeting dissidents, increasing risk of nuclear conflict, the bloody suppression of uprisings in the Global South, the intellectual as well as social isolation of the masses… destruction instead of solidarity, slavery instead of freedom, hunger instead of prosperity… fewer and fewer rich people owning more and more, while more and more poor people have less and less.
Even seen from our privileged situation in Western Europe, there is nothing to negotiate or to communicate, let alone to expect. The representatives of the G20 are the representatives of our enemy—a perfidious system of destruction, misery, and bondage. It is exactly this system that the G20 leaders are representing, at annual meetings… in 2017 in Hamburg, soon in Buenos Aires, and in 2019 around Osaka, Japan.
However, the continuity of these summit conferences and the underlying alliances seems more questionable than ever. The last G7 in Toronto revealed a disastrous disunity in the camp of the transatlantic West. It became clear that the representatives of the powerful are primarily concerned with competing for “their slice of the pie”—there was no longer any pretention that they are “taking care of the world together.” Such embarrassing and apparently completely unproductive summits make no sense for the system either, especially not when fierce protests are added to the mix.
All Together Now!
People rarely think about Latin America here in Europe except for during the World Cup every four years. If they treat it at all, European media portray Latin America as an unorganized, corrupt, impoverished continent of self-inflicted violence and cocaine. This is often accompanied by a bit of folklore and a romanticizing of “savagery.” In European reports, the misery of Latin America is depicted similarly to the portrait of Africa, but the causes and context are usually omitted. The selection is normally done in newspaper or TV station editorial offices themselves, as a kind of “anticipatory obedience”—often without recognizing this as such.
In France, the view of the “rest of the world” is focused on the so-called “Francophonie,” that is, the former and the present colonies or areas where French is spoken. Every second message from Latin America refers to French Guyana or the French Caribbean Islands. For the first time, however, the very young French are going beyond the fringes of the Francophonie, learning good English, some even Spanish, and with increasing zeal they are traveling to Latin America as well.
In many parts of Berlin and Hamburg, Spanish is part of the “sound of the street.” German is a complicated language and many Latin-Americans and Spaniards here are of the opinion that “life is too short to learn German.” Unfortunately, this also means that only the relatively small group of Germans who speak Spanish well come into direct contact with authentic stories from your continent. On the other hand, quite a few young Germans have been traveling to Latin America for decades, gathering plenty of immediate impressions, often critical.
Conversely, Latin America usually receives news and reports about Europe only in a way that shows a distorted, unrealistic picture of progress and prosperity. This is intended to make you believe that this system offers a better life than the misery of Latin America, which is ultimately “your mistake,” to be corrected only by neoliberal reforms according to the “European example.”
International solidarity with Latin America has a longer tradition in the German left, which has often supported guerrilla movements or alleged “revolutions”—mostly, nevertheless, in a spirit of inequality or sometimes even arrogance. The same holds for humanitarian aid projects. The intended “aid” from Germans in reality often resulted in new dependencies; it was sometimes even degrading. Meanwhile, the “solidarity” with guerrilla movements often included some romanticization and sometimes also served Germans as compensation for a lack of their own experience of radical activity.
However, there have also been some positive approaches and connections in recent years. For example, many leftists across Europe perceived the movement of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico as something very positive and tried to act in solidarity as well as with respect and egalitarianism. In Hamburg, for example, a number of collectives have emerged, importing coffee directly from Chiapas and distributing it here in a fair trade manner. In addition there have been many information events.
In 2013, people succeeded in organizing unified action between activists in Colombia and Hamburg. As a result, the global production chain of Colombian hard coal was exposed to scandal—from bloodstained mining in northern Colombia to the planned climate-killing incineration in Hamburg’s controversial coal-fired power plant, which was still under construction at the time. In Hamburg, the Elbe was symbolically blocked for one hour during the anniversary of the harbor, while at the same time, a protest rally against the “Megaminería” took place in Bogotá.
The population of the South American continent has a greater proportion of young people than Europe, and significant parts of the youth have begun to fundamentally question the prevailing order while the contradictions continue to intensify. For us Latin America is also a continent of hope.
We should deepen our transcontinental relations on an equal footing and make such connections more common. The protests against the G20 summit offer a special occasion and momentum, but we should be able to do much more in the long term.
We see the differences between the various protest cultures in Latin America and Europe as strength. We only have to understand this “global multitude” as something common that we want and need.
Global dynamics of cities
Paris, Hamburg, and Buenos Aires are rightly considered to be particularly cosmopolitan and international. We live in “key cities” in which supranational influences always brought important impulses and from which many things spread to other cities. For example, Hamburg is probably the “most British” city on the European mainland, and Paris has traditionally been a European attraction for artists and intellectuals. St. Pauli in Hamburg is likely the most internationally famous district in all Germany, and it was the East of Paris where the French Revolution started, as well as the Paris Commune.
In both cities, impulses and movements have been arising—sometimes in interaction. A few years ago, for example, Hamburg saw the beginning of a “Right to the City” movement, which drew on a concept promoted by the left-wing sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre from Paris in 1968. “Right to the City” movements exist in Latin America, too, e.g., in Buenos Aires.
In Paris, in 2016, thousands took to the streets protesting against a labor reform and forming the “Nuit Debout” movement, and there was a closed “black bloc” for the first time in France. This expression of militancy and self-protection originated in Hamburg in the 1980s. The culture of “wild demos” involving spontaneous chaos and blockades, not registered with the authorities, comes clearly from France, especially from Paris. It belongs to the common repertoire of movements in Hamburg.
The exchange of new tactics and ideas of movements across borders does not work in a “copy paste mode,” even less according to an “import/export” logic. Rather, it’s about mutual inspiration and curiosity.
Buenos Aires is recognized as particularly “European”; it has largely been shaped by Italian influences. It is one of the key metropolises of Latin America. Many stimuli—movements, culture, attitudes toward life—arise and spread from Buenos Aires.
If something moves on Planet Earth, it certainly will not skip “our” three cities. Rather, it is precisely our shared responsibility to develop and push necessary changes. For this reason, we also consider it particularly important to intensify solidarity-based relations and practices in the context of the metropolises and regions, rather than, for example, referring to the framework of nation-states or countries.
For those in Europe who have little understanding of your metropolitan area, the region around the Rio de la Plata is home to a total of nearly 20 million people, of whom 14 million live in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires; 2 million more live in Montevideo, Uruguay. The so-called “Rio Platense” is spoken across this border.
Back to B´Aires
There are organised groups in Buenos Aires, which will oppose the G20 summit with determination and resistance. We were astonished by the protests in Buenos Aires against the new pension law in December 2017. The photographs reminded us a bit of the G20 protests in Hamburg, even if the intensity and dimension of the resistance was never reached here.
The gigantic demonstration in B´Aires on International Women´s Day also impressed us. More than 1 million people—primarily women—were said to be on the streets; colorful, cross-generational, and determined to change things. In mid-June, you did it again: one million people at the night vigil for the right to abortion.
We received the first “international call for action – NO to the G-20 summit in Argentina!“ This resembles the basic orientation of the first calls to demonstrate in Hamburg. It has been translated in four more languages.
G20 on site
The summit is to take place in the “Salguero” congress center, directly on the Rio de la Plata, and at the inner-city airport. As we can see on the map, there are docks and parks on the other sides. The historic center of Buenos Aires is not far away either. In between, however, there is a large urban highway and railway tracks and also “Villa 31,” one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.
The Costa Salguero is already the Plan B, after the original plan to meet in the “Tecnópolis” was scrapped; the convention place was relocated for security reasons, which became increasingly relevant after Hamburg. Other secondary sites of the summit are nearby in the historic center, such as the five-star hotels that could host state guests and the Theatro Colón, where the “Feudal Friday monster dinner” is scheduled.
In order to get from the international airport to the site of the summit, the heads of state and government would either need to be carted 40 km across Buenos Aires or be shuttled by helicopters with all their baggage. This certainly would not be an option for the thousands of “Sherpas” accompanying them. We read that the smaller, inner-city airport would be used exclusively as a military airport during the summit. State guests could land there directly, immediately at the venue and not far from the hotels.
We found in the local press in Buenos Aires that there is a discussion about a kind of “land dispatch program” for nearby neighbourhoods. Macri would like to borrow additional fighter jets from Brazil especially for the G20. Moreover, exactly as in Hamburg, there had already been one “test conference,” the WTO summit. Even at this summit, many NGO representatives were denied entry—a fact that does not bode well.
Larger parts of the city will also presumably be declared demonstration ban zones. The meeting places, hotels, and routes from the airport will be hermetically sealed. Freedom of movement will be limited throughout the whole city. Assume that the next G20 will be even worse than you expect and much worse than the politicians are announcing. This was the case in Hamburg last year, and also at the preceding summits.
An opportunity for attention
If there is an opportunity to draw worldwide attention to social concerns in Buenos Aires, it is the upcoming G20 summit. The world press will congregate in Buenos Aires to an unprecedented degree. After Hamburg, they will be focusing attention on your protests.
If this meeting of monsters, the figureheads of this destructive system, takes place in your freedom-loving city without opposition, the international public will regard this as a sign that everything is going as usual. It would cement once more the misery of Latin America. Above all, “your president” Macri would understand himself to have carte blanche for his agenda of austerity measures, which the IMF has made even more drastic. As in 2001, the Argentinian people face a massive debt burden, the economy is slipping into recession, and social imbalances are increasing.
But it is not just Macri who is driving the country into bankruptcy again. It is a worldwide offensive of capital and its lackeys. It is the G20, the IMF, the World Bank, and the transnational corporations that have plunged the countries of the world into crisis. What is going on in Argentina is just another example of their strategy of impoverishment, destruction, and self-enrichment.
We are moving forward. But the question is whether we can move fast enough to preserve even the simplest livelihoods for us and the forthcoming generations. This is why we need to deepen our transcontinental discussions about alternatives to the prevailing system, to further develop these together and create a real countervailing power. We can only do that together—not in a single campaign, but with a long-term exchange, in a process of learning from each other, based on mutual respect and curiosity.
So we come to the end of our “handover of a burning baton.” We hope we have not bored you with local details. Above all, we hope that our experiences will support you a little bit and help us advance our common process together.
We will fly directly to Buenos Aires for the summit protests if possible. But we also know that this will stretch the financial limits for many. Therefore, we will try to set up parallel protests here at the same time. That will be a continuation and hopefully an additional boost from the G20 protests that took place outside of Hamburg in 2017 in Athens, Paris, northern Italy, and in many German cities. A large part of the proceeds from the sale of this book will flow into the protest / repression fund to support B’Aires.
We should never forget that it is not only the other side that is capable of unleashing unforeseen forces. We too can expand our strength in a momentum that we did not previously consider possible.
Take care, Compas.
Pauli – Paname – Connexion, July 2018
THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN
The controversial reform of the French labor law. ↩
The popular name the inhabitants of Paris use for their large chaotic, wild, and disillusioning city. ↩
Short for “Gefangenen-Sammelstelle” (“prisoner collection point”) ↩