Listen to the Episode — 34 min
Alanis: The Ex Worker;
Clara: An audio strike against a monotone world;
Alanis: A podcast of anarchist ideas and action;
Clara: For everyone who dreams of a life off the clock.
Alanis: Welcome back to another episode of the Ex-Worker! we’ve been on hiatus, but we’re working on a new weekly podcast slated to drop this fall.
Clara: Today, we’re taking a look at the events of the recent G20 in Hamburg, where police struck the first blow but anarchists and other rebels had the last laugh.
Alanis: And answering the question: what exactly is the G20 and why does it matter?
Clara: First things first, the G20 is not the J20. The G20, also known as the Group of Twenty according to Wikipedia, though I’ve never heard anyone actually call it that, is a group of world leaders and bank governors from 20 of the most powerful economies in the world. They meet periodically to determine economic policies that effect the entire world.
Alanis: Whereas J20 is an abbreviation for January 20th, and refers to the more than 200 defendants currently facing multiple felony charges from protesting Trump’s inauguration. The J20 defendants are a focal point for the an unprecedented level of repression; what happens to them will set a legal precedent for how the US government can dispose of dissenters and rebels moving forward.
Clara: More on the J20 defendants and how you can support them later on; for now, let’s take a look at what happened at the G20. I’m Clara,
Alanis: And I’m Alanis, and we’ll be your hosts. You can read the full transcript of this episode at crimethinc.com/podcast, along with links to all the texts we draw from and more info about everything we’re discussing. If you’ve got feedback or suggestions, drop us a line to podcast[at]crimethinc[dot]com.
Clara: The G20 is pretty widely hated. Some liberal and radical groups went to the G20 to oppose specific policies: the ongoing colonial exploitation of Africa, government pandering to profiteering financial institutions, rampant environmental destruction hastening climate change. As anarchists, we are concerned about all of these problems, but we believe it is naïve to expect that the same class of people that is chiefly responsible for them in the first place will fix them for us. Even if the G20 politicians could fix all these issues by fiat, and even if carrying signs could compel them to do so, it would just reinforce this logic of their protection racket: they inflict crisis after crisis on us, then hold us hostage and expect us to reward them for solving the problems they created.
Alanis: Exactly. It’s a distraction to focus only on the bad politics of specific G20 rulers like Donald Trump, egregious as they are. For anyone who truly believes in freedom and equality, the problem is the structure itself, not which people occupy it.
Clara: We oppose the G20 summits because we believe that only horizontal grassroots initiatives can solve the problems facing humanity. Financial crisis, climate chaos, ethnic violence, and state repression are the inevitable consequences of markets and governments that concentrate power in the hands of the most ruthless few. When everyone is forced to compete for resources and power rather than being free to develop ways of life based on self-determination, voluntary association, and peaceful coexistence, no one wins, not even the 20 most powerful people on earth. This is why anarchists take a position against the G20 governments themselves, rather than this or that policy.
Alanis: Right but—Isn’t this kind of 90s? Summit hopping and spectacle, the carnival of resistance that gives you a short adrenaline rush but doesn’t solve larger problems? Haven’t we recognized the limits of this organizing model?
Clara: Yeah, there are a few arguments I’ve heard against this kind of massive demonstration at a summit—something radicals did a lot more of back in the 90s. One argument focused on the ways we can all rush to a big, sexy riot instead of focusing on building resistance in less glamorous but more sustainable ways at home—another critique questions whether anarchists at large demonstrations are in fact doing a kind of activism—making demands of power, even if that’s not what we say we’re doing. Is that what you mean?
Alanis: Something like that. Like, at the end of the day, what good does this kind of protest do? Aren’t we still speeding inexorably toward climate disaster, the rise of global fascism, and the like?
Clara: It’s always hard to judge which tactics are the most successful. We can learn from the past and try to be better prepared for the future, but still cause and effect are much more complex than historians would have us believe. In fact, the anarchist opposition to the G20, because it had no specific demands, was successful in so far as it opened a space for people to experience other possibilities. The free meals, housing, medical treatment, and street parties organized by participants in the resistance to the G20 offered a glimpse of a world in which all the necessities of life are shared—and are sweeter for being so. Likewise, our resistance to the summit is a model for the kind of organizing it will take to throw off the yoke of state repression and open up spaces of freedom in which we can solve our problems together.
Alanis: So you see this as one tactic among many?
Clara: Exactly. Fighting against the G20 in Hamburg is just one small part of a much larger project that includes the creation of common resources for the benefit of all. We are already seeing a political polarization as people give up on traditional party politics. If we don’t offer an alternative that breaks with the state and capitalism, we cede the field to racists and other partisans of state violence.
Alanis: So, even though this kind of protest looks like an old tactic, it’s actually increasingly more relevant right now?
Clara: I’d say so. We are already seeing a political polarization as people give up on traditional party politics; now is the time for anarchists to offer joyous explorations of what it means to be human outside the imperatives of cutthroat capitalism.
Alanis: Let’s take a look at what actually went down in Hamburg this year.
Clara: Yeah, first of all, why did the G20 choose Hamburg, right in the epicenter of one of Germany’s most radical cities?
Alanis: Yeah, Hamburg has a long legacy as a hotbed of radical politics and social movements: first as a center of the German labor movement and later as a site of fierce countercultural activity. In the 1980s, a series of battles took place between the police and supporters of squats along the riverfront Hafenstrasse. Although thousands of police were brought to bear against the squatters, the government was ultimately defeated and the autonomous housing complexes persist to this day. These were some of the clashes in which black bloc tactics first gained notoriety.
Over the past few years, Hamburg has been targeted to host three different mega-events: the 23rd Ministerial of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the 2024 Olympics, and the 2017 G20. As we have thoroughly documented in our coverage of Brazilian social movements, mega-events offer the state an opportunity to militarize the police, destroy unruly neighborhoods, and expand the infrastructure of state control and repression. In each case, the city saw protracted social struggle. Hamburg was forced to turn down its bid for the Olympics. Shortly before the OSCE ministerial in December 2016, demonstrators blocked the entrance of the venue for the OSCE and G20 summits with burning tires and smashed out the glass façade to emphasize their opposition to the bureaucrats’ plans for Hamburg and the world. They knew the residents of Hamburg wouldn’t welcome this summit calmly.
Clara: It seems like the G20 officials’ decision to descend on Hamburg was a pretty clear provocation— a deliberate attempt to create conflict and speed up the gentrification of an area that has caused them problems for a long time. This summit offered them a good excuse to bring tens of thousands of police and bureaucrats to interfere with the day-to-day lives of those who live there, shutting off whole neighborhoods and precipitating confrontations.
Alanis: Well did they succeed?
Clara: They certainly tried.
audio of chants from Hamburg
Clara: Throughout the G20, we were in touch with comrades on the ground in Hamburg who shared what was happening with us as it happened. In case you didn’t catch the live blog on those days, we’ve distilled the main story for you here. But if you’re interested in more analysis and some details we don’t have time to get to here, check out the reports on the continuous live coverage of the G20 at crimethinc.com.
Alanis: The first conflict of the week happened at the Welcome to Hell demonstration, on Thursday, July 6th. This was the day the G20 leaders arrived in Hamburg. Longtime participants in the Hamburg autonomist scene had called for a massive rally to be followed by a march, all under the title “WELCOME TO HELL.” Posters distributed throughout Germany read “Live Resistance—Join the Black Block.”
Organizers had proposed a lengthy march route for the demonstration, a miles-long loop around the perimeter of the no-protest zone. They anticipated that the authorities would force them to settle for a much shorter route in return for a permit. Yet the police authorized the entire march route without a single objection. After all their efforts to prohibit camping and forbid protesting throughout the entirety of downtown, this was ominous: it meant that they had no intention of letting the march proceed under any circumstances.
Clara: Consequently, many experienced activists chose not to participate in the march at all; some did not even attend the rally. The prevailing wisdom was that, with 20,000 police at their disposal, the authorities would kettle the entire Welcome to Hell demonstration. The starting point for the rally and march was the St. Pauli Fischmarkt along the river Elbe; it seemed it would be easy for the police to block all the intersections around it and create a trap. Some imagined that they would pen in the crowd, then provoke conflicts in order to capture people with the snatch guards for which the German police are notorious. Others feared that the authorities might try to hold the entire crowd in a kettle overnight or even longer, in order to prevent everyone from participating in the other protests during the summit.
Nevertheless, a tremendous number of people turned out for the Welcome to Hell rally. For many, it was simply too important to miss, however badly it might go. It had been promoted for months as the chief act of defiance against the G20 summit; if nothing happened, that itself would be a defeat. Others went simply because they couldn’t resist their curiosity.
Alanis: The crowd that listened to the speeches and performances in the St. Pauli Fischmarkt was unexpectedly multi-generational and diverse. They didn’t look like the bloodthirsty hoodlums of the police propaganda. They looked more like festival-goers and picnickers, grandparents, and grandchildren. The undercover cops in the crowd were easy to pick out by their scowls. Everyone else was having a good time.
When the program concluded, several sound trucks playing a variety of revolutionary music moved through the crowd to the front of the march, followed by one affinity group after another, participants pulling black rain jackets and gloves over their colorful summer clothing. Line after line after line formed; different groups had been signing up to form the front of this demonstration for months.
Clara: The police allowed the march to proceed a couple hundred meters east along St. Pauli Fischmarkt, then stopped it with a solid wall of riot police, water cannons, and military vehicles south of Park Fiction. Cynically, they had let the front of the march into their trap, then blocked it in a sort of canyon where the road dips ten or more feet below the pedestrian walkway on the southern side.
The intent of the police was obvious: isolate the militant front section of the march, attack it, and shut down the demonstration completely. This was consistent with their treatment of the camp on Sunday and with their attempts to crush dissent by brute force throughout the entire week. Yet the confrontation between the police and the black bloc did not go the way anyone expected it to, for there were additional elements in play.
Alanis: The black bloc was perhaps 1000 people, but the crowd that had gathered to march behind it numbered up to 12,000. Thousands of police were massed ahead of the march and in every intersection surrounding the area; fully armored snatch squads were positioned at regular intervals throughout the crowd. Yet outside the police lines, looking on from the railings overlooking St. Pauli Fischmarkt, thousands more spectators had gathered. Many of them were involved with the media: cameramen jostling for position, bloggers struggling to see through the crowd pressed several lines thick. Others were simply curious onlookers, people from the neighborhood who had come out to see what was happening or simply to have a beer on the first really warm day of summer. Beyond the peak of the hill of Park Fiction, some locals played basketball, apparently oblivious to the massive drama unfolding below even as black-clad snatch squads moved into position beside the court.
From the perspective of the police, all of these spectators and bystanders were a potential risk: they looked harmless, but they might be black bloc anarchists in disguise. The police kept positioning their snatch squads outside the lines of spectators—but every time they did, more spectators gathered to watch them. The police who had hoped to surround and isolate the radicals were themselves surrounded by society at large. As of that moment, the spectators were really just that, spectators: attempts to lead chants among them fell flat. But they were watching, and the police were watching them.
Clara: The standoff went on nearly half an hour. The front lines of the black bloc held their ground, impassively holding up their banners before the forces of destruction marshaled against them. Finally, the police broke the tension. They shot a volley of tear gas canisters into the black bloc, then charged from the back, breaking into the march between the bloc and the rest of the crowd. They had the black bloc surrounded from the front and the back, with walls at least ten feet high on the sides around them.
A cry went up from the railings and balconies looking over the scene: onlookers were outraged at the poor sportsmanship of the police. It was the sort of response you might hear at a football game if one player punched another to get the ball. The stench of tear gas was strong in the air. Even in the park overlooking the street from the north, it was difficult to breathe.
Alanis: Imagine the scene: you are in the front lines of the Welcome to Hell black bloc. With your affinity group, you’ve signed up for this position months in advance, to ensure that the front of the bloc would be populated by reliable people. You have known from the beginning that you were walking into a nightmare. Still, your commitment to your comrades and to the movement itself outweighs fear for your personal safety. You have chosen to be here, come injury or prison.
St. Pauli Fischmarkt forms a sort of canyon here, where it drops beneath the level of the other streets—but for you, facing an impenetrable wall of police, it feels more like an arena. The railings above you are packed with viewers. They throng the pedestrian walkway that passes overhead and the hill of the park to the north; they are even gathered on the rooftops of the tall apartment buildings beyond the park. Standing there below them, you can’t help but hate those spectators passively watching from the safety of their terraces. Ahead, you can make out one—two—three—at least four water cannons and some armored cars behind them. You and your companions are like gladiators trembling as the gates go up and out come the wolves.
Clara: Explosions are going off behind you. They punctuate a din of screaming, shouting, and the robotic voice of the police announcements over the loudspeaker. From your vantage point, you can’t see what is going on there, where the police are carrying out charge after charge against the back of the bloc as demonstrators struggle to hold them off with a volley of bottles and debris. You can only smell the tear gas in the air and hear the sound of detonations and shattering glass. A canister explodes in front of you, enveloping you in smoke. When the smoke clears for a moment, you see that the ranks of the bloc behind you are thinning—fearful of being trapped and brutalized, demonstrators have formed a human pyramid to escape by climbing up the wall to the south.
At this moment, the riot police ahead of you charge, forming a wall all the way around the bloc stretching from the front to the southern side. There are perhaps fifty of you in the front now, still holding up your banners as a fragile rampart between you and the full might of the state.
Alanis: The water cannons zoom up, sirens blaring, and halt right in front of your line. There is a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which the orcs fall back as the mighty Balrog steps forth to attack the protagonists. In that same manner, the lines of white-helmeted riot police inch backwards as the water cannons train their barrels directly at you. Tear gas is still filling the air. The comrades behind you have fled. Deafening pandemonium. You are surrounded on three sides now, outnumbered ten to one by storm troopers clad head-to-toe in full body armor.
It could hardly be more terrifying if the earth cracked open and flames leapt out of the chasm. Welcome to hell, indeed.
audio from the protest—explosions, shouting, and breaking glass
Incredibly, the front lines of the black bloc held their ground in these conditions for more than five straight minutes. In video footage, you can see the officers in the front hesitating to attack them even as other police are charging the rear of the bloc. The determination of these fifty or so individuals is humbling; it must have given pause to even the most hardened thugs among the police. By holding their position, they managed to enable those behind them to scale the wall and escape. When they were the only ones left in the street, they calmly drew back to the wall, even as the police attacked from all sides. The ones on the outside continued holding their lines until everyone behind them had escaped.
Clara: Thousands of spectators witnessed this whole thing—the cowardice of the police and the bravery of the black bloc. Within forty-eight hours, the courage of fifty anarchists had become the courage of tens of thousands.
Stories from the protest:
The thing that made me most frightened was the risk that the police would kill people at that wall. While people were trying to get up the wall, the police were pepper-spraying and beating everyone in the street, including those who were already lying on the ground unconscious.
I couldn’t see anything because of the pepper spray in my eyes. But I saw a shadow of something lying at the foot of the wall. People were stepping on it in their desperation to escape the police. I thought there was a person lying there, and I tried to keep people away. I remembered an accident that had happened at the love parade in Duisburg.
When I reached the object on the ground, I found that it was only a backpack. But I will never forget the seconds when I believed that a person had been trampled to death. Then there were people above shouting to me to get up quick. They took my arms and pulled me up that wall.
Afterwards, you could see shoes lying scattered on the street where the police had attacked us.
Alanis: With so many other people still waiting to march behind the place where the black bloc had been attacked and so many more spectators looking on, the police could not set up a proper kettle. While most of the black bloc had scaled the wall on the south side of the street, large numbers of demonstrators managed to get past the police positions to the north to regroup on the other side. Minutes later, a lively march erupted from Silbersackstrasse onto the Reeperbahn, the next major thoroughfare to the north parallel to St. Pauli Fischmarkt. The participants were not wearing masks or black clothes, but they were chanting “A! Anti! Anti-Capitalista!” Miraculously, they even had a sound system blasting electronic dance music.
Clara: And all this was before the summit even began…
Alanis: On the first day of the G20 summit, as the world leaders gathered behind closed doors, residents of Hamburg woke up to the news that a large number of Porsches had been burned on the outskirts of the city the previous night—and several more expensive cars caught fire that morning.
Clara: Despite the police keeping a tight control on busses and trains full of activists as they tried to cross the border into Hamburg, they simply could not stop the crowds of protestors gathering in the city. While they were trying to block a few radical activists from entering their borders, the real force they had to reckon with was the population of Hamburg itself.
Alanis: The German police had brought together approximately 20,000 officers, including troops from other EU countries, with the intention of utterly quashing resistance. They hoped their brutal raid on the activist camp the day before would dissuade others from coming out. They did everything they could to intimidate people away from the demonstrations.
Clara: Yet this tactic backfired. The people of Hamburg weren’t afraid of the radical extremists the police and media tried to warn them about—they were furious with the police themselves. The highly militarized police occupation of Hamburg, which began by attacking a legal march without any provocation, was the real threat to Hamburg’s safety, and people understood this.
Alanis: Throughout the first day of protests, the police were simply unable to control the vast numbers of people in the streets. Barricades went up and multiple simultaneous clashes occurred around the city. Despite all their numbers and all their weapons, armor, and military vehicles, the police lost control.
Clara: As night fell, protestors celebrated behind barricades under the full moon—some continuing to keep the police at bay with projectiles, other busy building and reinforcing barricades.
Alanis: It’s kind of amazing to think about how the people of Hamburg won against the police that night—despite one out of every twelve officers in Germany being concentrated in their city. They did so by spreading the action over a vast area of the city, moving swiftly and focusing on decentralized actions. Whenever the police established a control line, people gathered on the other side of it—not only demonstrators, but also supportive spectators. Small, highly organized and mobile groups of demonstrators were able to identify exit routes and carry out swift attacks, while larger crowds stretched the police one direction, then another. The more territory the police had to control, the more they antagonized the population, and the more demonstrators they had to deal with as their lines became more and more thinly stretched. Finally, they lost control of the most unruly regions and were forced to retreat entirely.Clara: In addition to tactical concerns, however, the most important blow to the police was that, by going too far in seeking to control the population by brute force, they lost legitimacy in the public eye. Their absurd and unprovoked attack on the Welcome to Hell demonstration turned the entire city against them. No wonder they lost control.
Alanis: One lesson learned from Hamburg is that things have reached a point of no return: the future will be revolutionary liberation, or it will be a police state. The supposed middle ground, in which limited freedoms are watched over by a state restrained by the will of the people, has always been a myth, and that illusion is becoming harder and harder to maintain.
Clara: On the last day of the summit, the police amped up their repression, carrying out an unprovoked fully militarized invasion of Schanzenviertel, and violently attacking everyone on the street. They blocked the whole quarter, clearly with the intention of carrying out revenge attacks and restore the myth of their invincibility. They even raided a space in which medics were treating the injured, and pointedly didn’t respond when a group of fascists attacked an anti-fascist bar.
Alanis: Even so, the protests ended on a joyous note, with all kinds of people dancing and singing in the streets together.
Clara: That wasn’t the end of the violence, though.
Alanis: Are you referring to the violence of the so-called return to normalcy?
Clara: You know I am. The day after, when the summit had ended and so had the height of resistance, social media summoned a throng of fresh-faced members of the middle classes, who descended upon the Schanze neighborhood to erase all traces of popular dissent and self-defense that remained from the preceding days’ conflicts.
For the most part, these were people who had not previously concerned themselves with the G20 or the protests against it. Police violence, the suppression of dissent, poverty, gentrification, and other symptoms of capitalism are fine, apparently, but heaven forbid anything out of the ordinary happens. They hung cute little handmade signs protesting against the “violence” of the black bloc—
Alanis: Wait, did these people know about the brutal raid on the camp, or the unprovoked attack on the Welcome to Hell march, and all the police who terrorized random Hamburg locals as well as activists?
Clara: It would be hard not to. But none of that seemed to concern them, until people actually began to defend themselves against the arbitrary assaults of fully-armored stormtroopers. It offended their middle-class sensibilities that anyone would want to exert a little leverage back on the government that forced the G20 on Hamburg in the first place.
Alanis: Wait, weren’t there people arrested and injured by the police who needed support that day?
Clara: Oh yes! In fact, their little stunt, called Hamburg räumt auf—“Hamburg tidies up”—was called for the same time as the solidarity demonstration expressing support for arrestees and other targets of the police violence. Rhetoric abounded about “citizenship” (a framework that denies the value of everyone who lacks a certain bureaucratic status) and “cleaning up our town.” The middle class feel entitled to treat everything as their territory, provided that the authorities don’t mind.
Yet they did not set out to clean up all Hamburg. They certainly didn’t concern themselves with the parts of the city that the police blocked off in anticipation of the G20 summit, despite the residents of those zones being trapped indoors or forcibly excluded from their homes. They gathered only in the area around the Rota Flora, the squatted social center that has served as one of the mobilization points for the demonstrations against the G20. The message was clear: in the name of bourgeois tidiness, centers of dissent should be swept away like trash, and expressions of dissent should be erased.
Alanis: Okay, well clearly this was pretty poorly thought out. But, doesn’t our vision of an autonomous world rely on people to come together spontaneously and solve problems collectively, which is what these bourgeois citizens were trying to do, right?
Clara: Yeah, the problem is, when neighborhoods are cleaned like this, the original residents rarely get to stick around to reap the benefits. Such sanitation is a step in gentrification, forcing those who previously lived there to move to more precarious situations and destroying the character of the neighborhood. Talk about violence! This cleaning ceremony is a ritual to cleanse Schanze of the sin of revolt while hastening the investment and “revitalization” that will force out those who call it home. The Catholic Church carried out a similar ritual after the Paris Commune, building the Sacré-Cœur basilica on the very spot where the revolt began. Urban cleansing is always political.
In front of the Rota Flora, two courageous people held signs opposing the cleaning. Contra mundum, they debated a series of self-satisfied property owners who had spent the past several days indoors while police beat, pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, and water-cannoned thousands of demonstrators, locals, and passers-by.
These partisans of tidiness would like to think of themselves as the mainstream of society, writing off protesters as some sort of negligible fringe. But the demonstrations against the G20 outnumbered them by tens of thousands, if not more. The way things are going, fewer and fewer people are left sitting on the fence in the supposed center of the political spectrum, struggling to pull a mask of normalcy over a rapidly escalating situation of social conflict.
Alanis: To be clear, the world we want is not a mess of broken glass and torn up streets. But neither is it the world as it exists today, in which all dreams of another world are suppressed and concealed. Those with brooms and those with batons are two arms of the same beast. We don’t need to clean the façade of this society, the false face that hides all the ugly forms of oppression and exploitation on which it is founded: we need to demolish it.
Clara: And that ends our wrap up of the G20, thanks for listening!