Hamburg: a right‑on riot

For the past few days, my hometown of Hamburg has been plastered across the global media. And not just because of the G20 summit that took place in the city. Images of street fights, burning cars and police brutality have come to define the demonstrations against the summit – the ostensible purpose of which was to express distaste for global inequality and climate change.

One of the protests, titled ‘Welcome to Hell’, drew over 12,000 protesters. Among them were around 1,000 anarchists who clashed with the 20,000-strong police force. The clashes were simultaneously a violent demonstration of power and authority on the state’s side, and a mess of purpose and meaning on the protesters’ side.

In order to make some sense of these unusually violent protests, it is important to understand Hamburg’s particular political context, and how it shaped the events and how they were perceived.

Hamburg has been the German centre for the anti-fascist ‘autonomous left’ since the Eighties. Anarchists have become part of the city’s self image, antifa activism part of the cultural landscape. This is evident in the rise in support for the St Pauli football club, a spiritual home for many antifa sympathisers, which serves as a cool alternative to the supposedly backward working-class clubs like Hamburger SV.

Once a year, usually on 1 May, anarchist groups fight the police as part of a time-honoured tradition. The police, in turn, use this to affirm their power. This kind of ritualistic violence, peculiar to Hamburg, has given a radical sheen, an air of danger, to the more nebulous whole of the G20 protests. The broader protests last week in fact fit into a different, distinctly new category of protest.

This new form of protest has emerged in recent months, following the Brexit vote, the failure of the EU in the face of the migrant crisis and the shock election of Trump. These events have revealed the weakness of the zombie, consensus-led politics of the past 20 years. And the protests reflect the panic that they have stirred among right-thinking types.

These new protests are little more than general expressions of disgust. Think of the Women’s March or the March for Science following the election of the allegedly anti-reason, misogynistic Trump. Both were driven not by any coherent political idea, but a collective rejection of a world that, protesters think, is spinning out of control. This amorphous ‘resistance’ is a form of acting out – an impotent, formal exercise lacking any real insight or purpose.

And the vagueness of this type of protest lends itself to a vagueness of interpretation. Hamburg is a prime example. The discussion of the protests has descended into point-scoring on all sides. Right-wingers condemn the left-wing activists, while left-wingers use the police overreaction as vindication. Meanwhile, the citizens of Hamburg, NIMBYists to the core, complain that their city has been invaded by world events.

There is no one to root for in these riots. It is impossible to sympathise with the anarchists, bent on burning cars and destroying supermarkets as ends in themselves. But the rest of the protesters, with their elementary understanding of ‘the issues’ and infantile sloganeering, also earn little sympathy. The police, the strong-arm of the state, have revealed themselves as insecure and appallingly indiscriminate.

No one has come out of this mess with much dignity intact.

Maren Thom is a writer based in London.

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