For three days, Hamburg was a city on lockdown. Closed roads, water cannons, barricades and 20,000 police marching from street to street in an effort to contain groups of violent demonstrators. Each movement was followed by a mocking “hup! hup! hup!” of black-clad protesters who’ve been causing mayhem during the Group of 20 (G20)—an international forum made up of 20 leading economies—burning cars, breaking windows and looting stores.
The chopping drone of helicopters above the city was constant, tracking the so-called “black bloc” members and relaying their whereabouts to ground forces. It was a days-long street battle, erupting mostly after dark between policemen and, at most, a few thousand far-left activists whose sole mission seemed to be giving a middle-finger to the police. All while the world’s leaders attempted to set the global agenda.
A Series of Escalating Protests
The choice to hold the G20 in a hotbed of left-wing militancy had many Hamburg residents livid. The meetings took place in the midst of the St. Pauli and Sternschanze neighborhoods, two of the most radically left-wing zones in Hamburg and home to FC St. Pauli, a famously left-wing football club whose masthead is the skull and crossbones.
“Of course you feel angry about what happened,” said Giorgio Ellero, owner of an Italian restaurant that was vandalized. “But the G20 shouldn't have happened in Hamburg. The mayor is responsible. He should have thought about whether it was right to have the G20 in Hamburg. Now the little people like us are the ones impacted. To me the G20 should not be in a big city, it should be somewhere like an island where people won't be as impacted."
The destruction was mostly limited to the neighborhoods surrounding the meetings. Fire streamed out of an IKEA, cars smoldered in the street, and shops were looted and smashed by road signs and paving stones pulled from the street to be thrown at police by masked demonstrators.
Those from the “black bloc” were bolstered by tens of thousands of mostly peaceful demonstrators and onlookers. As those clad in black chanted “All of Hamburg hates the police!”, some who lived in the area shouted back, “We’re for the police!” The series of increasingly violent protests left the rest of the city stunned into an eerie silence and left locals in disbelief.
“I don't see a connection anymore between lighting Golfs onfire and destroying little shops to fighting capitalism,” said one protester. “It’s too much of a stretch, some people just want to be violent. It’s a shame they put such a bad light on all the people protesting peacefully.”
Over the course of the week, more than 200 officers were injured by bricks and bottles and around 150 protesters were detained, while more than 100,000 people demonstrated in a series of protests. It began with the peaceful “Protestwelle” (wave of protest) on Sunday, followed by the aborted “Welcome to Hell” protest that was shut down as it started after some protesters refused to remove their face masks. The mood turned aggressive after, and groups of black bloc members started splintering off, causing mayhem on Friday night and early Saturday morning. A few streets over, however, huge peaceful crowds were dancing on the Reeperbahn to DJs blaring the Beatles, John Lennon and Lou Reed from the back of a truck. Beer was being handed out from shopping carts, joints passed around, and peace, love and nonviolence proclaimed on cardboard signs.
Saturday afternoon brought the mostly peaceful global solidarity protest bringing tens of thousands more to march in a display of dissatisfaction with capitalism and global politics.
“What’s wrong about G20?” asked Klemens Mrogenda, a mid-twenties Hamburg resident. “Useless violence on the street, useless results from our politicians. We need to invest in education to work on an enlightened society that understands the main issues we are facing at the moment. Climate change, poverty, loss of biodiversity and ruthless exploitation of both humans and resources.”
But the message they tried to send remained overshadowed by the riotous acts of a few.
The Business Behind the Barricades
Beyond the protests, the business of running 20 of the world’s biggest economies was taking place. And of course, newsfeeds were full of Trump.
Trump and Putin. Trump and Merkel. Trump and the other 19, especially concerning America’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement. After much rewording, a draft was reached that contained a general commitment to fighting climate change that “took note” of the United States' decision to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. The other 18 and the EU remained, for now.
Trump also met Putin for the first time and seemed to out alpha-male him with his well-studied handshakes and back pats. The two-and-a-half hour meeting between the pair may have even brought about a potential ceasefire in Syria, so let’s hope more came out of the conference than news that Ivanka sat in for her father during a meeting.
While Trump tweeted that law enforcement did a spectacular job and everyone felt safe, thanking Merkel for a “wonderful success… carried out beautifully,” the truth is Merkel will face a lot of fallout for hosting the G20 in a heavily populated city with a strong history of left-wing radicalism. Another flashpoint of unrest in an increasingly unstable world.
Photos and words by Jon Young.