The famously protest-averse president will be attending the G-20 summit in a city known for its squatters and May Day riots. It could get ugly.
- By Lukas HermsmeierLukas Hermsmeier is an independent journalist from Berlin based in New York. He reports from the United States for German publications including Die Welt, Tagesspiegel, and der Freitag.
This Friday and Saturday, world leaders will assemble at the Hamburg Messe und Congress, a convention center in the heart of the St. Pauli neighborhood of Germany’s second-largest city.
Just down the road — a 10-minute walk away — stands the Rote Flora, a theater-turned-squat house that is now the spiritual heart of Hamburg’s anti-capitalist left. The building was constructed in 1888 and has been, at various times, a theater, a concert venue, a cinema, and a department store. But in 1987, plans to convert the building again, this time into a theater for crowd-pleasing musicals, met with widespread protest from an alliance of residents and radicals. They took over the empty building, squatting in it in protest, and there they remain to this day. The building has seen police raids, street battles, and infiltration by government spies in the city’s efforts to take it back in the decades since. The last major standoff saw more than 7,000 people protest a fresh eviction attempt in 2013 under the slogan “The City Belongs to Everyone!” Riots ensued, and, in response, the Hamburg Senate declared the St. Pauli and Sternschanze neighborhoods “danger zones” and implemented a policy of stop and frisk and curfews. In one incident, police confiscated a toilet brush from a local resident; it soon became a satirical symbol of defiance.
When Donald Trump goes to Hamburg this week, the famously protest-averse president will be attending a forum — the G-20 — that regularly brings out mass demonstrations by anti-capitalist and anarchist groups, regardless of whom the U.S. president is at the time. He will be attending having recently pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement and will be joined by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a particularly hated foe of the German left — two more ingredients that also would likely bring out large-scale protests, regardless of the choice of host city.
But this year’s summit is explosive for one other reason: Hamburg itself — a city with a noted history of fierce leftist dissent.
“The government’s decision to bring the G-20 into the center of Hamburg is risky,” said Sven Brux, the head of organization and security for Hamburg’s famed football club, FC St. Pauli, the beloved team of punks and leftists. “Some people on the left are reading it as a declaration of war.” The team’s home venue, Millerntor Stadium, sits less than a mile south of the convention center; there, the football club plans to host an “Anti-G-20” amateur tournament and an “alternative media center” during the period the forum is in town.
In several speeches over the course of the last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was born in Hamburg, emphasized the city’s role as the “gateway to the world,” due to its gigantic harbor. She called it a “beacon of free trade” and proudly mentioned Hamburg’s new architectural marvel, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which sits on the Elbe River and which, along with the Messe, will serve as one of the venues for the summit. And it’s true that Hamburg, Germany’s media hub and largest port (and the third largest in Europe), was likely chosen for logistical reasons: Like any major city, it has a large convention center and sufficient transportation infrastructure and lodging. What Merkel left out — unsurprisingly — was Hamburg’s long activist history, which continues to inform the city’s political and social terrain.
By the 19th century, the sheer number of people working in and around Hamburg’s port had made it a focal point for union organizing and leftist politics. In October 1923, Hamburg was the site of an attempted communist revolution inspired by events in Russia. Workers and members of Germany’s Communist Party, led by famed politician Ernst Thälmann, took up arms and stormed two dozen police precincts. Hamburg was supposed to be the starting point for a revolution that would eventually go Germany-wide — but the insurrection failed. By the time the so-called “Hamburg Uprising” was over, at least 100 people had died. Thälmann remains a controversial character to this day, celebrated by some as a model anti-fascist and denounced by others as an anti-democrat.
Although Berlin was the center of Germany’s student protests in the 1960s, one of the core slogans of the movement was born in Hamburg. In 1967, students from Hamburg University protested Germany’s postwar institutions, which remained staffed with former Nazis. They displayed a banner emblazoned with the phrase “Unter den Talaren Muff von 1000 Jahren” (“Under the Gowns the Musty Stench of a Thousand Years”), a reference to Adolf Hitler’s ambitions for a Thousand-Year Reich. The phrase quickly became a rallying cry across the country.
In 1986, only a couple of months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an anti-nuclear demonstration in Hamburg led to the largest mass arrest in postwar German history. Nearly 900 people were held in custody for more than 13 hours, with food, water, and toilet access deliberately withheld: The tactic was dubbed a “Hamburg kettle” and remains a feared police tactic today.
Since the 1980s, activism in Hamburg has been largely animated by struggles over property and gentrification. Anarchists and police have long battled over squatted houses along Hafen Street in the St. Pauli quarter, and for decades now there have reliably been mass demonstrations in the city on May Day that see confrontation between protesters and security forces.
The possibility for massive disruption of this weekend’s events already looms large — as do the odds of ugly clashes. Police expect 100,000 protesters from all over the world to attend, 8,000 of whom, they warn, have been deemed radical and “ready to use violence.” Twenty-seven different protest groups have obtained permits: Some plan to protest the G-20 as a tool for neoliberalism; others are rallying around Trump’s climate change denial and nationalism; still others are focused on Erdogan, whose detention of a German journalist and efforts to influence German Turks draw particular ire. (Hamburg rapper Johnny Mauser, a hero of the local leftist scene, even wrote a rousing track, “Welcome to Hell — Hamburg 2017,” for the occasion: “Erdogan, this bastard, is reason enough for everyone who doesn’t fear jail to come to Hamburg,” he raps.)
Meanwhile, organizers on the very far left aim to bring “the biggest black bloc that has even been seen” to the city under the same “Welcome to Hell” banner. The black bloc, an anarchist tactic in which participants wear masks and all black for anonymity and aesthetic force, has been a mainstay of the German protest landscape for decades, especially on the yearly May Day marches. Videos with calls for mass disruption of the summit have circulated online for some months. In one, a voice-over announces: “I’m a walking time bomb, and I’m going to explode.” In response, government and police officials are turning the city into a fortress. They’ve declared 15 square miles around the convention center, spanning much of the city, off-limits for demonstrators. This seems unlikely to cool tempers: What authorities have called counterterrorism measures, protest organizers have dubbed a “democracy-free zone.” An extra jail with room for 400 people has been erected especially for what will be, according to a police department statement, “the biggest operation in the history of Hamburg’s police.”
In the weeks leading up to the summit, radical leftist groups have already claimed responsibility for several arson attacks on police vehicles and railway tracks, as well as incidents of property damage and theft as a preemptive strike against the coming summit. On Sunday, riot police stormed and razed a protest camp in central Hamburg, where 600 activists were staying in preparation for the summit.
Does Trump know what he’s in for? It’s not clear. The U.S. president has gone out of his way to avoid protests against him in the past: His state visit to Britain has been put on indefinite hold mainly due to the promise of large-scale demonstrations, and there were reports last week that if he did visit, it would be a last-minute decision to minimize the chances of activist groups mobilizing in time; he’s largely steered clear of his hometown of New York, in part because of the potential for disruption in a city where there are still periodic protests in front of Trump Tower.
But come Friday, he will be in Hamburg. The flags bearing the skull and crossbones logo of FC St. Pauli, the banner of leftists across the city, are already hanging from windows ready to welcome him.
Photo credit: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images