This week friends and supporters of Federico Annibale, the SOAS student arrested at the anti-austerity ‘Blockupy’ demonstration in March, travelled to Frankfurt to attend his trial which begins on 3 June. Charged with “violation of public order” for his participation in the protest, Federico has been detained without trial for 11 weeks. Here Maham Hashmi offers a personal reflection on events in Frankfurt on 18 March in light of Federico’s detention.
Federico was arrested on 18 March, and has been in pre-trial detention ever since. Even the most progressive institutions don’t like to be challenged, and generally they only like to be challenged within clearly set, manageable boundaries. What we found in Frankfurt was that even the broad framework of ‘peaceful’ protest was not acceptable to the ruling elites of Europe. From the moment we arrived until the moment we left, the city was in lockdown in a way that I had not even seen for the G8 protests in the 2000s.
Despite having been to a protest in Germany before, it felt like something quite different this time. It appears that the European Central Bank (ECB) is intolerant of all challenges, even in the most liberal sense. The ‘red zone’ around the building was nearly a mile wide. No one was allowed to even see the shiny new ECB building, let alone be in touching distance. Austerity, it would seem, is not up for discussion.
Rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, batons and horse charges are all aspects of policing we have become aware of. The recent threats by the Metropolitan Police to progress towards a more paramilitary force if police funding cuts go ahead brought a chill to my spine because I have now seen what happens when you unleash paramilitary forces on the streets of cities.
The first time I encountered them was in Hamburg at a Christmas procession. I was following a float from the pavement which I had bumped into whilst browsing a Christmas market. The rank and file of gun-laden Schwarzenegger-esque robo-cops standing along the route somewhat killed the Christmas spirit. Then again last summer I was in Hamburg where I decided to go to a migrant rights demo and for the whole day the peaceful march was followed by the police and two water canons. The fear they instilled through their militarised presence was bad enough, but it was in Frankfurt that I realised the full potential for violence they had.
Combined with the state apparatus and psychological violence, this ruins lives. This brings us to the reason why I felt it important to write this reflection. As we head towards a new era of right-wing policies, protecting oneself is becoming of paramount importance. It’s not just about protesting abroad; the same applies for protesting in our home countries too. The state has powers hidden away in legal jargon from previous centuries that are only realised in our worst nightmares. We must take protest prosecutions seriously because every arrest at a demonstration is the state’s attempt to instill fear, to deter protests, and to ultimately outlaw protesting.
The only way we can do this is to protect ourselves, and to learn and use the law to our advantage. Masking up needs to become a norm instead of a minority act – it needs to become a show of solidarity. Black bloc should continue to be a tactic and not a section of a demonstration, which is what has dangerously happened in England. I recently saw an interview with a photojournalist about the precautions she takes for demos and in some ways protestors and the people organising protests need to do the same: investing in masks and helmets so people going to protests have ways to defend themselves from the mindless thugs who police them.
Another lesson learned in the aftermath of Frankfurt is that we have something they have not yet taken away. It’s the power of solidarity; the overwhelming show of support we have received, particularly from students and activists worldwide, has been amazing. Just on Facebook we have received support from over 50 countries. The campaign to #FreeFede has reached the four corners of the world and then some.
This should serve to remind us that our struggle is transnational, and that neoliberalism pollutes absolutely everywhere. It has also made us aware of how solidarity isn’t just a word, and that people are facing similar and sometimes harsher regimes and we need to do more solidarity work. Even if it is taking a photo of #FreeFede written on your hand with the background of a trade union demo in Bogota, the idea that people are watching gives the people campaigning the strength to keep up when it gets tough and lonely.
Although I’m aware the situation in Germany seems bad, it would be hypocritical to make it look like we in the UK are the ‘civilised’ ones or that the problem is isolated. Black people in this country have faced pre-trial detention, extradition, the revocation of their nationalities and much more. Students have faced years of legal battles, and people have done time in prison for petty crimes when the state chose to cover its failings by persecuting people. We live in a state where people do time in prison for inciting riots that never happened. As we await the day of Federico’s trial, we travel to Frankfurt knowing that we are fighting against an unjust system that isn’t fit for purpose.