Welcome to Hell: A Report From the Front Line of G20

by Novara Reporters

8 July 2017


Wednesday 5th

There are police checkpoints on all the major roads in and out of St Pauli and Sternschanze, the leftist districts at the heart of Hamburg. Helicopters fly overhead constantly, providing the backdrop to discussions on street corners and in parks. The patrol cars that are sent through the district don’t slow down for anything; they don’t want to come to a stop. Last night the cops attacked a street party with water cannons. ‘It was really just a party’, people say, ‘just a party’.

Tonight, 20,000 people follow ten truck-mounted sound systems through the heart of the district. The trucks are covered in slogans: No G20, Refugees Welcome, Still Not Loving Cops. The crowd slows down as they pass Rote Flora, the most famous squatted social centre in the city, and are greeted with a firework show from the roof. It feels a bit like a wedding disco. People of all generations and kinds are dancing and smiling.

As soon as the party leaves St Pauli, police numbers increase. Armoured personnel carriers and water cannons shadow the demonstration along side streets. Eventually, the trucks are stopped just in front of a residential squat. The occupants are waving five huge inflatable silver cubes from the roof. On the front of each they have written a letter: ‘A L L E S’ — everything. The police have drawn up their vans and cars across the road in an untidy barricade. Officers appear from every side road, polished white helmets already fitted.

The state opera is kicking out. Hundreds of well heeled audience members walk quietly out of the building to the sound of violins, and three hundred metres away the police and demonstrators look at each other. The sound trucks tell the demonstrators that this is the official end point. ‘But the official end isn’t the end of the fight against capital and the nation state…’ Chants echo up and down the road.

Thursday 6th

People keep pouring into the city, most are looking for somewhere to camp, but the camps themselves are in chaos. Some are legal, some have been attacked by the police. Some are both legal and have been attacked by the police. The camp in Altona is apparently home to 20,000 people. It’s only 20 something degrees, but it feels much hotter. An occupied city is hosting a carnival. The language of the graffiti is changing. Yesterday it was all German, but today there is French. ‘Macron, we will kick your ass in Hamburg too’.

An international anticapitalist demonstration is assembling at the fish market by the harbour under the slogan ’Welcome to Hell’. 12,000 people mill around, listening to music. A 1000 strong black bloc has assembled at the front of the demonstration, on a small road leading out of a square. The police are nowhere to be seen, until the bloc starts to move. They block the way forwards with lines of cops and four water cannons, before starting to slowly surround the entire demonstration. They refuse to let the demonstration move for an hour. The black bloc wait, calm, for the demonstration to begin. Then the police attack.

They smash into the side of the crowd, pinning demonstrators against the high wall behind them. They charge again and again, using kicks, punches, batons, and pepper spray to force people back. In desperation, the crowd start climbing the walls to escape. The water cannons move in and blast the top of the walls, hitting anyone climbing out of danger or trying to help. The police charge again against the crowd on the top of the wall, and push them towards a three metre drop on the other side. People start escaping over that, only to be charged again at the bottom. Those who fall (or are thrown) injure themselves as they land and then are injured again as the cops put the boot in. Mobs of twenty police roam the waterfront hunting anyone not already fleeing. The shattered remnants of the demo hide on the rocky beach below the embankment or huddle against walls. Water cannons are driven into the square at the back of the demonstration, and suddenly the police are attacking from the rear too. Bottles and flares fly back at the police as they advance, but the resistance is never coordinated.

The police don’t make arrests. They are happy to just beat anyone they can get their hands on, and then let them stumble away. Crowds gather around the paramedics. They are worried the police will attack them too. The floor is slippery with blood and phlegm.

Quickly the crowd moves back into the city, away from the waterfront. Half an hour after the police attack began, dispersed crowds have begun their own offensive. Cars are burning. People navigate towards the columns of smoke and begin to reorganise. Spontaneous demonstrations march back into the centre, defying the police and regrouping for the night to come.

Convoys of ten to 20 police vans charge backwards and forwards along the main roads. There are 20,000 police in the city but they can’t cope. The situation isn’t contained, it’s escalating. Fighting carries on until late in the night. St Pauli and Sternschanze are under occupation, thousands of cops have moved in. Then, early in the morning, the protestors launch another offensive. 30 police cars are on fire by the time the city wakes up. Altona, to the west, is already covered by plumes of smoke.

Friday 7th

The city is on strike. The habour has been locked down by 1000 demonstrators, the students have shut down their schools and colleges, and ‘colour the red zone’ actions have collided with the police across the centre. The police have called for reinforcements. They are overstretched, and have been unable to prevent both the economic heart of the city and the G20 coming to a grinding halt for hours. The strategy of aggression has only exacerbated the situation.

A ‘second wave’ demonstration meets at 3pm and moves towards the Elbphilharmonie concert hall by the edge of the harbour, where the G20 leaders are being serenaded on the roof. If they turned around and looked behind them they would see the spray of the water cannons, brought in to prevent the demonstration advancing any further. Some of the crowd have reached the roof of Landungsbruken train station and throw bottles down on the police. Others take a different route: boats set off across the harbour to try and reach the hall. But everyone fails.

Another assembly is called for 8pm. But between now and then dispersed groups are fighting all over the city. Attempts to blockade the leaders on their way out of the red zone become irrelevant when the police decide to use a fleet of military transport helicopters rather than cars; they don’t have the territorial control required to ensure safe passage for convoys. They are spending all their energy attempting to put the lid on the city and regain control. Lines of cops rush up the street pursuing one set of protestors, only to themselves be pursued by more protestors. The police convoys are breaking up – whereas they were once ten to twenty vehicles long, now vans race around in ones and twos, rocks bouncing off their windshields.

At 6pm the police make a big advance past St Pauli to the edge of Sternschanze. They are stopped at the junction of Stresmannstrasse and Schanzenstrasse by a crowd of 5000. A huge flow of people begins to move into Sternschanze to defend the district from the police advance. The crowd grows further. They are only a few hundred metres from the edge of the red zone. A critical mass cycle demonstration rides round and round the centre. It must be 4,000 strong. It passes to the north of Sternschanze at the same time as a police convoy trying to move south to reinforce the police there. The cyclists slow down to impede the cops, and immediately police squads jump out of their vans. Batons and fists clear the family demonstration eventually, but not as quickly as the cops want. A young man rides past and calls the police fascists, they respond by pushing him off his bike.

By sunset, Sternschanze is a war zone. The police have been forced back to the main roads in all directions. They begin to mass their forces on Max-Brauer Allee/Altonastrasse, Stresmannstrasse and Schanzenstrasse, abandoning any pretence of control of the triangle of small streets between them. This 2.3km perimeter is the front between cops and rioters. At key junctions a constant barrage of rocks and bottles is exchanged for water cannons and tear gas. Fires are lit all up and down the Schulterblatt, their smoke mixing with the tear gas to create a noxious smog.

Couples sit outside cafes having dinner and watching. Kids sit in a few small parks and drink. Banks are broken open. Any chain shop without anti-G20 messages on its window is looted. Rioters sing ‘wonderwall’. Two helicopters with spotlights circle overhead, pointing down at key barricades. Rota Flora, the social centre at the heart of the district, is now acting as field hospital for those injured in the clashes.

At about 1am, the police begin their assault on the encircled district. They attack from both sides of the Schulerblatt, aiming to cut the zone in half. Their progress is slow. They can hardly move forward at all on the west where a railway bridge allows protestors to force the police into a choke point. To the east, the police move faster, but are soon facing Molotov cocktails and attacks from the rooftops. The situation continues to escalate.

As soon as they have broken the zone in two, the police use water cannons and armoured vehicles to break through the lightly defended barricades at the northern tip of the triangle. Looters pour out of the supermarket there and are driven north.

The fighting over the final few streets is grim. Isolated demonstrators lead a last stand against an increasingly confident police force. Any rioter caught out now faces a savage beating, away from the eyes of the press. The number of arrests begins to creep upwards. Counter-terrorism forces armed with assault rifles and specialist urban warfare equipment are deployed. They are used to raid squats and other strong points. They soon establish a military dominance. By 4am, the district is back in the control of the state. The insurrection is over, for tonight.

Saturday 8th

The sound of helicopters is finally replaced by the sound of street sweepers. Sternschanze returns to normal. Today is the large NoG20 trade union demonstration. 200,000 gather in the city centre for what is sure to be the largest and calmest demonstration of the weekend. The riots are over.

Until the police attack. Again, relentlessly, they escalate, sending snatch squads into the crowd and trying to cut the demo in half. The organisers halt the march immediately. They won’t move on whilst the police freely attack. The situation seems to be degenerating. Helicopters are back in the sky. In Sternschanze, cops flood the streets and begin mass kettling bystanders. They then conduct full body searches and identity checks. En masse, people are banned from entering the district, under threat of arrest and detention. In response, residents come to the streets and begin to march against the police. This isn’t the ‘black bloc’, these are people who have spent the past few days under siege and who have run out of patience. They confront the cops, chanting ‘Haut ab’; get lost.


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