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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

G20 protest in Hamburg more carnival than revolution 

No one expected the protests to remain peaceful and, given the intermittently violent build-up to the G20 summit, the scepticism was amply justified

Activists from Oxfam wear masks depicting some of the world leaders attending the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
Activists from Oxfam wear masks depicting some of the world leaders attending the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

HAMBURG // As thousands of anti-capitalism protesters, including students, 20-somethings and people long beyond either stage of life, paraded through the Saint Pauli area of Germany’s second largest city, the overwhelming mood was more carnival than revolution.

But that was on Wednesday. More mass protests were staged on Thursday to coincide with the arrival in Hamburg of the United States president Donald Trump and are due to continue until the G20 summit ends on Saturday.

No one - least of all the more militant of the demonstrators - was expecting opposition to the gathering of world leaders to remain peaceful. Given the intermittently violent build-up to the G20 summit, which begins on Friday, the scepticism was amply justified.

At the Maharaja Indian restaurant, staff generously nodded through a stream of police officers and demonstrators asking, unfailingly with politeness, for permission to use the toilets.

“If they charged a euro a time, they’d be millionaires or, at least, rich enough,” said one grateful young officer.

The slogans emblazoned on motorised floats or hand-held posters ranged from moderately amusing – an appeal to the police: “You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit” – to unrepeatable vulgarity.

Plenty were merely functional: “Shut down the logistics of capital”, or the hated word “capitalism” with a thumbs-down image beneath it.

Many of the demonstrators also held bottles of beer in their hands, the loathing of business not always extending to the products of capitalist brewers. But the spirits were exuberant, not threatening.

At the Welcome to Hell protesters' camp in a small park, which is a brisk walk from the summit venue, one activist said police had reacted “harshly” as if wanting to make a show of strength.

All around Wednesday’s procession, side streets were filled with lines of police vans and flashing blue lights. The officers seemed relaxed and approachable as they sipped cans of soft drinks, but in many cases with batons drawn and visible for use at short notice. Vehicles used to disperse unruly crowds with powerful water canon were also evident.

There were reports of minor skirmishes and at least one arrest at the end of the evening as police blocked further progress by the parade. Overnight, several cars at a Porsche dealership were damaged by fire amid suspicions of a link with extremist elements.

German police chiefs have said the more violent demonstrators could have secretly stashed weapons, including knives, baseball bats and fire extinguishers filled with inflammable liquid. Dangerous objects, including ball bearings, have already been seized, and officers argue it is unrealistic to demand a softer approach with so many people mingling with peaceful protesters and intent on causing serious trouble.

A group calling itself Shutdown G20 has reportedly admitted responsibility for attacks on railway tracks using what Germany’s interior ministry police called “unconventional explosive and incendiary devices”.

Welcome to Hell has a professionally produced website packed with advice on how protesters should expect police to act and how to respond.

Detailed analysis is given of police anti-riot tactics, including the practice - common in other western countries - of “kettling” demonstrators, confining them to a secured area and arresting any who attempt to break out.

One theme adopted by the more militant protest leaders urges supporters to use their weight of numbers to “kettle” the summit, hampering movement in or out of its venue, the Hamburg Messe and Congress Centre.

The biggest rally, on Saturday, threatens to present the greatest security headache to police.

“It always seems peaceful, then kicks off,” says Jurgen, a Hamburg taxi driver. “They play cat and mouse games with the police. It’s murder for us; you can hardly move around the city for all the police road blocks.

“Why couldn’t they just hold these summits away from cities on remote islands?”

The risk of disturbances, from isolated outbreaks to full-scale rioting, will persist until the summit ends.

Among the many demonstrators expressing opposition to violence, Julia Kruger, who lives in Saint Pauli and works at a kindergarten, tried to articulate her own pressing reasons for being involved.

“Capitalism? Yes, I hate it. It does not serve the interests of all the people.”

So what should replace it?

“A system that brings together socialism and something new, the sort of thing we are talking about a lot in Germany – and also in France – where people earn a certain amount of money whether they work or do not work,” said Ms Kruger.

And the US president, Donald Trump? “I hate him – he’s crazy.”

Ms Kruger offers no support for violence on the streets or terrorism, but says the West’s response to ISIL “is wrong because it does not properly address the problems or discover why young people become radicalised”.

For most residents, the departure of world leaders over the weekend probably cannot come soon enough. They hope their city does not come to regret the insistence of one of its most famous products, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, that staging G20 would show Hamburg could live with protest.