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Memo From Hamburg: Violence at G-20 Tests the Limits of Expression in Germany

“These were not demonstrators, they were criminal chaos makers,” who rampaged out of control, attacked property and people, looted and burned, the interior minister Thomas de Maizière said Monday. “Chaos makers from Germany and Europe cannot lay claim to political motives,” he said, adding that they are not the pacifists some on the left say they are.


More than 400 people were either arrested or detained during demonstrations at the G-20 summit. Credit Clemens Bilan/European Pressphoto Agency

“They are contemptible, violent extremists, just like the neo-Nazis are, and the Islamic terrorists,” he said, adding that anyone who hurls concrete sidewalk slabs at police officers could be accused of attempted murder.

Before the G-20, hundreds of would-be protesters were turned back at Germany’s borders under special controls imposed in recent weeks, Mr. de Maizière said. At least a few hundred demonstrators who did make it to Hamburg came from elsewhere in Europe and had smuggled equipment into Germany as early as two years ago. Their actions were “organized, prepared and orchestrated,” Mr. de Maizière said.

Among the protesters themselves, there was recognition that no one sought violence, but, at the same time, veteran activists were aware that trouble could erupt. Hamburg has long been home to a firmly established community of some 8,000 leftists and anarchists.

“Of course we hope the protest is peaceful,” said Caral Gottas, a member of the Attac group that helped to organize the largest march last Saturday. “It should be peaceful — that’s what they decided a few months ago.

“What happened last night was not part of our plan,” she said, referring to the violence and looting that took place last Friday night. “It was irresponsible, stupid people doing this. We want to inform people about the topics and don’t want to burn down our own city.”

Most of the demonstrators over three days in Hamburg were indeed peaceful. Michael Ferck, who took his three children, ages 13, 11 and 9, to a small march on Saturday, said that he wanted them to learn how to make their voices heard.


Protests in Hamburg as G-20 Summit Begins

Protests continued in Hamburg, Germany, as world leaders met for the Group of 20 summit.

Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »

“This type of protest also shows the world that demonstrating peacefully is possible,” Mr. Ferck said. “It makes them think about what values to stand for.”

Germany’s courts have issued many rulings over the years regulating peaceful protests in ways that were never contained in the Basic Law, said Christian Pestalozza, a law professor at Berlin’s Free University.

The courts generally preserve the right to protest and often side with demonstrators’ demands, he added. Protesters in Hamburg who demanded and eventually won from the court the right last week to camp in open spaces in the city — and even to install bathrooms — had no automatic constitutional right to do that.

“Nothing of that is in the Basic Law,” Professor Pestalozza said in a telephone interview. “People in Hamburg who were not taking part in the protest had their daily lives affected by such camps but no say in whether they were permitted.”

Since the violence, analysts and politicians have raced to offer alternative explanations. Some have suggested having all of the G-20 summits in New York, where the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting attracts world leaders each September, while others have recommended holding the G-20 in more isolated locations.

Professor Pestalozza put forth another option: “You don’t move the event, but perhaps instead you move the protest,” he said.


Protesters facing off with police officers after the G-20 summit in Hamburg. During the violence, 476 police officers and an unknown number of protesters were injured, the authorities said. Credit Massimo Percossi/European Pressphoto Agency

Authorities said 476 police officers and an unknown number of protesters were injured during the violence in Hamburg. More than 400 people were either arrested or detained.

By comparison, more than 1,000 demonstrators were held after huge protests in the German city of Rostock in 2007 during the Group of 8 summit held nearby on the Baltic Sea. Very few of those protesters who were detained served any kind of jail sentence, said Simon Teune, a researcher at Berlin’s Technical University who studies protests.

The interior minister, Mr. de Maizière, who is a Christian Democrat, and Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat mayor of Hamburg, have both called for the often lenient courts to issue tough sentences for anybody charged with offenses in Hamburg.

And for once, the two mainstream parties of the center-right and center-left refrained from pointing fingers at each other, because each was involved in planning and hosting the Hamburg summit. (Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was born in Hamburg, is seeking a fourth term in the September elections, where polls currently show that she would beat the Social Democrats handily.)

Commentators noted that the political miscalculations and the policing difficulties virtually canceled each other out in a series of events that authorities had not foreseen. Last week, Mr. Scholz had assured everyone that the Hamburg summit would go off smoothly, just like an earlier festival celebrating the city’s history as a Hanseatic port.

When protests grew out of control in Hamburg, it was a double disaster, wrote Heribert Prantl in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Though Ms. Merkel made meager gains for world unity in keeping the G-20 united on all issues except climate change, the authorities could not balance the right to free expression with the need for maintaining order.

“The police have two duties in circumstances like these: They must prevent violence, and protect the basic right to demonstrate,” Mr. Prantl wrote. “In Hamburg at the G-20, they unfortunately failed at both.”

Source: NYT > World

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