Hamburg Clashes

A 'New Dimension' of Violence

Protesters gather near a burning barricade during demonstrations at the G20 summit in Hamburg
Protesters turned parts of Hamburg into a war zone Friday night. Did it have to come to this? Source: Reuters

When protesters decide to name one of their official marches “Welcome to Hell,” it’s probably a given that things are going to turn violent. And that was just one of the many anti-capitalist marches in the past few days that have left parts of Hamburg in flames.

With populism on the rise and much of the western world’s public frustrated and out-of-sync on issues like global trade, such violence was to be expected at the G20 summit, which included US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

And yet, German Chancellor Angela Merkel could face accusations in Germany for insisting on hosting the summit in Hamburg, the country’s second largest city, rather than a smaller town or island that may have been more easily defensible.

Nearly 500 police officers were injured, including 476 who required medical treatment after being struck by flying objects in the riots and two helicopter pilots who were flashed in the eyes with lasers. Police also said that 186 people were detained and a further 225 people arrested in what one spokesman described as a “new dimension” of violence on the part of protesters. Shops were looted, cars and wooden pallets and trash cans set ablaze. Police fired water cannons and pepper spray at masked protesters, who were hurling bottles and stones. Many shops in the city decided to close their doors Saturday rather than risk more violence.

“These are not demonstrators, these are criminals.”

Thomas de Maizière, German interior minister

Ms. Merkel condemned the violence on Saturday and pledged federal aid for Hamburg and those affected to rebuild. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said: “The brutality with which these extremely violence-prone thugs acted yesterday and the day before is incomprehensible and appalling. These are not demonstrators, these are criminals.”

Mr. de Maizière lamented that the wanton destruction of property by 1,500-odd thugs had undermined the goals of tens of thousands who were using their right to peaceful protest. A number of such major protests took place Saturday afternoon – one called “G20 – not welcome.” Despite some isolated clashes with riot police, these protests appeared to be proceeding largely peacefully.

The violence first erupted Thursday night during a march, called “Welcome to Hell,” attended by 13,000 people. A total of 76 police officers were injured during the protest, including three that required hospital treatment. The clashes continued – with even more vigor – on Friday night. In one of the worst case, a neighborhood supermarket was looted and set ablaze by some 500 demonstrators.

Protesters gather near a burning barricade during demonstrations at the G20 summit in Hamburg
Some 20,000 police were called into Hamburg to help deal with the demonstrations. More than 200 were injured. Source: Reuters

Could all this have been prevented? Mr. de Maizière defended the decision to host the G20 summit in Hamburg in the first place, saying such a meeting “could only take place in a big city” because of the thousands of delegates and journalists. Sources say Berlin considered a variety of options – including even holding the meeting on a cruise ship, which was rejected because of fire safety concerns.

But others are not so sure. “The state has a responsibility to guarantee security and order. But whether the city of Hamburg was a well-advised choice must be questioned,” Hans-Peter Uhl, a spokesman on domestic affairs for the Christian Social Union, a sister party to Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

To be sure, Hamburg isn’t the first big city to be chosen for such leaders’ summits. Previous venues have included Washington DC, Seoul, St. Petersburg, London and Toronto. Nor is it the first summit to face protests that took a turn for the worse. The US city of Seattle, which faced horrendous scenes back in 1999 during a World Trade Organization summit, might take issue with Hamburg police’s description of this summit having a “new dimension” of violence.

Ms. Merkel’s choice also carried special symbolism. Hamburg holds Germany’s largest port and the second-largest port in Europe – a signal of the importance of free trade at a time when Mr. Trump and others have veered towards protecting their domestic markets. Hamburg’s own mayor Olaf Schulz also backed the decision and said protesters shouldn’t be allowed to dictate where world leaders meet.

Yet with the pictures of street battles dominating headlines, the symbolism Hamburg represented has likely been lost. And with Germany facing federal elections in September, the violence and police response is likely to remain a hot political topic here over the coming weeks. Tempers are already flaring, with some left-leaning groups accusing police of a heavy-handed response, though others on the left came to their aid.

“It makes me sick to read everything that people are writing, relativizing violence and defending the perpetrators and their motives,” Michael Roth, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, tweeted Saturday. The anti-globalization group Attac also distanced itself, in a statement saying it had nothing to do with the violence Friday night.

Some 20,000 police officers from around the country have been sent to Hamburg to deal with the 100,000 protesters who were expected to gather in the city during the two-day summit. Security forces established a security ring to prevent protesters from reaching any of the summit venues.

For Ms. Merkel’s domestic political fortunes, it may not necessarily help that President Trump came to her defense, praising her organization of the summit despite the protests outside the venue. Given Mr. Trump’s own mixed record in dealing with protesters in the United States, this might be the only area she didn’t want to reach a deal with the US president.


This article was updated on July 10, 2015, to include the latest numbers of police treated for injuries and those arrested. 

Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt staff in Hamburg and Berlin contributed to this story. To contact the authors:

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