Reflections on Hamburg G20 July 2017: A conversation between Phoebe Cooke and Nisha Damji

Originally from the UK, Nisha Damji is a Hamburg-based refugee solidarity and anti-racist activist. Follow Nisha on Twitter @NishaDamji

Phoebe Cooke is a freelance journalist from the UK. Phoebe is spending three months travelling around Germany reporting on the political landscape ahead of the federal election. Follow her on Twitter @PhoebeCooke

Phoebe: Could you tell me what involvement you had in the anti-G20 demonstrations?

Nisha: I was at the “Welcome to Hell” demonstration at the Fischmarkt. While I am active in the refugee solidarity movement, I didn’t go with any particular political group. I live in the area and went there with neighbours, friends and my partner.

I also attended “Solidarity Without Borders”, the main demonstration on the Saturday. And I was at the party in Arrivati Park afterwards, again with neighbours and friends.

PC: Why is it important that people have the right to protest?

ND: It’s incredibly important to exercise, or at least attempt to exercise, my right to freedom of assembly. I also recognise that this right is limited, is a privilege and is not accessible to everyone equally. There are many people who have barriers to attending demonstrations such as older people, those with health problems and disabilities and people without regular status.

With this in mind, migrants, refugees, otherwise undocumented people and activists that work alongside them formed a coalition in order to draw attention to issues on the G20 from their perspective. This collective, We Are Here, organised a demonstration in the run-up to the summit to ensure that the people who are on the sharp end of decisions taken by the G20 were able to make their voices heard. This demonstration was particularly important because institutional racism and racial profiling makes it incredibly difficult for young Black men, in particular, to walk freely around Hamburg on a day-to-day basis without being harassed by the police. The additional controls placed upon people during the G20 compounded those difficulties.

The We Are Here demonstration passed without incident and was well attended by people from a range of marginalised groups and nationalities. The speeches were made in a number of different community languages and well as colonial languages. The demonstration was lively, colourful and the speakers had an incredibly strong message: migrant and refugee communities are a part of Hamburg and they are here to stay.

Despite having democratic rights to public assembly in many self-proclaimed progressive democracies, these rights aren't available to equally to all of us.

PC: Why do you oppose the G20?

ND: There are some serious issues with the G20 and these issues have been cited by many critics and theorists.

For example the lack of representation of African countries. Bar South Africa, there are no African countries within the G20, yet the decisions made each year at the summit have an effect on the safety, lives and livelihoods of African people. It is unfair and unjust that large swathes of the world are not properly represented and that huge decisions are taken that are very often not in the interests of the people that are subject to those decisions.

It was particularly galling that Ivanka Trump took her father's place at a meeting on health and migration on the continent of Africa. It is absurd that the nations who are directly affected by these discussions are not equal parties within the G20 yet the child of Donald Trump gets a seat at the table.

While some African countries have minor unofficial representation through regional groups or groups such as Global Governance Group, this is far from adequate.

Moreover, the comments made by Macron at the summit highlights the racist and paternalistic nature of the G20 as an institution. Macron remarked that Africa has “civilisational” problems and refers to the continent as a place where women “still have seven to eight children” each. Not only is this grossly overstated, it also betrays a colonial mindset and plays into racialised fears of invasion.

PC: Did you witness any examples of police brutality?

ND: The actions of the police at both of the demonstrations I attended were nothing short of a disgrace. At the Fischmarkt on Thursday, I was one of thousands of people who were forced to run away from the police as they fired water cannon at us. I then narrowly escaped being bludgeoned by a police officer wielding a baton as I climbed a wall to escape the officers who suddenly charged through a crowd of peaceful, and drenched, demonstrators. The crowd included women, children and disabled people. It was only due to my partner quickly pulling me to safety that I missed out on the beating that one of my fellow protesters received in my stead.

On Saturday, many people were relaxing with friends in Arrivati Park and the surrounding streets following the “Solidarity Without Borders” demonstration. It felt like a normal Saturday night in St Pauli after a home game, possibly with a few more people than you'd usually expect. A friend had been dancing to Hey Jude with barefoot, dreadlocked hippies. I was looking for my neighbour when suddenly the police started to advance down Stresemann Strasse. My two friends and I stepped back into a doorway along with a group of other people. The police ordered us to move further up the street which we did, but we were then met with another line of police who wouldn't let us through - we were kettled. The first line of police then ran towards us shouting, and the second line, looking quite confused, moved out of the way so we could flee. I was surprised to suddenly realise that I and many others had our hands up. I had my hands up as I was running away from the police. They were coming after me, shouting at me and pushing me repeatedly. I was terrified and later indignant. I’m still indignant, we shouldn't have had to have our hands up.

I am disappointed that the police are being rewarded for their actions with a concert. They have also been offered discounts on shopping goods by a number of retailers in the city and are being offered free entry to a variety of tourist attractions such as the city zoo. It seems these business owners regards the actions of the police as a job well done. I wonder how many of them have heard first hand about the violence and brutality meted out by the officers they praise.

PC: Politicians and press have been busy contrasting the “good” peaceful protests and the “bad” violent ones. Do you think this distinction is helpful?

The police failed to make this distinction over the weekend. Their violence was indiscriminate.

As far as the press and politicians are concerned, this distinction is nothing new. I have seen this distinction play out in media representation of demonstrators and activists since I first started attending demonstrations in London in the 1990s. And it was not new then either.

If you were to carry out a textual analysis on the representation of left-wing demonstrators in the media, the same keywords and phrases crop up time and again. These are phrases such as hardcore, anarchists, militant, black-clad and violent minority.

It's widely acknowledged that this repeated focus has well thought out and dangerous functions, such as causing divisions and weakening movements of resistance, the justification of police brutality and softening up the public for infringements on our civil liberties and the introduction and widening powers under increasingly draconian laws.

As reported by the Guardian, Merkel’s chief of staff Peter Altmaier has said the government are considering closing down the Rote Flora as a result of the demonstrations and what the government perceives to be its role in those demonstrations. The Rote Flora has been a source of great annoyance to politicians for many years and this would be the perfect excuse to do away with it once and for all. In my view, the role of the Flora is being overplayed to this end.

Many of the people I saw being brutalised over the weekend were just ordinary young people, even tourists. Going back to the the Flora, the centre hosts regular left events in Hamburg, and closing it down would be an attempt to clamp down on legitimate dissent.

The discussion around closing the Flora and other left-wing centres comes in addition to the proposed introduction of a European-wide register of activists and is a further assault on our rights to assemble and demonstrate.

PC: What do you think of the summit being held in Hamburg?

ND: The Bild reported that German justice minister, Heiko Maas said “Germany has reached a historic high point in terms of politically-motivated violence” as a response to the weekend’s event.

I'm quite cynical about Hamburg as a choice for the location of this summit and I know that others share my cynicism. Given Hamburg’s radical, left-wing history it has been argued that a level of resistance and repression was to be expected. Some have even argued that given Hamburg’s reputation as the home of the Black Bloc that holding the summit in here was a provocation, a potentially very useful provocation.

PC: Finally, in your view, how successful were the protests overall in showing opposition to G20 and the status quo?

ND: Thousands of people were on the streets of Hamburg to make their voices heard and there are millions of other people across the globe who believe that another world is not only possible but that it is necessary.

The many actions and demonstrations that took place over the weekend weren't just a one off, they were the culmination of months of hard work by ordinary people who have had enough.

The multitude of community organisers, grassroots activists and other individuals who make up left-wing, anti-racist and solidarity movements will continue the work that we do to fight for a better world.

In the words of Angela Y. Davis: “Sometimes we have to do the work, even though we don't yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it's actually going to be possible.”

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