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John Riceburg: Hamburg on the Barricades

More than 7000 people wanted to demonstrate in defence of the occupied house Rote Flora in Hamburg. But the procession was laid to rest after it had marched only a few meters.

As an Xmas treat, John Riceburg is taking the Berlin Blog on an Ausflug to Hamburg. What transpired there could have happened just as easily in Berlin.

Last Saturday, December 21 – one weekend before the holidays – Hamburg saw one of the biggest riots in recent years. The tabloid press has been repeating claims by the police that the disturbances were the work of a few thousand traveling hooligans (Reisechaoten) who enjoy violence for violence’s sake. Actual reporters, in contrast, using video material from the scene, have shown that it was the hooligans in white helmets who attacked a peaceful demonstration.

But let’s start at the beginning. The old Flora Theater in Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel was occupied in November of 1989 and turned into Die Rote Flora, a centre for non-commercial culture and left-wing politics in the harbour city. The property was sold to the realty speculator Klausmartin Kretschmer in 2001 – with a contract acknowledging the building was being used by squatters. In 2013, Kretschmer announced that he wants to evict the users and build a six-story concert hall. He set a deadline for December 20.

I’ve already shown what happens to former squats after evictions. Nothing better should be expected on the Elbe. “The city belongs to everyone!” was the motto for more than 7000 people demonstrating for the Rote Flora and the Lampedusa refugees on December 21. The police mobilized several thousand officers and declared the entire city centre to a “danger zone” where they could stop, search and expel anyone without reason.

The demonstration started at 3:10pm, along a route that had been approved by the city. After just a few meters it was stopped. Soon the police were attacking the front rows with fists, batons, pepper spray and giant water cannons. “Stones had been thrown at police from a bridge,” a police spokesperson explained to the media why a legal demonstration had been dissolved.

But video evidence shows no rocks in the air until after the demonstration had been violently blocked. So then the police claimed the demonstration had started off “too early” – even though it had been registered for 3pm and started late. Then they said it started moving “suddenly and without consultation with the police” – as if that would nullify the right to free assembly. After that, chaos broke out: the police sealed off entire neighbourhoods and so ensued cat-and-mouse street fighting well into the night.

The police later claimed that 120 officers were injured. I’ve argued before that one shouldn’t trust official numbers before seeing people in green uniforms and body casts. The numbers from the medics accompanying the demonstration – over 500 demonstrators injured, 20 of them seriously, mostly from pepper spray and cannons shooting water mixed with poisonous chemicals – appear far more compatible with the evidence and eyewitness reports.

But the real injury is to the right to demonstrate. While the city of Hamburg pulled out all the stops to guarantee Nazi groups their right to demonstrate in 2008 and 2012, there was clearly a political decision to block a left-wing demonstration without any legal justification. The 7000 demonstrators included a train full of Berliners – not because they like violence, but because they want to protect an emblematic cultural centre from gentrification. Instead of demonstrating as planned, they spent hours dashing through back alleys to escape marauding police.

The same thing could happen in Berlin. The Berlin senator for the interior Frank Henkel has set a new ultimatum for the eviction of the refugee camp at Oranienplatz for January 18 – even though any such attempt will undoubtedly lead to massive protests. And there are plenty of community centres in Berlin – both squatted and rented – in the cross-hairs of realty speculators. You can use your constitutional right to demonstrate against these evictions. But what if the police can criminalize any demonstration after just a few minutes? And what if the big media go along with this?

Guido Westerwelle, the former Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic, was in Kiev supporting demonstrators against the president Viktor Yanukovych. German politicians are happy to denounce police violence – as long as it’s directed against pro-Western demonstrators. But a protest in the Schanzelviertel or in Kreuzberg gets pretty much the same treatment as in Kiev. So could we get the Foreign Minister of the Ukraine to come to Hamburg and Berlin to support our right to demonstrate?