Global Policy Forum

G8: Despite Germany's Tight Controls, Violence


By Julio Godoy

Inter Press Service
June 3, 2007

ROSTOCK, Germany, Jun 3 (IPS) - Over the last several weeks the German government tightened controls on civil society groups and leftist anti-globalisation activists in order to prevent, as the official lines goes, "violent disruptions" of the G8 summit of industrialised countries that Germany is hosting this week. Since mid-May, the German government has ordered searches of private homes and offices of German anti-globalisation activists, interrupted Internet connections, seized computers and cellular telephones, and even temporarily suspended the application of the Schengen Agreement, the treaty that guarantees the free movement of persons across European borders. Until Jun. 10, all persons travelling into Germany must pass through identity controls at all airports and other border crossing points. The government also suspended the constitutional right to demonstrate near Heiligendamm, the Baltic seaside resort that is the venue of the Group of Eight summit Jun. 6-8.

But all these government preventive measures have proved useless or ill-aimed. After a peaceful demonstration against the summit on Saturday in Rostock, a Baltic port city, some 15 kilometres from Heiligendamm, police forces and a group of so-called "autonomous" demonstrators fought a violent street battle, which ended with some 500 people wounded, and numerous automobiles and stores burned and destroyed. Official figures indicate that more than 400 police officers suffered the worst wounds -- mostly broken bones. Some 100 other people, presumably violent demonstrators, were reported to have been treated in area hospitals.

After the street battle, opinions diverged on who was responsible for the degeneration of the peaceful demonstration into violence. Interior Minister Lorenz Caffier, of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state where Rostock is located, accused "autonomous" groups of "having destroyed the image of a peaceful, legitimate demonstration." "Autonomous" in Germany is used to describe extreme left, anarchist groups, not associated with organised civil society. Although this radical element can be easily identified in German society, the government apparently did not focus its preventive measures on it.

Monty Schaedel, a spokesperson for the Rostock Action Alliance, which had organised Saturday's peaceful demonstration, told the media that the police had "contributed to the escalation of violence" with its "unprofessional and clumsy" behaviour. Schaedel said that during the riots police officers were "hitting blindly through the mass of people," without any tangible, rational objective. "If police officers equipped with heavy combat suits, helmets, and rubber bats go into a crowd of 1,000 demonstrators, this can be only understood as a provocation." He noted that previous to the demonstration, police authorities had ensured that "de-escalation teams" would participate in the rally, to prevent outbreaks of violence. "During the demonstration, there were no signs of these 'de-escalation' police teams," Schaedel said. "On the contrary, police acted as to feed the spiral of violence."

The riots broke out when a group of the radical activists, all dressed in black, and masked -- and therefore not easy to identify individually -- attacked a small police bus patrolling the streets of Rostock immediately after the demonstration. Police forces reacted to the attack, chasing the violent demonstrators, who responded by throwing paving stones and beer bottles. Police authorities said that some 100 demonstrators had been detained during the riots, but almost all had been released overnight.

Saturday's demonstration was the start of a series of protests before the G8 summit begins on Wednesday, Jun. 6. The heads of government of Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States will be joining the host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Heiligendamm, to discuss international policy issues, including efforts to avert global warming, more effective action to fight poverty in Africa, reducing global trade imbalances, and controls for speculative financial funds.

Although German justice has banned demonstrations near Heiligendamm, the anti-globalisation civil society movement has carried out or planned protests in other cities nearby, including an "alternative summit" Jun. 5, in Rostock, and marches on the same day, to block the arrival of the G8 delegations to Heiligendamm. Actions are also planned for Thursday, Jun. 7, including a rock concert including Bono, the Irish singer from the band U2 and aid activist. The G8 summit has led to a new blooming of the anti-globalisation movement, at least in Germany. The German branch of ATTAC -- a group founded in France to campaign for a global tax on speculative capital movements to finance development aid -- has gained hundreds of new members in recent months, including unexpected political personalities. Heiner Geisler, member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party, and former minister for social affairs (1982-1985) under the right-wing government of Helmut Kohl, joined ATTAC in mid-May, saying the group represented the best international criticism against the neoliberal globalisation process. During Saturday's demonstration in Rostock, protesters marched carrying banners with the now standard motto of civil society, born out of the World Social Forum: "Another world is possible", and chanted slogans against the G8 in general and the United States in particular.

"I do not want the G8, least of all the U.S. government, to run the world affairs following the dogmas of neoliberal politics," a demonstrator told IPS in Rostock. "When you see how social justice has been removed from the official political debates all over the earth, while at the same time you notice that hunger and the lack of elementary health services kill thousands per day, and you hear of the exorbitant salaries paid to mediocre, corrupt executives, then you know that something fundamental is foul in the this neoliberal system," the demonstrator added. Such remarks are representative of the mood among civil society groups, says Oskar Negt, emeritus professor of social sciences at the University of Hanover.

"People are increasingly aware of the growing social justice gap in all societies," provoked by the application of neoliberal economic policies, Negt said in an interview. "And more and more people feel the social consequences of these policies as an attack against human dignity."

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