Chaos at the G-20 How Hamburg Failed to Protect Its Citizens
Part 2: A Desperate Situation in the Schanzenviertel
Furthermore, whereas Hamburg Police Chief Ralf Martin Meyer spoke of how difficult it is when "perpetrators without a connection to the summit" pursue "small group tactics," an Interior Ministry paper noted: "The mobilization method and modus operandi of militant structures (small group tactics) in addition to the violence perpetrated were per se not new." They had already been followed "in disparate campaigns and operations" carried out by the left-wing extremist spectrum.
Did the Hamburg police underestimate the potential for violence? Already on the eve of the summit, on Thursday, July 6, all signs were pointing toward confrontation. At the "Welcome to Hell" demonstration, a sea of white police helmets glittered in Hafenstrasse, the street where the march was to begin. Four water cannons were in position under a bridge facing 12,000 demonstrators, of whom around 1,000 had masked their faces in black. "Hurray! This world is ending!" read one poster.
Before long, the first bottle was thrown at the police. Officers charged at the instigators from the side and they fought back with wooden planks. Then, the water cannons sprayed the demonstrators off the street. "Dudde wanted to provoke the Black Bloc so that there would be cause for intervention," one officer said, referring to the black-clad members of the autonomous movement. The atmosphere for the coming days had been established.
The next morning, the day the summit began, as least one thing went according to plan: the journeys of the summit participants to the meeting site. "The convoy of Chancellor Merkel left at 9:05 a.m. in the direction of the exhibition center," the police reported. The Russian president's convoy set off at 9:12 a.m. and that of the American president's at 10:20 a.m.
But everywhere else, chaos reigned, as had already been the case for hours. Every few minutes, the police reported disruptive actions taken by members of the autonomous movement across the city.
At 6:33 a.m., the operation records note that police officers near the Volkspark Stadium were being "intensely" pelted by objects thrown by people wearing masks.
At 7:13, police on Schützenstrasse went after a group of "violence-prone instigators" with truncheons and pepper spray. At 7:27 a.m., 1,000 people, around 300 of them dressed all in black, appeared at the Landungsbrücken, the docks in central Hamburg from which tourist boats depart for harbor tours.
Send Us Everything You Have
And the list kept growing. Sit-ins blocking a street, burning cars, stones thrown through the window of a municipal building. It was a game of cat-and-mouse that the police couldn't win. Those in charge decided that their only option was to call for reinforcements. At 7:53 a.m., they called for backup from Lübeck, located just northeast of Hamburg, and six minutes later, they ordered in help from the federal reserve police force near Bonn, which flew in by plane. At 8:12, mission headquarters sent out a call for help to the federal government and to all state governments: Please send us everything you have.
At this point, the summit hadn't even begun yet. But the leftist instigators had already ruthlessly run the police into the ground. The officers had been on their feet for 20 hours and during the day, many of them collapsed from dehydration and exhaustion.
By noon, the autonomists had pushed the police so far that they were no longer able to completely fulfill their most important task: protecting the summit and its participants. Many of the autonomists' attacks against delegation vehicles at various locations were successful. "No high-ranking member" in the vehicle, relieved officers reported after each such attack. At 11:45, the side window of a vehicle belonging to the U.S. delegation was bashed in.
Given the widespread violence, police leaders decided that Angela Merkel and her guests should go straight to the Elbphilharmonie concert hall from the convention center instead of stopping by their hotels first. Only one leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, didn't cooperate, choosing to skip the concert. It wasn't the first time that he had caused headaches for the police. On one occasion, his convoy didn't wait for a police escort and simply drove off. The result was chaos as the escort sped after the convoy to chase it down.
The weekend's primary eruption of violence, the showdown in the Schanzenviertel neighborhood, began on Friday evening just as the concert in the Elbphilharmonie got started. The first barricade was set on fire at 8:47 p.m. -- and it may be that this was the last opportunity the police had to gain the upper hand on the chaos. "There was a certain period when the Schanze could still have been flooded with police," one officer said. "But our people were tied up all across the city."
Rocks, Paving Stones and Metal Rods
Police had planted several plainclothes informants among the ranks of the left-wing autonomists, referred to by the police as "citizen observers," and operation command began receiving reports of planned ambushes. At 9:31 p.m., the informants reported that the autonomists were preparing for a fight. "Serious injuries should be expected should the police advance."
This was the moment when the police turned over the Schanzenviertel to the mob -- there would be virtually no police presence in the quarter for the few hours that ensued, a time during which much of the looting and property damage took place. One senior police officer wrote in an internal document that intervention would have meant being pelted and beaten with "rocks, paving stones, metal rods and incendiary devices."
It was now up to Bernd Bürger, 40, head of a unit of crack riot police based in the Bavarian town of Dachau, to decide whether to send his charges into the inferno. Bürger has been involved in several protests during his career, including violent demonstrations at the nuclear waste storage site in Gorleben and at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm near Rostock in 2007. His unit is trained to apprehend the ringleaders of violent protests.
But he had never, Bürger said, been in a position where his people faced a serious threat to their lives. And he and his commanding officers had never been faced with the difficult decision of rejecting an operational order for this reason. That, though, was the position in which he found himself at 10 p.m. on Friday, July 7.
The 130 riot police from Dachau had already been on their feet for days and had only slept for an hour in their hotel the previous night. They were at Millerntorplatz square, in the heart of St. Pauli -- Bürger had just deflected a flying bottle with his arm -- when the order came: clear Schulterblatt, the main street in the Schanzenviertel.
'A Life-Threatening Situation'
They were about 150 meters from Schulterblatt, the end of which was flanked by a building completely covered in scaffolding. There were several people on the scaffolding. A helicopter circled overhead and Bürger was told via radio that autonomists had carried paving stones up to the roof of the building and that they might be planning to try to kill police officers. Hamburg domestic intelligence officials had provided similar information, Hamburg police would later confirm.
It was around 10 p.m. when Bürger discussed the situation with police commanders from other German states. "We quickly agreed that a further advance would carry a serious risk to the lives of our colleagues." This concern was reported to police leadership.
Another senior officer added: "These extremely well-trained people, they've spent a long time preparing for a moment like this. When they say, 'We're not going in there,' then it means something. It was simply a life-threatening situation."
Police Superintendent Dudde wasn't thrilled at first. He urged the forces to go into Schulterblatt -- to protect local residents, as Hamburg Police Chief Meyer would later say. But also because the flames in the street were threatening to spread to the surrounding apartment buildings. The discussion continued for some time until Dudde finally ordered two large units of special forces to get the people off the rooftops.
A Lawless Zone for Two Hours
Yet even though there were lots of special task force (SEK) police in the city at the time, none were initially available. The elite police were guarding the Elbphilharmonie and the world leaders gathered there. The result was a considerable delay in their deployment, the police president would later say. It remains an open question as to why none of the SEK units had been assigned specifically to the Schanze, a district well-known to police as a potential trouble spot for far-left activity.
For more than two hours, there was no police presence whatsoever in the Schanzenviertel that night. After the concert at the Elbphilharmonie, Mayor Olaf Schulz called the police command control center in Hamburg's Winterhude district. All he could do was watch powerlessly as parts of his city sank into chaos.
At 11:40 p.m., the clearing action finally began. Bürger's unit was present as the police advanced on Schulterblatt; he ran behind a water cannon. Stones struck his helmet. One of his men stumbled into a manhole because someone had taken the cover off. "All of Hamburg hates the police," masked protesters would later chant. The situation wouldn't quiet down until 2 a.m.. An official at Germany's Federal Interior Ministry would later sum up the riots by saying: "The events happened just as expected."
Ralf Martin Meyer, the Hamburg police chief, rejects allegations that his forces placed a priority on protecting guests of the G-20 summit rather than local residents. "I consider the question of priority to be an inadmissible escalation" he says. "Of course, the safety of official state guests against, for example, terrorist threats had the highest priority. But that doesn't mean that protecting citizens was less important. The police sought in parallel to ensure the safety of the people to the same extent."
That's also how Mayor Scholz sees it. Three elements had the highest priority, he says: protecting the people, ensuring the safety of summit participants and ensuring peaceful protests. "It was never about attributing greater importance to protecting summit participants than protecting the people," a spokesman told DER SPIEGEL. "The discrepancy is clearly a figment of the imagination," he said. He added that the mayor had no knowledge of the operation plan.
Still, there will be consequences. Police Chief Meyer intends to rethink his deployment strategy. But he says the guerilla tactics used by the autonomous movement present a problem that is almost impossible for the police to solve. "We have to consider how were are going to deal with these criminals in the future," he says.
Thirty Hours at the Detention Center
As Marie Beier, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, walked through Hamburg that Friday, she had no idea that her day would end in a cell, without a bed or a toilet. Beier had just graduated from high school with good grades. She had also worked as a volunteer at a refugee hostel in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
She had wanted to protest against the G-20 in Hamburg, but she didn't get far. The 19-year-old was detained together with other activists on the street. The police brought her to the collection point for detainees in Neuland. The charge: a serious disturbance of the peace.
Beier exercised her constitutional right to remain silent, but the responsible public prosecutor used that against her and ordered her arrest. Apparently, the prosecutor views anyone who exercises the right to remain silent with suspicion.
What Beier experienced in the provisional jail sounds disturbing. Her lawyer Lino Peters says it was almost 18 hours before he was allowed to speak to his client and it took that much longer until her bail hearing. In the more than 30 hours at the detention center, Beier's lawyer says scenes played out that are hard to imagine. Marie Beier has serious vision impairment and she can only see shapes without glasses. Despite her complaints, her glasses were kept from her throughout her detention.
Police also took their time when she asked for a tampon. Officials allegedly mocked her and other women: "You're destroying our city. Protesters aren't allowed to have their periods."
Now Beier's mother is sitting completely disillusioned in a lawyer's office in Hamburg. She describes her daughter as being peaceful, helpful and cosmopolitan. Marie has no previous criminal record -- at worst, her mother says, she can be a bit careless in unfamiliar situations. What she has learned about her daughter's treatment in detention angers her. "It's arbitrary and inexplicable." In a telephone call, her daughter asked, "Mom, is our legal system working?"
The detention judge said the young woman faces two years in jail, citing "general prevention" as the reason, according to the arrest warrant. Beier was only released on Wednesday afternoon. Her lawyer picked her up. "I've never before seen humiliation and caprice on the scale shown during the G-20 week," he says.
Many other young people who wanted to protest in Hamburg experienced similar treatment. The brutal tactics used by the police can be seen in numerous internet videos. They show people who are already on the ground getting kicked by officers in combat gear and beat with Billy clubs. Police break up sit-ins using tear gas. As of Thursday, 35 investigations had been opened into police officers -- in 27 cases for causing injury while on duty.
Public prosecutors have also issued arrest warrants for 51 activists -- largely for disturbing the peace, but also for committing grievous bodily harm or damaging property. Detainees report that they were forced to strip completely naked and that they had to squat and undergo anal cavity searches.
Despite the summit debacle, Mayor Scholz is still in office. He doesn't have any opponents in his party who could be of any danger to him. Already last weekend, the left wing of the Social Democratic Party in Hamburg agreed that they would continue to defend the mayor despite concerns over his comments and handling of the situation.
The head of the SPD's state chapter is also backing the mayor, as is the party group in the Hamburg city-state's parliament. SPD leaders say it was right to hold the G-20 summit in Hamburg. They're blaming the debacle on the Left Party, which they say didn't speak out clearly enough against violence. Some members of parliament have suggested the Scholz ought to be proactive in speaking to residents of the Schanzenviertel neighborhood, but he has thus far refused to do so.
Scholz also has no reason to fear an investigation by the city-state parliament. The SPD and the Greens have together agreed upon a harmless special committee. Indeed, the Social Democrats' junior coalition partner has been docile.
The only critical words are coming out of Berlin. "The question must be addressed as to who is responsible for the fact that there were no police in Schanzenviertel for two hours," says Jürgen Tritten, a prominent member of the Green Party. He says a decision must have been made that something was more important than the residents of Schanzenviertel. "We need to talk about that." After the events of last week, Trittin says, no mayor is going to want to host a summit again. "No one wants to end up like Olaf Scholz -- as the chancellor's human shield and aspiring fall guy," he says.
But members of the Green Party in Hamburg have shied away from breaking with Scholz. Nor does the Hamburg mayor have to worry about attacks from Merkel's conservatives in Berlin. The debate is playing to the advantage of the conservatives as it is. In a meeting of the CDU's national committee, Merkel ordered her party not to attack Scholz.
The reserve demonstrated by the chancellor has two advantages for her. For one, it comes across as statesman-like and nonpartisan for her to stand at the mayor's side. For another, though, it also helps her prevent a debate over what share of the blame should be attributed to Merkel. She, after all, is the person who first called Scholz to propose Hamburg as the site of the summit. Jörg Radek, the deputy national chair of the police union GDP, hasn't forgotten. "The risks and the side effects of such a summit were known from previous such meetings. But for political marketing reasons, these were ignored," he says. "Hamburg was supposed to serve as a stage for the big and powerful. But it was ultimately others who created the images. It has harmed the police and damaged the PR of the Chancellery."
Rather than attacking Scholz, the conservatives instead want to go after the SPD on another issue. "We must demand that left-wing parties distance themselves from the perpetrators of violence to the same degree we do from violence on the far-right," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said during the meeting of the CDU's executive committee. The tone was set. The sharpest words came from Jens Spahn, a rising member of the CDU and a senior official in the Finance Ministry. "Left-wing extremism has been played down for years in Germany," he said. "The Left Party and parts of the SPD and Greens have turned a blind eye to it."
No one within the conservatives is seriously accusing the Social Democrats of having an ambiguous relationship to violence. But that isn't as clear when it comes to the fringes of the Greens or the Left Party. Given that many SPD politicians are still dreaming of going into a coalition government with the Greens and the Left Party after the next election, that is indeed a problem for the Social Democrats.
The result is that the SPD has had trouble pulling itself out of the defensive following the riots. The first person who attempted to steer the debate toward Merkel was Foreign Minister Gabriel, who blustered that the summit had been a "total failure." In an interview, Gabriel also said that anyone calling for Mayor Scholz to step down "also needed to call for Merkel's resignation."
'Absurd and Inappropriate'
But contrary to Gabriel's hopes, Merkel hasn't taken the bait. Other conservatives, though, have been less reserved. Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's CDU, described Gabriel's attack as "absurd and inappropriate. Rather than addressing the left-wing criminals, attacks are being launched at the chancellor." Söder then ridiculed the SPD, saying the party was getting nervous about its standing in the polls two months before the national election. "There's no other way of explaining the foreign minister's comments."
Söder has a point. More than anything, Gabriel's comments illustrate the extent to which Martin Schulz is struggling to steer has campaign in the right direction.
Following the riots, Schulz initially warned against using Hamburg for petty "partisan skirmishing." He offered praise for Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, who had defended Mayor Scholz from attacks by the CDU in Hamburg. But it soon became apparent that this tactic wasn't working for the SPD. On Monday night, Schulz sharpened his tone. He said it was insulting for a party that had stood in the way of Hitler, as the SPD did, to be accused of having an unclear relationship with extremism. "We don't need any lectures on that," the chancellor candidate groused.
Following Gabriel's resignation as party chair in January, Schulz opted not to become a minister in the coalition government because he wanted to be independent enough to fire away at Merkel. Now he's realizing that it's not so easy. His people say that he's saving the right attacks for the final stretch of the campaign. But it may already be too late. The days of rioting in Hamburg have already dragged the SPD further down in the polls. If the party fares significantly worse than the 25.7 percent it received in the last federal election in 2012, Schulz will likely have to step down as SPD chairman. Should that happen, it's not likely that Olaf Scholz will be in the running to succeed him.
By Maik Baumgärtner, Sven Becker, Jörg Diehl, Hubert Gude, Frank Hornig, Martin Knobbe, Gunther Latsch, Roman Lehberger, Ann-Katrin Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Barbara Schmid, Fidelius Schmid, Andreas Ulrich and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt
- Part 1: How Hamburg Failed to Protect Its Citizens
- Part 2: A Desperate Situation in the Schanzenviertel