Why People Always Protest at G20 Summits

Anger, police and late capitalism.

Getty Images / Morris MacMatzen

As the 2017 G20 in Hamburg wrapped up Saturday, social media and news outlets recounted how the two-day summit was met with intense organized protest around the German city of 1.7 million. And although the imagery is jarring, when it comes to this annual meet-up of global leaders, it’s nothing new.

Even before the talks began, protests were at a fever-pitch as a crowd of about 12,00 protestors marched through the streets of Hamburg Thursday in an anti-capitalist demonstration called “Welcome to Hell.” Police used pepper spray and high-tech water cannons on protestors, a theme that would persist throughout the weekend.

Images on social media and news coverage showed huge amounts of people taking to the streets, some peacefully, and of course others not so much. The Washington Post reports that 1,500 protestors rioted on Friday night while nearby world leaders attended a concert in the city’s towering glass concert hall the Elbphilharmonie.

Almost all of the 100,000 protestors in Hamburg demonstrated peacefully, and some organizers denounced acts of blatant violence, which did occur. Andreas Blechschmidt, a spokesman for Rote Flora, a Hamburg squat that harbored injured protestors during clashes with police told the Washington Post, “In general, we say militant resistance is of course for us an option, but this was only rioting with no political aim. Though perhaps it was a reaction to the very strict strategy of the police in the last week.”

Christoph Kleine, an organizer of Saturday’s “G20 Not Welcome” march told The Guardian that police had “risked the loss of human life” by aiming water cannons at demonstrators standing on bridges and rooftops.

The presence of over 15,000 police was undoubtably the cause of serious tension for protestors — especially those who live in Hamburg. The city has a long tradition of left-wing, antifacist activism and annual May Day demonstrations. In other words, of all the places to hold a G20 — which brings anti-capitalist activists from all over the world to demonstrate against the powers that be — this was the ideological equivalent of an away game.

Not that anything that happened during this G20 should be seen as out of the ordinary. Massive protests have happened at G20s off and on, especially in locals that have progressive roots. Antifascists, climate activists, labor activists, students and just about anyone else who’s opposed to capitalism converge at summits to demonstrate against the economic decisions being made behind closed doors by major governments and central banks such as the IMF and World Bank.

These demonstrations are usually met with large police presences and things can turn violent in some corners, as certain radical factions and local rabble rousers take advantage of a chaotic situation. Whose fault it is depends on who you ask, but as much as there is always some footage of looting kids wearing balaclavas, there’s also a documented history of police misconduct at these kinds of events as well.

In Toronto in 2010, a mass influx of police officers were brought in to control protests during the G20. In attempts to clamp down on perceived [Black Bloc] protestors, police made the largest mass arrests and detentions in Canadian history, and charges of police brutality are still making their way through the courts to this day.

Speaking about the violent demonstrations in Hamburg over the weekend, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “There is no justification for violent protests. I respect peaceful protesters; they are exercising their fundamental democratic rights. Violent protesters merely demonstrate their contempt of democracy.”

Whether it’s for democracy or not, as we see at a lot of G20s, the contempt is not going away.

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