Ben Trott: Five Fingers Beat 16,000 G8 Cops: Are we winning, again?

From 6-8 June 2007, for over 44 hours, every road into and out of the enormous 'Red Zone' surrounding the 2007 G8 summit in Heiligendamm was blockaded. According to the Financial Times on the opening day, the blockades had 'tipped the G8 summit into logistical chaos'. The mobilisation to Heiligendamm was the return of the alter-globalisation movement. Ben Trott analyses how the event turned out to be such a success? What are its implications? And what next?

For almost two years, groups, organisations and individuals on the left in Germany and beyond have been preparing for this year's G8 summit. Trade unionists, the anti-nuclear and environmental movement, peace and anti-war coalitions, student groups, anti-fascists, self-organised groups of migrants, anti-racist campaigners, the youth wings of political parties and the networks of the autonomous and radical left have - not always harmoniously - been working together to produce the successful scenes of mobilisation that were witnessed on the streets of Rostock and the roads and fields around Heiligendamm earlier this month.

Two lessons at least were learnt from the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles. Firstly, three parallel and only very slightly overlapping mobilisations (Make Poverty History, G8 Alternatives, and Dissent!) failed to pool resources, coordinate or look for commonality. In contrast, the basis of the mobilisation to Heiligendamm was the construction of a common 'choreography of resistance'. This ensured events did not compete against one another, and that cooperation - where possible - was maximised. Secondly, there was a determination to ensure that the process of legitimation of the G8 - set in motion by Bono and others, and reaching its climax in Gleneagles - was halted and reversed. The aim was to demonstrate that the G8 is illegitimate full stop. To borrow Bob Geldof's words after the 2005 summit: 'mission accomplished.'

On Saturday 2 June, 80,000 people demonstrated through the streets of Rostock in the biggest demonstration the city had ever seen. Under the banner of 'Another World Is Possible', they declared the G8 an institution without legitimacy. The demonstration's largest bloc, with around 8,000 participants, was the Interventionist Left's 'Make Capitalism History'. It was both these blocs, which came under attack from police; and from which militant actions of the so-called 'black-bloc' are said to have taken place. Debates around the nature and activity of the bloc certainly rocked the coalition over the following days. Ultimately, however, the coalition proved itself strong enough to withstand the question of 'militancy'. All in all, the demonstration provided a clear rejection of both the political and democratic legitimacy of the G8, as well as containing a clear anti-capitalist presence.

The next day, thousands participated in a day of action on global agriculture, demanding food sovereignty, an end to the genetic modification of food and rejecting the patenting of seeds. Many took part in international networking events on the issues of resistance to racist police violence worldwide, the connections between the issues of precarious working and living conditions and migration, and more.

On 4 June, over 15,000 people took part in decentralised actions around Rostock on the issue of migration (in front of a Lidl supermarket, responsible for the exploitation of migrant labour; in front of the so-called 'Sunflower Houses' of mostly Vietnamese guest-workers, attacked in 1992 by neo-Nazis; and in front of a government building responsible for processing asylum applications) before taking part in a demonstration 'For Global Freedom of Movement and Equal Rights for Everyone'. The day of action organised by both anti-racist activists and self-organised groups of refugees and migrants, came under heavy police repression. The demonstration was banned from the city centre and the police did all they could - (unsuccessfully) - to provoke an escalation which could be used to justify further repression.

On 5 June, thousands took part in the day of action against militarism, war, torture and the global 'state of exception' - the suspension of legal rights and freedoms, e.g. that of Habeas Corpus, across the planet. Hundreds gathered at Rostock Laage military airport to 'greet' George W. Bush as Air Force One landed.

And then came Wednesday 6 June, the opening day of the summit, the day on which blockades - both mass and decentralised, pre-advertised and spontaneous - would try to shut down the summit itself. The extent of the success of these blockades surprised everyone - not least those who had spent almost a year and a half mobilising for them.

Bloc(k) Parties

One of the most prominent elements of the counter-mobilisation was the Block G8 campaign for mass blockades of the access roads to Heiligendamm. This campaign was made up of over 120 different organisations, groups and networks: from church organisations, trade union youth groups, the anti-nuclear waste transport (CASTOR) movement, over groups from the radical and autonomous left, the youth wings of political parties (both the Greens and the socialist Linkspartei), to anti-fascist organisations and non-violent direct action groups.

The composition of the coalition was, for many, surprising. Most of the groups had never cooperated before and those who had, had not always had good experiences. Nevertheless, the campaign based itself on the notion that cooperation was essential for the blockades to be successful. Moreover, and more interestingly, there was a feeling that as groups moved away from the comfort zones of their traditional action; new forms of action and new commonalities could be produced, despite and beyond obvious differences.

After many months of discussion, the following action concept was developed: a practical rejection of the legitimacy of the G8 could only be achieved through real - rather than merely symbolic - blockades of the summit. The aim was not to stop the heads of state from reaching their destination (everyone knew they would be flown in by helicopter), but to cut the G8 summit off from its infrastructure of thousands of service providers, caterers, translators, journalists and so on. Our first objective was to reach our blockade points: two of three key roads leading to Heiligendamm. We would not engage in an escalation with the police, or allow ourselves to be provoked. At the same time, we would do all that we could to prevent anyone from being injured. Once we reached the blockade points, we would not leave again voluntarily.

In order to ensure the success of the blockades, hundreds of action trainings and information events were organised across Germany and beyond. Thousands were trained in the techniques which would be required: from how to build an 'affinity group' (a group of 5-10 people, prepared to act together and look out for one another during an action); through to methods for getting through police lines; to how to resist an eviction and deal with minor injuries. The action concept was published on the campaign's website, translated into numerous languages, integrated into a PowerPoint presentation, and distributed via various publications. The media were invited to observe - and on one occasion, partake in - some of the action trainings, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung (perhaps an equivalent of the UK's Guardian) reproduced one of the trainings in an online multimedia presentation.

Block Around the Clock

One of the Block G8 blockades would be made up of people based in the camp near Reddelich, the other by those in Rostock. From Reddelich, the blockaders would be able to reach their desired blockade point by foot. Rostock, however, was too far to be able to rely on people moving on foot alone. So the people from this camp were transported by bus, car, bike and train to a pre-announced destination. On arrival, the crowd of around 4000 began to move along the road in the direction of their secret destination. As soon as the front of the demonstration met the first line of police, the so-called 'Five-Finger-Tactic' came into play. Rather than trying to push through the line of police in front of it, the first of the five 'fingers' left the road and went out into the field to the right of it, attempting to move around the line of police, stretching their resources as far as possible. The line of police retreated to try and remain in front of the first finger, which was making its way rapidly across the field. As it did so, the remaining four fingers moved forward with it. Once the line of police stopped, the second finger moved again out of the road and into the field, this time to the left. Again, the police were forced to retreat and to spread themselves out over a greater distance. This process repeated itself, with the fingers alternately moving off the road to the right and then the left. As planned, all five fingers (and the 4000 people within them) were able to either move around the lines of police, or else flow through them once they had been forced to spread themselves out so far that large gaps emerged.

Whilst the 6000 plus Reddelich blockaders were able to reach their desired blockading point relatively unhindered by the police - blockading not only their chosen road, but also the railway line which ran alongside (the only one in and out of the 'Red Zone') - those coming from Rostock were forced to brave pepper spray, batons and the police's water canons (some of which had mixed pepper spray into the water) in order to finally - and successfully - reach their destination.

In both instances, as soon as the blockaders reached their desired points, the police appeared to concede defeat. In neither situation were the police well equipped enough to evict either 4000 - 6000 people from the street, nor to ensure that the crowds - which had already proven themselves very determined - would not immediately return. Securing kilometres of road running alongside open fields, or arresting and transporting up to 10000 people was obviously out of the question. At the same time, the social breadth of the blockades (which expanded across church groups, trade unions and political parties), along with the public support of prominent politicians, media and civil society personalities in Germany and other countries also ensured that the deployment of extreme levels of violence against the blockades would have been politically very difficult. This was exacerbated by the fact that repression in advance of the summit (with simultaneous 'anti-terror' raids on over 40 offices, social centres and private homes supposedly connected to the mobilisation, along with huge restrictions on the freedom to demonstrate) had been met with heavy criticism. On the day of the raids, over 6000 people demonstrated in Berlin and 4000 in Hamburg alone. The media were tremendously critical, as were a number of prominent politicians on both the left and right. For a while, it appeared that attac Germany (who, incidentally, never signed up as official supporters of Block G8, although some of their leadership and local groups did) would distance themselves from the blockades, following the events of the previous Saturday. Thanks to both the mood of the organisation's grassroots, who were already present on the camps and geared up for blockading - and a couple of isolated voices higher up in the organisation - this never came to fruition. Had this been the case, the police may have responded very differently.

Another likely reason for success was that police resources were massively over-stretched. Thousands were demonstrating, again, at Rostock Laage military airport. Others had begun to take down the 12-kilometre fence around the 'Red Zone'. Small, decentralised actions - from passive sit-ins to burning barricades - were taking place in dozens of other locations all around the area. And nobody knew what to expect next. An attempted eviction of either or both of the Block G8 mass blockades would have swallowed enormous amounts of resources, and the police were almost certainly unsure when they would - perhaps more urgently - be needed elsewhere.

The outcome on the first day of the G8 summit was that many delegates were told not to go to Heiligendamm, but to make their way to their hotels and remain indoors. Some never even made it to Heiligendamm while those who did often faced long delays. Others were forced to fly into the 'Red Zone' by helicopter at huge expense. Journalists resorted to travel by boat. Some reports suggest that only four journalists made it to the opening ceremony. If the Financial Times report that the summit was chaos, then I believe them.

And now?

The political consequences of the very successful mobilisation around this year's G8 summit - both on the 'internal' movement level, and on the level of global political economy - remain unclear. How can it be that both the movement, and the G8 leaders themselves (claiming to have found commonality in difficult times, as well as having supposedly made progress on both climate change and commitments to poverty alleviation) are proclaiming: 'We are winning'? How long will the coalitions formed by the movement in the run up to the summit hold out? How will - if at all - those mobilised to take part in the blockades remain involved in movements and struggles? And how far will the different groups that united as the Block G8 coalition continue to experiment with new forms of political practice, outside of their traditional comfort zones?

A few conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, the differences between the various groups, which took part in Block G8 are far less important than the commonalities. This was demonstrated and played itself out in practice. Secondly, the whole of the left needs to recognise that whilst it now needs to enter into a process of critical (self-) reflection, exploring both the victories and the problematics, which arose during the summit, the mobilisation was a greater success than any of us could have imagined. It is a success that everyone played a role in creating, and the fallout from which (in terms of debts incurred, repression and so on) needs to be dealt with collectively. But moreover, it should be recognised that none of us are the same as we were before the summit. The days of action in Rostock and around Heiligendamm were much more than an expression of 'Unity in Diversity', they represented a 'becoming-other', together. Through coordination, cooperation and the constant search for commonality, we became a more genuine 'movement of movements' - more than just the sum of our parts.

And thirdly and finally, we need to recognise that only two years ago, 300,000 people demonstrated in Edinburgh, largely to welcome the G8 summit and its supposed efforts to make poverty history. This year, 80,000 demonstrated their opposition to the G8 as an institution, and well over 15,000 took part in actively blockading the summit. Another world is not just possible. It is already here. We saw it in Heiligendamm. The alter-globalisation movement can once again be seen as a serious social actor, able to influence the direction of global events and politics.

To be sure, it is unlikely that the vast majority of those who took part in the blockades and other events will become involved within organised political structures - be those of the radical-left, of non-violent action groups, of political parties, or of organisations such as attic. In many ways, this limits the ability of those in attendance to be able to act in a coordinated, organised fashion, maximising their agency. But such organisational forms have only ever been a very small element of what social movements are all about. Far more important are the affective connections, which were formed over those 44 hours on the streets, those late nights of action planning, and those often-painful coalition meetings. These are connections, which have the potential to last in the long term.

Foucault once said that a barricade only has two sides. Everyone who was in Heiligendamm will forever know on which side it is that they stand…or sit.


Ben Trott is active in the Berlin-based group FelS, part of the Block G8 campaign and the Interventionist Left

A slide show, with music and photos against the G8 summit can be found on Avanti's website: http://www.avanti-projekt.de/images/G8-Slide/index.html (Avanti - Project for an undogmatic left, are one of the groups involved with the Interventionist Left)

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