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Political Riot? Send in the Clowns

Notes on media, violence, and the G-8 demo in Rostock.

Stan Persky 6 Jun

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College, splitting his time between Vancouver and Berlin. He is the recent winner of the Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize for The Short Version.

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Clowning with Rostock riot squad. Photo by Ilonka Opitz.

One evening shortly before I went to Rostock, Germany, for the G-8 demo on Saturday, June 2, I had a friendly argument over dinner about political protestors and violence. That week there had been a protest demonstration in the northern German port city of Hamburg where Asian and European foreign ministers were meeting, and the story about it in Der Spiegel, Germany's major newsweekly, was headed "Violence in Hamburg Streets." The story's provocative "take out" paragraph declared that the meeting "had little to do with the approaching G-8 summit in Germany. But the protests did. Germany's left got in some valuable practice as the demonstration turned violent."

"How come there was so much violence in Hamburg the other night?" I asked my Berlin dinner companion.

"A lot of it is caused, in one way or another, by police agents provocateurs," he claimed.

I rolled my eyes in disbelief. "Oh come on," I said, "next you'll be telling me conspiracy theory stories. Anyway, I didn't read about any agent provocateurs in Der Spiegel."

"The media!" he snorted. "Of course you didn't read about it in Der Spiegel. They're one of the worst."

As with similar political conversations I've had over the years that don't necessarily go anywhere, but allow for the venting of feelings and an occasional idea, I filed this one away. But now that I've been to the Rostock demonstration and read the morning-after Associated Press dispatch about it, headlined "G-8 protesters and police battle," I find myself wondering more about "provocation" -- not so much by a minority of mostly young anarchist demonstrators, but provocation by both police and media.

Power summit

First, though, some of the background to my meditations on mass gatherings. Rostock, where the most recent global protest demo took place, is another northern German port city on the Baltic seacoast, one of the famous Hanseatic trading towns founded in the late Middle Ages. These days, unlike prosperous Hamburg, Rostock, in former East Germany, has a declining and economically-depressed population of 200,000 people, and a sluggish but functioning harbourfront.

Rostock's current relevance is that it's located 22 kilometres east of the beach resort town of Heiligendamm, where the annual summit of the G-8 -- the Group of Eight great powers -- will take place this week from June 6-8, behind a 12-kilometre long, 3-metre tall, razor-wire fence (cost: $20 million), guarded by some 29,000 soldiers and police, plus flotillas of military helicopters and ships hovering over and off the Baltic Sea coastline (cost for the whole show: about $200 million). As the city closest to the barricaded site of the talks, Rostock was chosen for the kickoff of what will be a week of demonstrations and camp-ins running parallel to the expensive summit talks.

Leaders from the U.S., Russia, Japan, Britain, France, Italy and Canada, hosted by Germany's conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, are slated to talk about climate change, economics, poverty, and a roster of other now-familiar and perennially unsolved issues. But a pall of gloom has settled over this year's G-8 summit well in advance of the meetings, and the dark cloud these days is more than a metaphor for climate change.

Merkel hoped to get an agreement on concrete measures to check global warming, including a specific proposal that the G-8 nations commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. If she succeeded, it would mark an unprecedented promise to do something significant to avert global catastrophe.

Big Bush bust

But Merkel's hopes for a G-8 climate change plan as the centrepiece of the summit were pretty thoroughly scuttled by U.S. President George Bush, who made it clear that he wouldn't be signing on to the proposed G-8 scheme. Instead, in a Washington speech last week, Bush suddenly and rather bizarrely proposed a separate set of talks about global warming, talks outside of the on-going United Nations negotiations to develop a successor plan to the Kyoto protocol. The details of Bush's unexpected proposal were vague and not especially coherent.

In response, Merkel made polite noises about Bush's new interest in climate change problems, as did British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but behind the scenes, German, British and Japanese officials who had crafted the G-8 proposal, were appalled by Bush's ham-fisted refusal to cooperate.

The leading American paper in Europe, the International Herald Tribune, headlined its report on the U.S. move, "Bush's climate announcement praised by his allies," but London's Guardian more bluntly and accurately headed its story, "Bush kills off hopes for G-8 climate change plan."

This week at Heiligendamm there will be efforts to salvage the mess with a lot of face-saving rhetoric and emphasis on other issues, but most of the players are resigned to the fact that the summit will likely be a bust, despite the rhetorical flourishes to be delivered at the end of the week.

Among the marchers

Meanwhile, in Rostock on Saturday, tens of thousands of people from cities and towns all over Germany and other parts of Europe piled out of more than 200 buses and a stream of crammed trains arriving at the city's usually sleepy main railway station.

I made the 3-hour trip north from Berlin on a bus co-sponsored by IGMetall, one of the country's umbrella trade union organizations, and Antifa, a small left-wing political group. The demo organization, united behind the hopeful slogan that "Another world is possible," was a mix of trade unions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and political parties, most noticeably the recently-formed Left Party, which currently commands about 10 per cent of the German vote.

As well, there was the familiar clutch of left groupuscules, especially the dark-garbed and hooded (or is that hoodied?) Black Block, mainly young anarchists, who are the successors to Germany's Autonomous Movement of the 1960s. The environmental, religious, and civil NGOs ranged from church groups to Attac, founded in France a decade ago, but now in 44 countries, and currently the most prominent of the economic-ecological NGO's.

The political line of the demonstration, published in the organization's street leaflet, was relatively mild. "The world shaped by the dominance of the G-8 is a world of war, hunger, social divisions, environmental destruction and barriers against migrants and refugees," said the demo organizers. "We want to protest against this and show the alternatives."

Then comes the punchline: "Another world is possible."

For elderly cynics who gripe, "Yeah, another world is possible, but what if it's worse than this one?", some groups have slightly tweaked the slogan to "A better world is possible."

Yeah, but one group's idea of "better" may be another group's idea of Hell, complain the carpers. At which point, it's best to shut up and remember Diana Trilling's cheery liberal call, "My darlings, we must march."

Mass meander

Estimates of how many marched ranged from 25,000 (according to the police) to 70-80,000 (according to the demo organizers), but in any case a lot of people meandered through the city from two assembly points down to the harbourfront grounds, now used mainly for music events (I saw posters for an upcoming Joe Cocker concert). Maybe we should split the difference on the numbers question, at least until the media hires a non-partisan people-counting agency.

Pre-demo predictions were for a crowd as large as a hundred thousand, so whatever the actual number, it was considerably less than had been ambitiously hoped for. Still, as someone standing in the middle of a large crowd, surrounded by a large number of security personnel, it seemed like a lot of people were on hand. The crowd was young, with a majority in their mid-20s and early 30s.

But it's the large number of police, riot troops, and military personnel, and the morning-after Sunday newspaper reports about protesters and violence, illustrated by front-page photos of rock-throwers and cars in flames, that's the source of my ponderings.

The march through Rostock's Long Street was a colourful, friendly, intermittently noisy event, probably not all that different from spring fairs bringing together peasants and townspeople that Rostock had seen in medieval days of yore. There were oversized paper-mâché puppets of Bush and Merkel, drummers and maskers, marching bands, troupes of clowns, occasional floats, and lots of red, orange, green and black flags, including the bright blue lead banner with its "another world is possible" slogan.

About the only thing that struck me as slightly unusual was the large number of police and police vehicles lining the route, and the surprising numbers of stores that had boarded up their windows, apparently at the urging of the authorities and the local media. Somebody was expecting trouble.

Robocops appear

I didn't think much about it until we were making a turn in the road down toward the harbourfront. Rather suddenly, a squad of riot police materialized on a nearby grassy knoll. They were dressed in Robocop-style special uniforms, and bulkily if discretely armed. At a shouted command, they clamped their plastic visors over their faces, and drew up to clanking attention, billy sticks at the ready. The segment of the demo I was with was only a few metres away from and below them, in the middle of the road, and I registered a slight sense of alarm, especially since nothing was going on that required such imposing riot squad readiness.

But just at that moment of unease, a half dozen demonstrator-clowns appeared in their own comic costumes and red-bulbous noses, and began cavorting around the at-the-ready riot squad. Apparently, the squad was just practising manoeuvres; the street-theatre clowns were funny as they lined up with the squad; and the crowd pulled out their cell phones and digital cameras to take pictures. Moral of the story: call in the clowns.

But it was no laughing matter a short while later as the streams of demonstrators converged and milled in their thousands on the harbourfront grounds in front of a concert stage. At the edge of the demo, where protesters were still arriving, there was a minor kafuffle, and suddenly out of the side streets poured lines of black garbed, shield-bearing, riot squad police. At about the same time, one of several police helicopters that had been flying overhead began hovering above the demonstration, and just stayed there, drowning out all other sounds from the concert stage. There were a few minutes of to-ing-and-fro-ing, as these murky movements of people are described.

No clowning around

The speakers at the podium urged the crowd not to be provoked, and announced that the demo organizers were "negotiating" with the police. Eventually, whatever had happened at the back of the demo calmed down, the chopper backed off to a more distant point, and the afternoon proceeded with the requisite speeches, musical interludes, and calls for solidarity. But I remember thinking at the time something like, "Gee, the police seem to be unnecessarily provocative," and I felt puzzled by both their aggressiveness and the 20 or so minutes that it took to get the chopper to another part of the sky, since there didn't seem to be much cause for the hair-trigger show of force.

Later in the afternoon, the violence flared up again, and this time it was real. Not the sort of thing that clowns can laugh off. Waves of police waded in to a small patch of stone-throwing demonstrators, followed by water-cannon trucks, tear gas, and the smoke from a couple of burning parked cars.

Of course, nobody knows who throws the first stone in these affairs, notwithstanding the Biblical injunction not to do so. But what struck me about the melee and the reportage of it is how revved up the police were and how they, intentionally or not, had provocatively raised the level of anticipation of violence. So, if there was a batch of stone-throwing protesters available, they were sure to be ignited by the atmosphere of the spectacle, an atmosphere partially created by the police strategists.

And there were, as everybody knew, such protesters on hand. In faulting the police strategists, I should also declare that, like most of the demo organizers and participants, I'm not a big fan of the so-called Black Block. They're fuelled by testosterone, they have a vision of the world I don't get, and I don't quite know what they want beyond the thrills of combat. But everybody knows all this, including the various police agency heads.

Twisting the headlines

All of this has more to do with the dynamics of spectacle than it does with conspiracy, of course, but after all the fine-grained analysis of the minutiae is finished, the idea that keeps nagging at me is that somebody wants all the rest of us, demo attenders and the media-saturated public alike, to believe that a demonstration is a violent act.

Second, the media both inadvertently and intentionally cooperates with all of this. Here, I feel surer of my intuition since I've worked in the world of journalism. For a long time, I've insisted, probably to the point of boringness, that no analysis of a political event is complete without asking, "What's the media's role in this story?"

Some of the media are just out-and-out reactionary and their tactics aren't subtle. For example, the front page headline of the local Sunday morning tabloid in Berlin was, "Chaos-makers hunt police."

Much of the reporting is more nuanced. The Associated Press dispatch, if you read it through, turned out to be a reasonable account of the demo that made it clear that the event was 95 per cent peaceful and that the riot was strictly a sideshow. Yet, given the "protesters battle police" headline and lead paragraph, it's easy to see how the story gets read. The Globe and Mail ran the AP story, and its "reader response" to it was filled with raving, ranting anti-demo comments, many of which were only a bit short of calling for the protesters to be strung up.

Several hours later, on my way home, the news screens on the underground train had reduced the demo to a photo and a paragraph about protesters and violence. By then, my attention had turned away from questions of what "provocation" really means, and back to the bigger question of whether another, or different, or better world is possible.

However, it was hard to stay focused over the next 48 hours as the media, the anarchists and the police all ratcheted up the noise level. There was another demo in Rostock on Monday night with about 8-10,000 people participating, and there was more anarcho-police violence, but it was quickly "contained."

By Tuesday morning, much of the media were in full throttle mode about the Black Block "chaos-makers." The worst of the Berlin tabloids ran front-page war-sized headlines to announce, "Like A War," and a syrupy editorial commentary on its "news" pages called on the public to hail the police and to give the 900-member Berlin contingent gifts, gratefulness and friendly greetings once they were home from the frontlines. One politician was reported as calling for a ban on the black clothes worn by the Black Block.

The G-8 leaders are meeting in Heiligendamm today, and the protesters, both peaceful and not-so-peaceful, are still protesting. But it looks like the anarcho activists -- about five per cent of those at the Rostock demo on Saturday -- have ended up pretty much hijacking the protest aspect of the event, or at least the public representation of it in Europe. They've had more than enthusiastic help from a lot of the media, and the protest issues themselves have been conveniently sidelined. That of course is a big headache for the non-violent majority of the protest movement. The message to the public, as drummed through the press, is: there's no such thing as a protest demo, there are only riots, and riots have to be stopped.

The talks wind up on Friday. Since the G-8 leaders are unlikely to announce agreement on another or better world, I'm sure I'll have lots of time afterwards to keep wondering, as Candide once did, if this is the best of all possible worlds.

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