Special Report | Germany: Protesting Hamburg’s ‘Danger Zone’

Facing the planned shutdown of Rote Flora, a long-running social centre, protesters in Hamburg took to the streets late last year - only to be met with the imposition of a draconian 'danger zone'. Creative responses to the zone were key to undermining it, however, argue Leoni Linek and Jakob Schaefer.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014 12:55 - 0 Comments

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First they beat you, then they feed you. On the face of it, it all looked a bit like the good old political strategy 101 – Chapter: ‘carrot-and-stick policy’ – when the Social Democratic Party (SPD) local government of Hamburg announced at the end of last month that they would take Klausmartin Kretschmer to court. Real estate investor Klausmartin Kretschmer is the legal owner of the Hamburg social centre ‘Rote Flora’, a long-term symbol of radical leftist resistance, which was first squatted in 1989 and has since been a perpetual thorn in the side of the local government.

In a sense, the very existence of Rote Flora constantly unveils the untenability of the SPD  programme: trying to appeal to the working class and marginalised groups in society while simultaneously clamping down on them. When Kretschmer’s announcement last year that he wanted to turn Rote Flora into a commercial culture venue was met with street protests among Rote Flora supporters – representing a political spectrum that extends far beyond the radical left in Hamburg – the Social Democrats opted for the stick. Now, having announced their intention to sue Kretschmer, it appears they are back to using the carrot.

During the 1990s, the Rote Flora squat had been tolerated by the SPD administration. But by the 2001 elections, having ruled Hamburg for 44 years, the SPD government feared electoral defeat if they failed to react to conservative calls for law and order. So they sold the building, for the cut-rate price of 180,000 euros, to real estate investor Kretschmer who, in turn, promised to leave the building and squat unchanged. It came as little surprise to many that Kretschmer subsequently changed his mind on this point. But there is also an ironic element to the fact that the Rote Flora was back on the political agenda this year—when the SPD had just managed to return to the mayor’s office, following its 2001 defeat.

In the wake of Kretschmer’s announcement in late 2013 that he would sell Rote Flora to a commercial developer, Hamburg turned into a battlefield. On December 21 police violently broke up a demonstration being held to protest Kretschmer’s plans to develop the centre commercially. Thousands had taken to the streets to defend Rote Flora and express solidarity with refugee and housing activists when they were stopped by baton-wielding riot police. It wasn’t long before the police, employing water cannons, kettled off the entire area, while protesters started throwing paint bombs, firecrackers and rocks. Shop windows were smashed, barricades and waste bins set on fire.

In the aftermath of the events, the city imposed a ‘danger zone’ (“Gefahrenzone”) on three districts of the city, containing a total population of about 90,000 people, from January 4 to January 13, thus giving the police new arbitrary stop and search powers without the usual requirements to demonstrate prior suspicion. Almost one thousand stop and search exercises were conducted within the zone, the police have since confirmed, during the course of which 195 exclusion orders and 14 orders to leave or restraining orders were issued. Sixty-six people were taken into custody; five were arrested.

Shortly after lifting the danger zone, the city offered to buy back Rote Flora from Kretschmer for 1.1 million euros. When Kretschmer refused, the city announced they planned to force Kretschmer legally to accept the offer. And that is what they are now putting into action.

But lest the carrot-and-stick metaphor suggest that the Social Democrats are on top of things, it is clear that Rote Flora activists on the one hand, and Kretschmer on the other, are actually in charge of the situation in Hamburg. By contrast, the strategies of the local government have been revealed as inadequate, erratic and often helpless.

During the danger zone period, black-clad, hooded and masked activists regularly ventured outdoors. Unlike your average Black Bloc, however, their backpacks contained small plastic sachets of Oregano and baking powder, teddy bears and toilet brushes. The game was to ridicule the state of emergency: get searched by the police, and watch them flush in embarrassment while they confiscated toys and herbs instead of rocks and Molotov cocktails. Online, the game was raised to another level. Five credits for getting stopped, 10 for tweeting about it; extra points for knowing your basic rights; special credit for any creative act that spoke truth to power. Hamburg became not only a battlefield, but a playground.

Seen from this perspective, the local government’s attempt to force Kretschmer into reselling Rote Flora to the city looks more like an attempt to calm the waves and prevent further escalation of the conflict. The fear is that Rote Flora becomes a never-ending battleground. The SPD are especially keen to avoid another situation like that of Hafenstrasse 1984-1991, during which several Hamburg houses were militantly defended against several attempts at eviction. The city was eventually forced to sell the houses to a squatters’ cooperative in 1992. The Hafenstrasse conflicts between squatters and police are thought to be one of the starting points of Black Bloc tactics in Germany.

The Hafenstrasse conflicts might be in the past, but the SPD’s fear of militancy lives on. The night before the demonstration on December 21 the famous police station Davidwache on Reeperbahn, which is a mixture of red light and nightlife district, was attacked with stones and paint bombs, which left the glass windows of the police cars parking in front of the station splintered. A week later the press reported another attack on the station, this time injuring police officers who had unsuspectingly come out to check what was going on, one suffering a broken jaw. These attacks and the supposedly deliberate escalation by left radicals during the demonstration helped provide a pretext for the danger zone. A few days later it turned out that the second attack – possibly the first one, too – was mostly a fabrication. But the original headlines, which were never revoked, had already played a major role in shaping public opinion.

Such opinion was certainly divided. Thousands ‘liked’ a Facebook page declaring solidarity with the cops allegedly attacked at Davidwache. At the same time, the page ‘FCK SPD Hamburg’ quickly got more likes than the official SPD Facebook page. On the whole, the SPD’s gamble with the danger zone did not pay off. The general response was to see the zone as an absurdly harsh measure. Local residents complained about their children being forced to witness police violence on their way to school. And some are now planning a referendum against the law – unique to Hamburg – that permits such zones.

This widespread opposition was probably most surprising against the backdrop of a clever police media campaign and the correspondingly distorted representation of events in the mainstream media. The police breakup of the December 21 demonstration sparked particular controversy. While the police had initially claimed they had reacted to protester attacks, they were later forced to retract this statement when video footage emerged showing that the protest had in fact been peaceful until the police intervened.

A second official explanation had it that the demonstration was stopped because protesters had started marching a few minutes too early. When the absurdity of this claim became untenable, the police reverted back to the original version. It was at this time that the police’s account of the second attack on the Davidwache police station was also called into question. The police eventually had to admit that those police officers had not actually been injured in front of the Davidwache, causing major embarrassment.

On the activist side, the toilet brush featured prominently in protests: it made TV news when a protester was searched, hands against the wall, only for riot police to discover and confiscate a toilet brush stuck into the back of his pants. The toilet brush became everyone’s weapon of choice and a symbol of the wider protest. There have since been demonstrations gathered in the shape of a toilet brush, online declarations of solidarity with toilet brush guns, hair ornaments made from toilet brushes. Toilet brushes have been projected and sprayed onto the walls of houses.

Activists have also tried to use the hubbub around the December 21 demonstration and the ensuing danger zone to address further political issues, like the “Esso houses” eviction and the local refugee movement “Lampedusa in Hamburg”, which has been holding regular demonstrations and garnering widespread support.

Having lifted the zone, Hamburg’s federal government may just have discovered they can achieve their goals through appeasement rather than repression. A legal dispute (even if the city loses) will probably cost less than trying to force an eviction in this climate. Attempting to resist co-optation, the Rote Flora collective has refused to enter into talks. But this has largely earned them disapproving incomprehension from outside the movement, even from media outlets with outspoken leftist tendencies.

If Rote Flora can survive for longer as a squatted social, the movement will have more time to put forth its argument that the danger zone – and much urban development policy in Hamburg, which marginalises refugees, represses social spaces and destroys affordable housing – are two sides of the same coin.

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Leoni Linek

Leoni Linek is a writer and activist based in Berlin. She studied development economics at the University of Oxford.

Jakob Schaefer is a student and activist currently based in Leipzig. He studied philosophy in the UK, Germany and Italy.

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