Being a glutton for punishment, I have treated myself to 1.5 hours worth of German footage from the G20 protests in Hamburg. The ‘N24’ news program gave live coverage from different vantage points: on the side of the police and from the perspective of the protesters. While this is second hand information, the potential for manipulation is somewhat limited (given live coverage) and the two perspectives actually give a more balanced picture than being there in person, seeing one perspective only.

Now, I don’t agree with the protesters one bit. I think they are bunch of annoying lefties, but in a free society, being a pain in the arse should not deprive you of civil rights. Let me start then with a preface on German law. Freedom of speech concessions in Germany are fairly weak, compared to the US in any case.

The constitution states that freedom speech is granted in principle, but there are many restrictions and they are substantial, some are explicitly catalogued in the text of the constitution. In so far as free expression is conceded to the subjects of the state, the right to assemble and protest peacefully and without weapons is also granted explicitly.

There is a federal law explicitly banning face coverings at public protests. In some cases (such as balaclava hats) infractions are clear. In other cases (e.g. hats, scarves and sunglasses) it is a matter of interpretation.

The ‘welcome to hell’ march commenced, drawing a crowd of around 10000 participants. Police stopped the march, using several water canons and an armoured personnel carrier, after a few minutes, citing three objections:

i. people were wearing face coverings (hats & sunglasses). (People in this case refers to a black block of around 1000. This matters: in a crowd of 10,000+ there will always be somebody breaking the law in some way, so the fact that this was visibly an organised group matters).

ii. bottles were thrown and a police spokesperson had been attacked: this should not need discussing -except on the question of magnitude- although the claim was reported by the police and not shown in the report footage, nor witnessed by the reporters.

iii. slogans hostile to the police were shouted. (So what? In any reasonably free society such criticism of the state and its organs must be legal, so long as they are not explicit calls to violence.)

The police focused their demand on the black block removing face coverings during a stand-off which lasted around 50 minutes. They also called on the remainder of the demonstration to physically distance themselves from the black block but seemed to leave little space for doing so.

After around 50 minutes the police seemed to attempt to isolate and then attack the black block, but failed in their attempt to isolate it -not least because some bystanders helped members of the black block escape. As a result, the situation then degenerated into a street battle between the police and the protest as a whole. At this point stuff got thrown at the police and one reporter confirmed that rocks were thrown. (A number of German municipalities pave their side-walks with small, fist sized cobble stones, presumably as a service for rioters who might need them.)After some of this, the organiser called off the demonstration -which had initially been given a permit.

Legally, the police seemed in the clear, since the presence of a group of masked protesters brakes the law. Whether it was a wise decision to intervene when they did will now be disputed. It seemed to be the police which attacked the black block which up to then had remained masked but passive. The police deserves some credit for focusing on an identifiable group of violent activists (this had reportedly not been the case in Genoa, 2001) but questions will be asked as to whether they needed to intervene when they did and, above all, whether they could have done more to separate the black block from the main demonstration.

The early and uncompromising intervention will probably be justified pointing to the danger of later violence closer to the G20 venue spreading into the night. It has been argued that at least some participants on both sides were intend on violence regardless of such details. In the case of the black block, this comes as no surprise. Why would the police want this? The left wing newspaper “Neues Deutschland” has accused the police leadership of seeking an escalation of violence to justify the expenditure of the current deployment. This may be far fetched in the present case, but the general argument that excessive armament of police forces creates a temptation to deploy and thus justify heavy equipment has been made from other observers.

The other question is: did it work? at the time of writing, the reports seem to indicate that the rioters scatter into small groups, launching decentralised attacks, which would be close to what the police apparently wanted to prevent in the first place.