Are We Disturbing?
Bad Heiligendamm, Germany
As the leaders of the G-8 nations met at the opulent resort of Bad Heiligendamm along the Baltic Sea in Northern Germany, an international assortment of social justice activists opposed to the group's policies took up residence in three protest camps in and around nearby Rostock, carrying out an ambitious agenda of daily protests and direct action blockades, as well as an alternative summit.
Things kicked off dramatically on Saturday, June 2 when nearly 100,000 people took to the streets of Rostock for the "Make Capitalism History" march. As the crowd reached the city's hundred-year-old harbor, where the demonstration was scheduled to end, police attacked a block of protesters, setting off a full-blown riot. Demonstrators set cars alight and pelted police with cobblestones excavated from the city streets. For their part, the police beat and detained those they could get their hands on. More than 1,000 were injured, equally split between police and protesters, and over 150 were arrested.
For days, much of the media ran with stories of violent protesters who would destroy Rostock, rather than discussing the police violence and provocation at Saturday's protest and leading up to the summit. Furthermore, this discourse avoided a substantive discussion of protesters opposition to the G-8 itself.
On Wednesday, following three days of peaceful marches focusing on agriculture and food sovereignty; immigration; and militarism, thousands of protesters flowed out of the camps during the early morning hours and took up blockades of the Rostock-Laage airport, where G-8 leaders were arriving, and the gates that led through the 12 kilometer long, two and a half meters high fence surrounding Bad Heiligendamm.
At Camp Reddelich--overflowing with 7,000 campers and a hub of blockade organizing activity--spirits where high. Around 9:30 am thousands headed for the fence, hiking under the hot sun and over rolling hills blanketed with fields of grain. When groups of protesters encountered lines of police along the way, some of them stopped, some kept moving forward, some squatted in the waist-high grasses, others ran. The squads of police, burdened with helmets, body armor, shields and batons, were no match for the fluid and improvisational streams of protesters and their overwhelming numbers. Within hours, the two gates into Bad Heiligendamm were blocked.
"It was awesome. There were rivers of people flowing through the fields," said Lisa Fithian, an Austin, Texas-based activist and veteran summit protester shortly after she returned to the camp. "It was a realization of thousands of peoples' power."
At the east gate into Bad Heiligendamm, some 5,000 protesters occupied the road leading up to the gate as well as the railroad tracks running parallel to it. People were resting and sleeping on the pavement. Some read. Underneath the hundred-year-old trees of the historic Lindenallee, others listened to music pumping from the sound truck. Frequent announcements about negotiations with the police interrupted the soundtrack.
Among the blockaders was Nadine Fischer, an unemployed mother from Jüterborg, Germany, a small town outside Berlin. "I'm here because I want to do something against the G-8 summit," she said, her shoes and pants cuffs muddied from days spent at Camp Reddlich. "Hundreds of millions are spent for the summit and nothing is done for social services in Germany."
The state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, within which Bad Heiligendamm and Rostock are located, is among the poorest in Germany. Unemployment tops 15 percent in many areas and promises of economic opportunities following unification have not materialized.
The next day, over at the western gate, police violently broke up the blockade. Multiple water cannons doused the crowd with highly pressurized water that emitted a low mechanical hum as it was released from the vehicle's turrets. In front of the behemoth cannons were lines of cops, periodically pepper-spraying protesters and pulling them behind their lines.
Karl Redrich, a protest medic from Dresden, summed up the day's casualties: a broken arm, one broken shin, many concussions and broken eardrums, and a lost eye.
Yet in the face of this brutality, protesters remained steadfast in their non-violent resistance. Often, as the police pushed lines of demonstrators back from the road leading to the gate, the retreating protesters would raise their arms above their heads in order to show that they sought to avoid further violent escalation.
Back at Camp Reddlich, Fithian echoed a common refrain during the blockades and a consistent rebuttal to police allegations of protester violence. "We don't need anything but our bodies," she said "because were putting our bodies on the line."
Throughout the week, many other protesters sported canvas patches that were pinned to their shirts or pullovers that read, Stören wir?, Are we disturbing? It was a question posed about the demonstrations to non-participants. Are they bothersome? But it was also put to fellow demonstrators. Are we disturbing enough?