Can Europe Make It?

Violence from the future: on the logics of the G20 state of emergency

Chaotic crowds, like natural disasters or terrorism, are perceived as ultimate threats. The excesses of the resulting strategies of preemption became obvious during the G20 summit.

Krystian Woznicki
28 July 2017

German riot police confront protest against the G20 summit in Hamburg, on July 6, 2017. Omer Messinger/Press Association. All rights reserved. Anyone who wishes to discuss the multiple world crises with the most important heads of state should not be surprised that global civil society wants to take part in the discussions. But summits don't provide for such participation, nor do they facilitate it. Quite the contrary.

This is why protests are building up transnationally. They are driven by the assumption that the decision-makers gathered at the summit are trying to solve problems which they are largely responsible for in the first place. As representative intersections of all the problems in the world, summits thus represent the ultimate platform of resistance. As a result, and as witnessed in Hamburg, an almost unsolvable and equally representative antagonism develops.

What logics are at work?

After the horror scenes of the G8 summit in Genoa (including a murder and several cases of torture and rape) summits were not supposed to take place in big cities any more. Rather, they were to be relocated to rural, remote locations that are comparatively easier to control – also with regard to their media coverage. Hence, the big shock among civil society actors when it was announced that Angela Merkel was planning a G20 Summit in Hamburg.


Policemen and water canons block the road to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, 7 July 2017. Boris Roessler/Press Association. All rights reserved. Now that this event is over, having generated many memorable images, the choice of location appears at least careless, if not mad. Unless it had its own peculiar logic.

Analogous to this issue is the allegedly inscrutable phenomenon of protest. In the surroundings of the summit alone, more than 50 demonstrations took place: biker demonstrations, raves, artistic performances, sitting blockades, insurrectionary eruptions, actions of civil disobedience or family-friendly mass-events. Very diverse, some would say.

However, to the many people who were focusing on the insurrectionary eruptions, it all seemed like unacceptable chaos. They say: violence is taboo, laws are sacred. But looking at the general conditions one cannot but notice that these terms did not apply in Hamburg for several days on end. Both the violence and the breaking of the law were pre-programmed in the logics of action by all the parties involved: the state of emergency proclaimed by the government in Hamburg, the strategies of preemption used by the police and the emerging indistinction of the crowds which seemed to defy all boundaries.

The logic of the state of emergency

Actually, one shouldn't talk about Hamburg, but rather about the blue zone where most of the action took place – an area of 38 km², the entire surface of North Hamburg, big enough to be considered a city within a city. From the airport of Hamburg to St. Pauli, the blue zone comprises the near-entirety of the inner city as well as quarters like the Sternschanze, St. Georg, Rotherbaum, Harvestehude, the new and the old city. The state and the police officially designated the blue zone a passageway ("Transferkorridor").

The blue zone can be conceived of as a disaster zone. Weeks before the summit a helicopter was constantly circling the sky, infrastructures were shut down or altered, checkpoints were erected and luggage inspections were being performed, the right of assembly was revoked and everyone was suspect. In other words: it was a state of emergency. Civic certainties began to dissolve, citizens and non-citizens became quasi-indistinguishable. A political delirium was created in the blue zone.

In order to understand and describe the state of emergency in the blue zone, it is important to keep in mind that it was not a static condition but that it kept evolving – on several levels, in fact. Firstly, the establishment of state territory as a blue zone, administered like a disaster zone – as described above. Secondly, the deployment of militarized police forces acting like a foreign occupying power and behaving as if the law didn't apply to them, as if violence were no longer taboo. This has been documented and proven time and again, for instance in their illegitimate attacks against protestors or journalists.

Thirdly, the almost inconceivable simultaneity and abstraction of official and unofficial events – protests, riots, get-togethers, parties, demonstrations, etc. – whose participants partly wanted to protect themselves legally while at the same time maneuvering in legal grey zones. Fourthly, the indistinct coexistence of countless people in the blue zone who dealt with the state of emergency in different ways. This again led to a lack of clarity and contrast between the different political manifestations.

These four levels superimposed themselves, they intermixed and intensified, thus leading to a state of emergency of a magnitude that Germany hadn't witnessed in recent decades –not during the protests at the Heiligendamm summit nor during the demonstrations in Berlin on May 1. Conditions in Hamburg were clearly tightened and exhibited a new quality in many respects.

To some extent, this is due to the fact that one of these levels has undergone a historic overhaul. As many learned commentators pointed out, never before in the recent history of Germany have the police operated so brutally. But that's not all.

The logic of preemption

The police operation, like the other components, came accompanied by an announcement, to the effect that it was to be the biggest and toughest police operation in recent history. 23,000 policemen and policewomen, container prisons with summary trials, drones, helicopters – the "entire German police equipage" was to be ready for deployment according to police director Hartmund Dudde. And that's exactly what happened.

It is therefore true to say that the state of emergency was not spontaneous and unexpected but rather it was planned well-ahead and the threats had been pre-calculated by the police in simulation exercises. Calculation is an important factor alongside size and strength. It is a decisive aspect of the preemption strategy of the police.


Demonstrators march through the streets of Hamburg in protest of the G20 summit, on July 6, 2017. Omer Messinger/Press Assocation. All rights reserved. Contrary to the strategy of prevention, which attempts to ward off unwelcome actions, and contrary to the strategy of prediction, which tries to anticipate crimes in order to avert them (see: predictive policing), the strategy of preemption assumes that threats cannot be completely avoided, but that they can nonetheless be determined and controlled. Yet, in order to determine and control them, one does not wait for the threats to manifest themselves but one engenders them oneself – thereby dictating the rules of the game and dominating it. It is a technique of power where control and repression come from the future: future scenarios based on machine intelligence calculations provide a framework for actions in the present.   

The strategy of preemption finds its roots as a distinctive ideology in the international security policies of George W. Bush's consultancy think tanks after 9/11 and was initially directed at the limitless field of terrorism. Later on, the strategy was also applied to natural disasters and demonstrations – as for instance in 2010 at the G20 summit in Toronto.

The exact same strategy has now unmistakably been deployed in the blue zone under the supervision of Hamburg's police director Hartmund Dudde. With his authoritarian and martial pose, Dudde resembles a character from a different epoch. But people of his type and their correlating forms of power are currently experiencing a kind of renaissance as can be seen in Turkey, the US or Russia. Renaissance does not only mean a re-emergence but also a redefinition. In this case it entails a redefinition of authoritarianism, dictatorship and fascism in relation to the conditions of advanced interconnectedness and data-ization of society and its central institutions.


It is no coincidence that the logics of cybernetics play a central role in the strategy of preemption. They claim the ability to steer big systems on the basis of real-time calculations. This concept has constantly been refined since World War II and is gaining more and more importance. A large amount of data is necessary in order to calculate options of control and steerage and it is no secret that a plethora of such data, referring first and foremost to movements and profiles, is nowadays created, collected and stored.

But the cybernetic fantasies of omnipotence were facing a particular challenge in Hamburg: those who were participating in the strategic planning of the security settings knew that everyone who would be on the streets during the days of the G20 would in some way or another be participating. There were no outsiders. Passers-by, onlookers and protestors could barely be distinguished by their looks. Everyone became indistinguishable in the blue zone. Pre- and post-identity groups emerged which I would like to call a multitude – with reference to Spinoza and Negri.

The police called upon the people to break the indistinct commingling of groups by demanding that "those who are not taking part in the demos should set themselves apart from the protestors" or that "the peaceful should separate from the non-peaceful" or that "the hooded should uncover". However, the police did not fulfill its task primarily through these demands but rather with actions from its preemptive arsenal. With carefully aimed promptings it generated motion. This motion was then regulated according to its own criteria, that is: under conditions in which groups might not be extricated one from another, but they could at least be predicted and controlled.

One such prod happened at the Welcome to Hell demo. Called upon to line up, the demonstrators at first got stuck in their starting formation for about an hour. The Hafenstraße formed a narrow corridor at the head of the protest march with high walls on both sides. At the rear, next to the Fischmarkt, was the precipice to the Elbe river.

With excessive violence the police then stormed into the demonstration (which included people in wheelchairs) from the front and from the back under the pretense that not enough people had followed the orders to take off their masks. With this attack, the police suddenly set a static situation in motion. The highest possible levels of escalation were quickly attained. Many commentators would later say that the police seemed prepared to risk casualties.

This is a high price to pay for the strategy of preemption which always wants to turn the incalculable into something calculable and the uncontrollable into something controllable. The mixed nature of the crowds is partly the object of these efforts. Astonishingly, even after the first preemptive thrusts during the Welcome to Hell demo, crowds in the blue zone retained a certain mixed character. The intermingling of different groups survived the emergence of some individuals who could be designated as "prone to violence" or people "posing threats". Lines between by-passers, onlookers and protestors remained fluid.


Hamburg, 7 July 2017. The police cut off a demonstration with several thousand participants trying to walk from the Landungsbruecken station to the close-by Elbphilharmonie. Daniel Reinhardt/ Press Association. All rights reserved. Thus far, it appeared as if the priority was not to identify "G20-criminals" (as the German journal BILD called them) – ideally before they even committed a crime. Rather, it was a matter of anticipating the patterns of movement of anonymous crowds in order to be able to steer them. In other words: the goal was not the separating out of unruly elements, but but rather the creation of a mixed crowd under conditions fully determined by the police.

The logic of the inextricable

The pictures that became emblematic of the summit and the protests were produced after the Welcome to Hell demo, during two consecutive nights of what seemed to be an  anarchist inferno. But is it really true that a left-wing fascism or insurrectionism had taken shape, as some observers avowed, keen to find quick interpretations easily to hand of these events? Don't such testimonies lead to "democratic demobilization", as Rainer Mühlhoff has argued?

I believe that an outrageous mode of coexistence has risen to the surface – that is: inextricable multitudes. After all, people who wouldn't otherwise have a beer together gathered here and let themselves be drifted into an intolerable entrapment by the state of emergency: anarchists, fitness center machos, half-baked kids, genuine punks, intoxicated and inebriated people, hooligans and folk who may have deviated from their everyday routine for the first time in their lives. Indignant, angry, bored or opportunistic people.

It is this mixture of multitudes which shaped the street-scape of the blue zone. While up to six police helicopters hovered above the city, the streets in the blue zone began to ‘pulsate’ more and more strongly by mid-day. Up and down, sometimes movements solidify, critical masses develop, barricades are erected or are set on fire, and so on. The helicopters serve the purpose of steering the movements of the troops. In order to act, and not simply to re-act, the flying War Rooms steer the troops in such a way as to make them open up spaces here and there on the street through their coordinated movements and to close or narrow down other areas in order to create structures of movement, which allow for a legibility of the multitude.


Anti-G20 protestors block the street in front of the "Rote Flora" building in Hamburg's Schanzenviertel quarter, June 8, 2017. Omer Messinger/Press Association. All rights reservedThe question now is whether the ever-changing ‘mixedness’ of the multitude has released an emancipatory potency or whether it has enabled the development of new, diffuse forms of repression.

Originally published in the Berliner Gazette on July 14, 2017, this was translated into English by Moh Hamdi.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData