Two weeks before the Group of 20 summit was held in July last year, rail-signalling equipment was set on fire at 12 locations across Germany, including its capital, Berlin, and Hamburg, the summit’s host city. A group called Shut Down G20 claimed responsibility for the attacks, which it said were meant as an “assault on capitalism’s central nervous system.”
G20 summits have a history of civil resistance. At every summit, protesters gather in large numbers outside the meeting venues to draw attention to various causes—climate change, human rights, anti-war movements—or disrupt proceedings. Protesters are known to clash with the police and vandalise public infrastructure.
For the German police union, the nationwide wave of arson was not just a reaction to the summit—it represented “a new level of escalation in left-wing extremist terror.” Ralf Martin Meyer, the police chief of Hamburg, announced that nearly five thousand anarchists from Italy, Switzerland and Scandinavia were making their way to the city for “not just sit-in protests but massive assaults” during the summit. Over twenty thousand police personnel were assembled from across the country and equipped with riot gear. Water cannons and helicopters were put on standby. Hamburg’s mayor, Olaf Scholz, who is now the nation’s finance minister, called it the largest police operation in post-war Germany.
In Hamburg, residents were starting to grumble about the city turning into a “war zone.” But for the authorities, the city’s history as a hub of left-wing activism and extremism necessitated the heightened deployment. Hamburg is known for Rote Flora, a derelict former theatre that has served as a meeting point for leftists and autonomists since it was occupied in 1989.
Located among a row of tony cafes, restaurants and retail stores, only half a kilometre away from the Reeperbahn—Germany’s biggest red-light district—Rote Flora’s shabby house-front stands as a last bastion against gentrification. The complex consists of a large, airy room divided into two levels and a kitchen by the side, decorated with banners, graffiti and hundreds of anti-fascist stickers. It hosts daily events, including lectures, film screenings and communal dinners. Everyone is welcome as long as they heed the rules pasted up at the entrance: “We will not tolerate any kind of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, lookism or any kind of boundary-crossing behaviour here.” For months before the summit, hundreds of activists met at Rote Flora to prepare for demonstrations.