"God knows what’s happening here! There are water cannons, there’s tear gas, police, tanks!"
This was a phone call from Rostock. In the voice of the person with whom I was talking, a recent graduate of the Free University of Berlin, there was not so much fear as amazement, mixed with pride; this is what it’s come to, we’re in the very centre of world events.
I felt a slight twinge of regret; the journalist in me was awakening. Here I was sitting in Berlin at a seminar with intellectuals, discussing the prospects for democracy and the future of social movements, and I was missing the most interesting things of all! That evening, the television showed skirmishes on the streets of Rostock. True, the reporting was very brief and restrained. The situation was starting to become clearer.
The demonstration timed to coincide with the opening of the G8 summit in Germany had been projected to be massive and peaceful. Left-wing sources put the attendance at around 80,000 people, from almost every corner of Europe. Everyone knew in advance that clashes could occur, but both sides, activists and police alike, hoped that everything would pass off smoothly. Rostock is the capital of the German province of Mecklenburg-Pomerania, where power is held by a coalition government headed by the social democrats, and in which the Left Party (Linkspartei) was until recently a participant. The local police had been instructed to show restraint, and the demonstrators had not wanted to embarrass a friendly administration. The federal police, it is true, were taking a much more decisive line, so that there were obvious disagreements among the authorities. The organising committee for the Rostock protests had successfully exploited this situation, constantly criticising the ruling groups and forcing them to justify themselves. "For the first time in many years we are on the ideological offensive," explained Peter Wahl, one of the committee’s leaders. "Now the press is publishing our point of view, and the government is losing the debate. We’ve won ourselves a tribune!"
Unfortunately, these subtleties were completely lost on the anarchists of the "Black Bloc", significant numbers of whom had come from different countries, including Greece, Italy and Poland. The "autonomists", or as they are called here, the "chaotics", were employing their usual tactics. Emerging from behind the backs of the demonstrators, they pelted the police with stones, and then dispersed among the protesters. The police responded with tear gas and water cannon, often attacking completely peaceful columns. The left activists tried to reason with the "chaotics", but this was impossible, especially since the police, now taking their first casualties, were also beginning to turn savage. The "chaotics" started building barricades, and Molotov cocktails began exploding, while the police brought their more specialised equipment into play. Both sides called their reserves into action. The "chaotics" threw more than two and a half thousand fighters onto the streets, and the police mobilized ten thousand. The battles continued until the evening.
The size of the "black bloc" was a surprise both to the authorities and to the organisers of the demonstration. Rapidly growing numbers of young people are showing a readiness to defend their antisystemic views with the help of force. In Seattle and Prague the notorious "black bloc", whose members engaged in battles with police and smashed shop windows, consisted of only a few hundred people. In Rostock there were already thousands, of both sexes and mostly very young. The increasing strength of the "black bloc" represents a response not only to capitalism and to governments which do not inspire the slightest trust in the new generation, but also to more moderate leftists who over the past decade have achieved nothing or almost nothing.
There were, of course, no tanks in Rostock, only police armoured vehicles, though these looked quite threatening enough. It is not surprising that the woman who phoned me had got mixed up. She had been trained in sociology, not urban warfare.
A small group of Russian activists who were taking part in the demonstration managed to extract themselves unharmed from the first clashes. Some of these people had already been in Athens at the European Social Forum, where the "autonomists" had placed the demonstrators in a difficult position by using the same tactics. Now, seeing the people in black masks and detecting the smell of tear gas, the Russians judged the situation correctly, and decided to stay a little further from the epicentre of the conflict. If the German press can be believed, a number of Russians had managed to get themselves arrested in Rostock several days before the demonstration; they had walked along the main street and frightened the burgers by singing the Internationale. They had evidently drunk too much beer with the British Trotskyists.
On the evening of June 3, the first arrest was reported of a Russian participant in the demonstration. According to the police, he had joined the "chaotics" in throwing stones. The "chaotics", however, had concealed their faces with masks and handkerchiefs, while our compatriot had cheerfully displayed his physiognomy to several dozen video and still cameras.
I personally reached Rostock only on the evening of June 3. Properly speaking, this was the right time to arrive, since the opening of the summit still lay ahead. The northward-bound train was half-empty, though the carriages contained unusual numbers of young people with rucksacks, quietly reading radical left pamphlets. Most had not been organised by anyone; they had simply put their affairs to one side for a few days and were making the trip to Mecklenburg in order to express their opinions of the world’s leaders.
At the station, people were already waiting for the train. Several young women met the arriving activists and gave them information about where they could stay and where they should go. Meanwhile, a squad of paramilitary police moved onto the platform. It was as if they had been specially selected – tall and blond, true Aryans. Among the police were a few women, just as tall and strapping as the men. The police stood around for a while with a bored air, then blocked the way of one of the detachments of young people. For three minutes both groups eyed one another silently. Then, without a word, the police began checking the young people’s rucksacks. The owners did not protest.
On the square outside the station I found fifteen or so unkempt-looking punks, who were clearly preparing to camp there for the night. Standing next to them was Vasily Tereshchuk, an assistant to the Ukrainian human rights commissioner. The punks amiably and politely explained to us how to get to the hotel. Then one of them suddenly asked whether I had a return ticket to Berlin. "Did you by any chance come on the weekend fare? You can go back tonight on it. I’d like to go to Berlin, I want to take a break." He was clearly longing for a hot bath.
Music could be heard coming from the city port, and several thousand young people were bobbing up and down in time to a song whose words were quite impossible to make out. Above the crowd were the flags of the Left Party, of the social democratic youth (Jusos), and the young greens. A little further on, the Trotskyists were selling their literature. Several sailing chips were at their moorings, their masts adorned with placards denouncing the hypocrisy of the G8. The largest (but also the most puzzling) belonged to Greenpeace, and demanded: "G8 – Stop Talking, and Get to Work!" The reference was evidently to the promise by world leaders to put an end to poverty.
The city was festooned with revolutionary posters and graffiti in the most unlikely places, and next to them was an advertisement inviting people to visit the "Special G8 Casino". The slogan of this establishment was "No risk, no fun". In other words, if you don’t take risks, you don’t get to drink champagne.
The concert drew to a close, and a column of police cars drove to the outskirts of the city as the guardians of law and order, wearied by their difficult and dangerous service, went off to take a rest. A good many also remained in the port, but they were no longer in a workday mood. Evidently mobilised from other cities, the police photographed the waterfront scene, watched the day’s video recordings, and strolled along the wharf among the demonstrators. At the railway station, the police explained helpfully to the punks how they could get to the camp of the antiglobalists. It was hard to imagine that the previous evening some of these people had been indiscriminately beating one another up.
The camp, situated at the end of a ten-minute journey from the city center, amounted to a small tent village with its own streets, main gates, and even something like an administration. The main street was named Via Carlo Giuliani, in honour of the young antiglobalist killed in Genoa by carabinieri in 2001. There was also Rosa Luxemburg Avenue, populated by Marxists, and Durruti Boulevard, beloved of the anarchists. The streets looked imposing only on the map; in reality, they were marked off by narrow yellow tapes of the sort which police use to cordon off a crime scene. At the entrance to the camp was a barrier, and next to it, a tent with a sign saying "concierge" and a tent where mobile phones could be recharged. There were large numbers of chemical toilets, all of them very dirty, and also a free internet access point, where there was always a queue.
It was explained to us that computers and other valuable objects should not be left in the camp (this is why some young people went even to the demonstration with rucksacks on their backs). At the camp entrance one could read the tearful story of two young German women who the previous evening had met up with four Britons, had spent a very enjoyable evening, and in the morning had found themselves with neither their personal belongings, nor their tent. Now they were asking that their tent, at least, be returned to them.
Representatives of the press were not admitted to the camp, and filming or taking photographs was banned, which caused a great deal of annoyance to journalists. A television journalist from Moscow assured me that the camp must have been full of drunks and marijuana smokers, but we saw nothing of the kind. The characteristic smell of the weed, which can, for example, be smelt in the corridors of several Moscow institutions of higher education, was completely absent. People were drinking mainly beer, and the strongest liquor was a bottle of grappa, which the St Petersburg artist Dmitri Vilensky had brought with him, and which we joined him in consuming.
Various Greeks and Russians, sipping on Australian wine, sang revolutionary songs, which sounded remarkably similar in both languages. From time to time young people wandered past in the characteristic dress of the "black bloc". Here they were not hiding their faces, and this was the reason for the ban on photographs. Many residents of the camp ignored the ban, using mobile phones to "hold the moment". No-one paid particular attention to this, so long as the rule-breakers were from among their own. Somewhere music was playing, and people were dancing. People were typing texts into computers, watching a video on agrarian problems in Latin America, and arguing politics.
Meanwhile, the city seemed to have died. Although significant numbers of residents of this traditionally "red" region were sympathetic to the protesters, the citizens of Rostock preferred not to wander abroad more than they had to, leaving the streets at the disposal of the revolutionaries and police. The windows of a few shops had been prudently covered with plywood sheets. The well-meaning burgers sipped beer or coffee on University Square