Eyewitness from G8 riots

Singer David Rovics appeared on stage during the G8 counter-demonstrations, incorporating them into his “G8 Warm-Up Tour” of northern Europe. He sent this account.

The riots in Rostock, Germany began around 3 pm last Saturday. In European riots outside of G8 meetings and such, generally all sides refrain from using lethal weapons. (If anybody breaks with this tradition – such as Genoa in 2000 or Gothenberg in 2001 – it is always the police.) The riots on Saturday were part of a long series of such confrontations around Germany, around Europe, around the world.

On one side were many thousands of police brought in from all over Germany, dressed in space-age green or black riot gear. On the other were thousands of mostly young men and women, mostly German but including participants from all over Europe and a smattering of other places, many wearing balaclavas or bandanas over their faces, most dressed in black.

These events are strangely beautiful, partly like a brilliantly choreographed modern dance performance with the city as its stage, partly like a medieval battle. Many of those who don’t wish to be involved leave the scene in a hurry, many others find some high ground and watch the melee unfold, and quite a few more try to keep on with whatever they were doing before the riot started and hope it ends soon.

For months before the event tension had been building, as is standard before these big convergences. As if following a script, the German authorities raided leftwing social centers throughout the country looking for people they described ominously as ‘terrorists’. (What a useful word for anybody you don’t like.) These raids were reported throughout the European press, of course. The idea is to scare people off from coming to the protests. As usual, it worked, and the crowds were probably less than half what they would be if so many people had not been afraid to go.

Police were stopping people driving suspicious-looking vehicles, looking for gas masks, fireworks, or other things they didn’t want at the G8 protests. Of course, anybody coming in a day early driving a normal-looking rental car like me had no problems and could have brought anything into Rostock, but if you were trying to bring some banned item in with a home-made ‘pull-me-over’ car, or a big bus full of anarchists, you had problems.

But all the efforts of the police were in vain, since one of the most effective weapons people use in these confrontations are readily available in unlimited quantities in every European city – cobblestones. The streets of Rostock were littered with broken cobblestones that young people had been smashing on the street and breaking into fist-sized pieces to throw at the cops.

The most impressive part are the modern equivalent of the archers, those firing flares, lighting up the sky, arcing far over the heads of the crowd and landing in the packed lines of riot police. Many times the police retreated, many times they charged, and many times they tripped over each other in the narrow streets, where their numbers simply couldn̢۪t be accommodated. By the end of the day there were hundreds injured, dozens with broken bones, including quite a few police.

The day began with my friend Lisa dropping me off at the main train station, where one of the two opening rallies was to take place. She forgot her cell phone in the hotel room and it took her hours to drive back to it. For the whole day it seems the police had shut down most of the roads leading into the city. Sometimes roads leading out were also closed, but mostly it was easy to get out but hard to get in.

For days leading up to June 2nd, mostly youthful alternative-looking sorts of folks were streaming out of the main train station, coming from all over, then heading purposefully from the train station to the main Convergence Center or one of the three camps within twenty kilometers of Rostock, surrounding the small resort town of Helingendam, where the G8 meetings are taking place as I write. On Saturday morning the crowd kept doubling in size every ten minutes or so until by 11 am there were tens of thousands of people, and the same thing was taking place at another site in town for the other opening rally.

The crowd was a multigenerational collection of people with very diverse views, but united in the idea that this world could be a very different place. There were representatives of the massive German anti-nuclear movement, there were those calling for the G8 nations to end their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to do something about global warming. There were quite a few Turkish communists, there were Danish union members, Dutch squatters, and many, many others with no particular political affiliation or ideology. Just people who know that things are not as they should be, this world is not quite the world we want, and these G8 leaders need to be held to account for the world they have, in so many ways, created for us.

They are essentially asking the question that is as old as what we dare call “civilization.” Whose world is this? Is it for the corporate elite and their pseudo-democratic governments to rule in the interest of profit, or is the world’s wealth for us all to share more equally? Is our world a place where we can allow any nation’s army to bomb cities in another nation? And when all this death and destruction is all about oil and control, what then? What is the appropriate response when our air is being poisoned by coal-burning power plants, our food and soil poisoned by pesticides, our water poisoned by nuclear waste, and we’re all dying of cancer? Is this how things should be? If not, how can we change the situation?

One of the speakers was from the MST, the landless peasants movement in Brazil. They have answered the question of whose world is this by seizing the land that the rich call their property and they are forming collective farms. They have chosen to eat and fight rather than to starve and die. The questions are immediate, the stakes high, and in Brazil, as with many other countries, much blood has been spilled over these questions.

In modern Europe there have been historic compromises between the haves and the have-nots, and most people live in relative comfort. The struggles rarely result in people getting killed these days. But as in the rest of the world, all over Europe the historic struggle goes on, continually trying to answer the question in one form or another, is the world here for the private gain of the few or for the public good of the many?

One of the things that’s always so striking about these mass convergences such as this week of action going on right now in and around Rostock is how few of the people I know in various activist networks around Europe are actually there. There were tens of thousands of people present at the big rally last Saturday, but they clearly represent a small fraction of the European left. Throughout my tour of Europe leading up to the G8 protests I asked people if they were planning to go. There were always one or two, sometimes a few, who were. But most said no, they couldn’t get off work, or they had to take care of their kids, or they were concerned about getting arrested, or they were on probation from the last arrest, or they were too broke to afford the train ticket.

Yet here we were on June 2nd, with the big public space in front of the train station thronged with tens of thousands of people. Behind the stage for everyone to see were two large banners, proclaiming in German and in English, ‘another world is possible.’ I sang, a German hiphop artist performed, and then there were several speakers from around the world, including the woman from MST.

It was a long and peaceful march to the site of what was supposed to be the main rally, which turned into a smaller rally than the opening ones, as many people left, others stayed and fought, and a few tried to pay attention to what was happening on the stage, which kept on starting and then stopping again depending on what was happening around it.

June 2nd was the main rally against the G8, but the actual G8 meetings are happening now, with smaller groups (many thousands) based at their various camps engaging in road blockades and many other different types of actions to try and prevent the meetings from happening, or at least to disrupt them.

Already the G8 meeting organizers have cut their meetings down from three days to 1-1/2 days. They presumably have their reasons why they’re doing this, but everyone knows the real reason – fear of us, fear of humiliation, fear that the world will see them naked, humbled by a few thousand citizens determined to let them know that their elitist, corporate version of ‘democracy’ is not ours.

David Rovics is a singer, songwriter and social activist. This account of the events surrounding the G8 forms part of his narrative of his European tour which can be read, along with numerous other pieces by him, on his website, from which you can also download his music. It’s all available free, but as David has not yet transcended his corporeal existence and continues to need regular inputs of nutritional biomass, you might care to buy at least one CD.


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