Hamburg: between the medieval and the global

The organisation of the G20 reflects its democratic deficit. Not only did the G20 summit turn parts of Hamburg into a virtual fortress, it also made hostages of thousands of peaceful protesters and residents. (The Hindu, 16.07.17)

The G20 that just took place in Hamburg replicated a pattern of past gatherings. Access was restricted in and around the convention centre while massive protests were staged all over. Reportedly, 100,000 people rallied in the streets of Hamburg and occasionally clashed with a 20,000 strong police force backed by the military.

G20 events cast a large dark shadow on the cities where they take place. Unlike the World Economic Forum, which is held in the remote confines of the Swiss Alps, the G20 tends to take place in urban centres. Being one of the largest ports in Europe, Hamburg was chosen as a beacon of free trade – a theme dear to Angela Merkel. The city authorities were eager to host an event which they thought would showcase Hamburg as a city open to the world.

What the world witnessed instead was a barricaded city that served as a stage for the worst kind of political division and brutality. On one side, a pop up fortress was erected around the conference centre, making global politics look indeed like a secret conspiracy protected by high-tech armies. On the other, were a few thousand radicals hell bent on fighting global power. In between, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters and hundreds of thousands of residents taken hostage. Those living near the convention center could not even shop, send their kids to school or go to work.

Not only did Hamburg not benefit one bit from this event; not only does it have to repair the damages caused by the clashes and heal the wounds of all those who were hurt, it also has its image as a trade hub seriously tainted. Businesses may think again before setting shop in a city where anti-capitalist feelings appear to be so alive.

The moderate majority would surely accept the notion that powerful countries need such gatherings. But what no one can quite comprehend is why the G20 demonstrates such contempt and disconnection from the cities where it is being held. Why even come here, then? If anything this summit was a major failure in communication by the city’s authorities, the German government and the G20 organization.

Rather than inviting the city to be part of a discussion that concerns each and everyone, the G20 turned its back to it, occupied its center and created a huge symbolic distance from the people it supposedly represents. What if a few millions out of the nearly € 200 million it is said to have cost, had been spent to open venues and forums where the civil society could have expressed itself with dignity? What if it had turned the city center into a pedestrian zone so everyone, not just the G20 summit could have appropriated the streets and organized their own pop up events (peacefully)? What if it had treated demonstrators as respectful citizens legitimately expressing themselves, instead of amalgamating them with rioters and instigating them? Maybe it would have been more in tune with the city, the population and the time.

Who in 2017 still wants to be ruled by an oligarchy that doesn’t hesitate to occupy a city centre without conveying its inhabitants? What does that say about the way they handle global politics? At the time when participation in governance, budgeting and urban planning has become recognized as the most advanced form of democratic expression, how can we expect the people of Hamburg, or any city for that matter, not to protest?

In the face of such hegemonic takeover of urban space, one can only agree with Umberto Eco’s statement that we have never left the middle ages. Except that nowadays castles and their kings have the power of materializing everywhere they wish for, even if only for a fleeting moment – till the people around turn into an unruly mob and boot them away.

The article was first published here as a part of the fortnightly column 'Place, Work, Folk' for The Hindu. 

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Hamburg's convention centre, where part of the G20 summit was being held