Hamburg: the state of exception
Interview with Charalambos Ganotis
What were the reasons for organizing the demonstration which took place at the end of December 2013 in Hamburg? Can you explain briefly the context in which it took place, which activists groups came together and what happened?
The three demands were the rights for the Rote flora to stay; it’s an autonomous cultural center which has been occupied since the late 80’, and since the late 80’ even as it is in a way accepted there it is a kind of swinging and hanging a Democles sword around the situation of this cultural centre, so due to some discussions in the city and also in the press about if the Rote flora should stay, people called up for this protest. The other thing was the right for the 300 Lampedusa refugees, who came last year to Hamburg, to stay in Hamburg, and not only to stay in Hamburg, but also to get the right to stay with the paragraph 23 which means they have full rights to work, to stay there and not getting into the structure of asylum techniques which the city of Hamburg wants to implement. Another thing is that the so called Esso houses which is an apartment complex in St.Pauli, in the center of St.Pauli, where the inhabitants should go out of there because this whole area was bought by a big investment company called Bayerischen Hausbau, who want to turn down the whole apartment block, and not only the people who live in there but also their clubs inside, their shops inside, their music clubs inside, very old music clubs, very famous music clubs, for the underground scene, for the music scene.
So, what happened was that like 8000 people come together to protest and it was planned to make a big protest march through the city of Hamburg, but actually what happened was that police did not allow the demonstration to start. Another thing which is interesting is that the night before, there was an attack on a police station in St. Pauli and some police cars were smashed so this was the reason for the police not to allow the demonstration on the next day to take place. So, we all knew that there is going to be tension, because also from the autonomous circles there was a call up from the whole Germany, that they will come there to protest for the right of the Rote flora to stay and not to get evicted, but the tension also from the last month was very high, because there was a big demonstration also in November going on for the rights of Lampedusa refugees and there was a big solidarity and supporters atmosphere building up in the city for a lot of demands, so we think that the police did not want this to happen. So, what happen was when the demonstration was going to start, the police immediately interrupted it, like ten minutes after the demonstration started and then the clashes were going on and so what happened the days after in the media it was very cocked up like now you see, “the protesters the only language they can speak is like violence”, and everything was then focused on in the press about the issue of violence, and so the social issues for which the protest was going to happen was totally faded out.
To demonstrate its power, the government of Hamburg declared the state of exception and established three zones of danger. What can you comment on the relation between democracy and the state of exception declared during the protests in Hamburg?
A few days after the demonstration, as I told you, -a very cocked up situation about the use of violence in protests-, what happened was that there was a press release by the police which said that like thirty or forty people who were again attacking the police station in St.Pauli, the David Wache police station, and that they used heavily force against police officers so that one of the police officers got his jaw broken because of the stone hitting him. So, after this press declaration, they used this incident to declare a danger zone, so this meant, concerning to this police law implemented because of this incident, the police had a right to stop you on the street, search you without any cause, search your bags, search your ID’s, even ban you from an area, and the area they implemented this police law, has affected three very big neighbourhoods in the western center of Hamburg, where like 80.000 people are living in. When we see that there is consciousness and fight for social demands, and also really questioning a political matters, now in the city of Hamburg, you can see that the police is implementing measures to cut it, so this means that in this situation your democratic rights, also to come together, are cut.
For example, the so called danger zone, which was implemented after the events, after the 21st of December in Hamburg, this police law has a history, it’s a law that was implemented in 2005 under the rule of conservative Christian Democrat Party, which at that time were having a coalition with a right wing judge called Mr. Schill, it was as they said, one of the most restrictive police laws in Germany, which they also were very proud about, so the idea of cutting civil rights and rights to come together started at that time. So, why this? Of course, to cut down, to take out the energy of a movement of protests, and always as they say to implement law and order, to protect. But, who is going to be protected? This is the question, who is going to be protected? So what happened now in Hamburg in 2013-2014, that this danger zones, were announced and there was a very big protest not only in Hamburg, but national wide because there was a question of how far can the state and the authorities go, to implement so called law and order. And in one national news spot which was broadcasted there was a small excerpt where you can see the police searching a protester, and when they were searching him, they found a toilet brush, “escobilla de water”, so this situation created a symbol of protests. So the toilet brush became a symbol of resistance against “la zona peligrosa”, the danger zone, and was used then in a coming days even to overcome the danger zone, so people even if it existed the danger zone, went out on a street, and also made a game out of it, like we also want to get searched, so search us and they had toilet brushes with them swinging them in the air and making fun of the police.
The toilet brush became a viral image, the new symbol of civil disobedience in Hamburg. What was the power of this image within the context of protests?
So, after a few days of protesting against this danger zones and focusing on this ridiculous police law implementing the danger zone, the symbol really spread through the social networks and made it clear that it was ridiculous to use this police law. The power of this image was that the police or the authorities realized that they could not go on with this kind of situation so they slowly made the danger zones smaller and after a few days release the danger zones.
Since the early spring of 2013 about 300 African refugees who had escaped the Libyan Civil War and its escalation through the military intervention of NATO-states have been living in Hamburg and have organized themselves as Lampedusa gruppe to start the campaign for their right to stay. What is the present situation of Lampedusa gruppe in Hamburg?
The so called Lampedusa refugees who are since last year in Hamburg, they did not come to Hamburg because they wanted to come to Hamburg, they came to Hamburg because there was a civil war going on in Libya, and this civil war in Libya was supported by the NATO, so after this war because of a situation in Libya, they had to go away from Libya, they did not want to go away. There were like 70.000 persons who went to Italy and other countries. So, with the program by United Nations and EU they stayed two years in Italy, and after this program stopped, the Italian authorities said to the so called Lampedusa refugees, people who were living in Libya, “we can’t support you anymore, we can give you papers, you can get some money and you choose where you want to go”. So, three hundred people chose to go to Hamburg, they came to Hamburg and went to the mayor, wanted to talk to the mayor to explain the situation, but the mayor did not want to talk to them. As the situation they are in, in Hamburg, is a very difficult one, they decided they are going to be organized as refugees, so they organized themselves and are still fighting for their rights to stay in Hamburg and want to be recognized collectively, not one by one, but collectively as refugees, so that the paragraph 23 is implemented, which means that under a certain circumstances, these refugees can have the right to stay, the right to work and the right to continue a normal life and don’t get in this process of asylum.
So the situation is that now there is a very big solidarity in Hamburg, and the solidarity is not only from the groups who are fighting for supporting migrants, but its widespread in the society, for example in November 2013, there was a very big protest march, 12.000 or 13.000 people, if I’m correct, in Hamburg, and there you could see that there is a widespread solidarity going through the society that this three hundred people should have the right to stay. And another thing that I was very much personally impressed was that the pupils from schools like ten, twelve, fifteen year old kids organized a rally, it was like 3000 people from the schools and made a solidarity protest for the right of the so called Lampedusa refugees to stay in Hamburg.
And, there you can see that this issue is really concerning the people of Hamburg, that the Senator of Interior with his comments on this make one thing very clear, that the situation is very inhumane, the way how he is handling the situation, and also politically, when he says “we are not the once who are responsible for this, this has to be decided by the Ministry on the national level”, so the pressure is still very high and in 2014 will be very heated concerning this matter, and we will see what will be going on.
What possibilities are opening for a common articulation of our struggle between different activist groups against the European racist politics of exclusion?
It is an ongoing process of struggle which will not stop and you can see this also in Esso houses, I don’t want to focus on losses of fights, but if you are not aware and constantly present you will be overrun so to say, and it’s important and the right thing to do, to be actively part of how you imagine your city and how you want to live because the city belongs to all. So the right to the city also means that this city belongs to all and we have an idea of how we want to live and we don’t want to get said that St.Pauli now is going to be declared as a business improvement district, where the main focus is to make this area as a touristic area. We want this city and this area to be the city for the people, and don’t want to be totally commercialized, gentrified area, where only people with who have wealthy incomes can live in, and this is one of the main demands which is going on in Hamburg. Because one thing we don’t have to forget is that the law can only be changed by laws, so laws have been changed and the city became less social on housing for example, so there has to be pressure that this law is going to be changed, for the needs, for the advantage, for the needs of the people, so this is a very important and still going on process which is worth to fight of course.
What role do performative tactics play and what is the potential of articulating protest through artistic performative interventions?
I’m part of a group called Schwabinggrad Ballet; it’s an interventionist, artistic political collective, and Schwabinggrad Ballet exists since 2000 and is using the tools of intervention in public space and using forms of protest I don’t want to say aesthetically forms, but creating pictures in the culture of protest which change the common methods and narratives of how classical is going to take place.
Schwabinggrad Ballet comes from, Schwabing, which is an area in Munich and in this area in the early 60’ there were going on student protest, so one side is referring to the student protest, and on the other side, is the Stalingrad, which was very historically a defeat of the German Wehrmacht in the II.World War. So, the combination of this Schwabing and Stalingrad is the one word, and the Ballett is the way we move through the public space so to say, but you can imagine what ballet can mean, so this is an etymological explanation of Schwabinggrad Ballett.
Lampedusa refugees, Welcome!
In November 2013 protest march for the rights of the Lampedusa refugees, the Schwabinggrad Ballett was dressed up like a seamen, wearing this yellow jackets, this seamen caps and breaking this picture of the seamen, we were wearing like a very tight ballerina trousers, to brake the image of a seamen, and we took part in this protest march with a plastic boat you use for saving people and on this plastic boat there was written on “We decide!” and on the back of the boat there was written in a big letter, “Welcome!” which was of course referring to the welcome to Lampedusa refugees, and “we decide!” was a slogan used by the Social Democrats in the elections in 2013,- “we decide we are together, we will make this country strong”, so we took the slogan of the Social Democrats to make clear that it is the We decide that the Lampedusa refugees has to stay and not You decide, because We are the ones who decide or should decide. So, this is one aspect of Schwabinggrad Ballett production of pictures, production of interventions in public space in the context of protest culture.
In what way “creative activism” presents the possibility for social change?
You know, pictures which are produced as a form of protest and also in a context of activism or aesthetically produced imaginary even if it is sound or video, it’s a form of inventing oneself in public space or whatever, in a political context, I think it is very important for doing so because on the one hand it is helping to solidarize all around the world, so you can take one picture or one intervention that can affect the other one, and you can get new ideas out of it, and on the other hand it is like to play with this situation, and bring it to another level; it’s like, 1 and 1 is not 2, but 1 and 1 is 3. And on the other hand, it’s very important to say, marking in a historical context, so we don’t have to forget that there are situations that should not be forgotten.