Months prior to this year’s G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, anti-globalization activists said they wanted to blockade the event. On Wednesday, despite security precautions the likes of which Germany hasn’t seen in decades, they did. With street blockade after sit-in protest after march, thousands of protesters managed to block a number of the roads leading in to the Baltic Sea resort, even succeeding in marching right up to the fence surrounding the venue.
In the end, the authorities had no other choice than to shift to plan B. While the world leaders arriving to the summit flew comfortably to the Kempinski Hotel at Heiligendamm in helicopters, hundreds of journalists were unable to get anywhere near the site. For hours, they waited for streets to be cleared. Even the train intended to take journalists from the press center in Kühlungsborn to the summit venue was blocked. Ultimately, ships were brought in to ferry them the final stretch to the G-8 meeting.
“The plan was civil disobedience and to block access to the G-8,” said 38-year- old protester Andreas, shortly after he was dragged from a street just east of the summit venue by riot-gear-clad police. “I think it was a success. It was a clear message that there are many of us who disagree with the G-8 and with their policies.”
It was also a clear indication that the anti-G-8 crowd are outstanding strategists. Fully 16,000 police are on hand for the event and the roads near Heiligendamm on Wednesday were crawling with bright green police vans speeding in every direction. Police helicopters likewise buzzed overhead. Nevertheless, the long-prepared policing plan proved to be deeply flawed. Groups of demonstrators — some numbering just a few dozen, others as strong as 2,000 and more — appeared almost out of nowhere to block important roads and thoroughfares in the area.
Police estimate that some 10,000 protesters even managed to make it as far as the 12-kilometer-long security fence built around Heiligendamm for the summit. Demonstrations near the fence were forbidden — a precaution confirmed by Germany’s high court on Wednesday — but thousands poured through the fields and woods ultimately, ending up near the east entrance gate and elsewhere along the 2.5-meter-high barrier.
But police seemed unwilling to admit they had been outfoxed by the thousands of anti-globalization protesters. “Police were not caught off guard, we had strong forces deployed,” a spokesman for the G-8 police security force, Kavala, said Wednesday.
Still, officials from Bavaria, which had sent officers to guard the meeting, came under criticism from Konrad Freiberg, the head of Germany’s police union, who said that uniformed officers were “exhausted.” In an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper, he said reinforcements were desperately needed from across Germany. In a separate interview, he said the police looked like “zombies” and that they had been suffering from a lack of sleep and G-8 deployment shifts that ran upwards of 20 hours a day.
Tired or not, they still had enough strength to use water cannons and pepper spray to beat the demonstrators back. Some anarchists from the violence-prone Black Bloc were likewise on hand, and more than a dozen police were injured by flying stones and bottles.
Mostly, though, the blockades were peaceful. And they got an early start. Already by 11:00 a.m., protesters had blocked a highway just outside one of the impromptu campgrounds set up to lodge those who had traveled from afar to demonstrate against the G-8. Where the road passed through a forest just outside Bad Doberan, logs were dragged across the street to make it difficult for police to follow.
The police reaction was swift. Riot squads mobilized in countless tiny villages nearby as perplexed residents looked on. “I don’t know why they just rushed off down that road” said one local in settlement of Brodhagen. “It’s a bicycle path. And it’s already blocked off.”
It soon became clear where the police were headed. By 11:20, the mass-march along the highway had already disappeared with the only traces of their presence being leftovers from the log barricade. Thousands of demonstrators were now trudging through the forests and fields on their way to the next blockade site.
The cat-and-mouse game continued throughout the afternoon. Every 20 minutes or so, organizers leading their anti-globalization troops received new text messages telling them where to go. Journalists attempting to keep up received other messages: “Lindenallee Street to Heiligendamm blocked just near the gate. Two-thousand people. Others are on their way.” Or: “The press is desired on the street L 12 in Rethwisch in the direction of Nienhagen. Thousands more coming.”
The blockade near Rethwisch was typical. Thousands of protesters had made their way across an expansive wheat field to the road, one of the numerous streets heading to Heiligendamm. Some 50 demonstrators were sitting on the road, many with bags of wood chips to protect them from police batons should violence break out. In the front, faced by a giant green police vehicle with water cannon mounted on top, protesters held a tarp at the ready.
Police delivered a number of warnings, counting down the minutes to the 1:30 p.m. deadline they had given those lounging in the street. When it passed, the black-clad riot police — a unit up all the way from Bavaria — waded in, dragged people to the side of the road, and shoved them none-too-gently into the neighboring field, protesters chanting all the while: “We Are Peaceful, What Are You?”
As they were being dragged away, the months of training many anti-globalization activists had participated in was obvious. It is not advised, many demonstrators said, to lock arms during such blockades as it just gives the police an excuse to take out their batons. Balling up and being carried away is the safest alternative. The “potato sack” method is also a possibility, though not guaranteed to be free of pain — police drag protesters away and don’t pay much attention to what part of the body is scraping along the asphalt. There is little defense against the disabling neck and nose grips often used by the police.
“This is the only way to get the authorities’ attention,” said Sebastian Güldenpfennig at the edge of the sit-in. “We don’t want violence. And we know that we can’t completely block the G-8 from happening. But we can make it more difficult.”
By the time the blockade near Rethwisch was cleared, the majority of those plowing through the fields had already moved on. A glance at a demonstrator’s map made it clear where they were heading. Just across the field, past the wind generators spinning lazily in the light breeze, was another road, this one leading directly to Heiligendamm. The helicopters were already circling in the distance and soon, the police moved on too.
The next text message arrived. The coastal road leading from the east to Heiligendamm had been blocked – just two kilometers away through the forest.