The G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany is approaching fast. Tens of thousands of activists are mobilising to protest the event, including many who will come to Germany from abroad. It’s safe to say that all of our actions, no matter which approach we choose to protest or disrupt the summit, will have to deal with police presence at some point. To people who have little or no experience with major protest events in Germany, it is important to know that German tactics of protest policing differ noticeably from those found in other western countries such as France, Italy, Denmark or Great Britain.
Originally published at Linksunten
Download, print, read and spread Know Your Enemy, #NoG20 Edition – Protest Policing in Germany in PDF Format: nog20knowyourenemy
Note: Enough is Enough is not organizing any of these events, we are publishing this text for people across the US and Europe to be able to see what is going on and for documentation only.
What is this article about?
This text is about the equipment and tactics used by German police forces when dealing with protests and/or riots. It also dives a bit into the organisational structure of police in Germany and its history, though we’ll try not to bore you too much with that. We also want to provide some ideas on countermeasures you and your affinity group can take, as well as provide a brief overview of the most important legal topics in regards to demonstrations.
What is this article not?
It is not an in-depth look; we didn’t want to write a book after all. We are also not here to discuss the pros and cons of attacking the police directly, explain the political role of the police apparatus in late-stage capitalist societies or to provide comprehensive legal advice. It is also, and we want to emphasize this, not meant to scare you – quite in the contrary, knowing what you’re up against can help you prepare adequately, meaning you will be less likely to be frightened by an unknown situation.
Who is this article for?
It’s primarily directed at activists from outside Germany, who have little or no firsthand experience with the way German cops operate. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned activist or this is your first time protesting a major summit. If you find you like what we’ve written, feel free to print it, distribute it among friends and comrades, or translate it for people who don’t speak English.
We wanted to make transparent (well, sort of) from what point of view this text was written. We are a small group which has, in one form or another, participated in political struggles on the left over the last two decades – and still does. As we are all from Germany, that’s where most of our experiences are from, although some of us have taken part in protests in other European countries. Over the years, we have come to the conclusion that while the cops are not our – your view may differ – primary enemy in most cases, they are usually the primary obstacle that we face. Knowing what we’re dealing with in most situations has helped us a great deal in preparing and pulling off successful actions. We hope this text can empower you to do the same.
We will be starting with a brief look at the organisational structure and history of German police. We will then cover equipment, weapons and tactics commonly used for protest policing in Germany, as well as possible means to counter them. We’ll finish with a bit of legal advice. So, let’s get right to it, shall we?
1. Organisational structure of the German police
First off: “the” German police does not exist. Germany is a federal Republic consisting of 16 Bundesländer, or states. Each of these states has its own police force. The federal government controls an additional force, the Bundespolizei, or Federal Police. This makes up a total of 17 different police forces. Responsible for each is the respective – state or federal – Minister of the Interior. In Hamburg, the official designation is “Senator of the Interior”, an office currently held by Andy Grote of the Social Democratic Party. While there is a certain level of consensus on tactics, equipment and training between the different states, the various police forces do differ in appearance, doctrine, mentality, experience etc.
In case a large number of police officers are needed, one state can and will be supported by others and the Federal Police. As it currently stands, around 15 000 cops are announced to be in Hamburg, most likely coming from all over Germany. Seeing as every state has its own laws governing what police can and can’t do, those cops coming from elsewhere will have to stick to the laws of the state they’re operating in. In case of the G20 summit, that would be Hamburg’s police law.
The officers most visibly present on the streets will be coming from the Bereitschaftspolizei. They make up the bulk of what would elsewhere be known as riot police, both on foot and with crowd control vehicles such as watercannons. They are usually grouped into Hundertschaften, which unlike the name implies don’t necessarily consist of 100 officers. The smallest operational unit is a Gruppe (squad), which consists of 10 – 15 officers. One Hundertschaft has around nine squads.
Either as part of the squad system or in separate units, German police have professionalised snatch squads called Beweissicherungs- und Festnahmeeinheiten. As we are aware that this is one of those German words that’s bound to give non-native speakers nightmares, we’ll stick to their official abbreviation from now on: BFE. Remember those letters, they’ll be important later on.
2. History of protest policing and crowd control in Germany
A few disclaimers: we will be looking at this history with regards to the current political and administrative system of Germany. This means we will start chronologically with the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, and we will not be taking into account events in socialist East Germany. For one, because mass protest movements were practically non-existent until the very end of this state, and secondly, because any experiences made were rejected out of hand by West Germans after Reunification, with the state police forces of the GDR being remodeled according to West German ideas.
After World War II, (West) Germany, though formally a democracy, remained a highly authoritarian country. Protest was scarce, and when it did happen – such as the massive protests against rearmament in the early 1950s – few people were inclined to overstep legal bounds and cause trouble. When they did, police usually showed little restraint. This was first called into question in 1962: police in Munich arrested a couple of guitar players for being too loud. Their heavy-handed reaction to people complaining about the arrests led to five nights of rioting. In response, police in Munich came up with a tactic called de-escalation. We’ll hear more of that later.
By the late 1960s, protests for educational reform, an end to the Vietnam War, against the involvement of former Nazis in politics and numerous other topics had become common. Police reaction to these marches – many of which were decidedly harmless by later standards – remained heavy-handed, including shooting dead a peaceful protester in West Berlin in 1967.
In the 1970s, two movements emerged which would define confrontation with the police for the next two decades: the squatters and the anti-nuclear movement. Both were willing, at least in parts, to “professionalize” the fight against the police, using helmets, gas masks, clubs, slingshots and other equipment. The cops also got new gear – improved watercannons, riot shields, tear gas etc.
By the 1980s, which saw another huge upsurge in militant actions – larger, by far, than the “generation defining” late 1960s – confrontations had become brutal. A number of protesters died between 1981 and 1987. All talk of “de-escalation” was forgotten, while conservative ministers of the interior, eagerly parroted by the press, spoke of “civil war”. Yet police stuck, by and large, to tactics that are still used in other European countries today: large formations, taking position behind shields, firing tear gas and watercannons indiscriminately at anyone who gets too close.
In 1987, the tactical approach changed dramatically. On May 1st, thousands of West Berliners had driven the police out of the district of Kreuzberg. Easily outflanking and outmaneuvering the inflexible, large formations, they had forced the cops to retreat for hours. West Berlin was the first state to set up a unit that specialised in getting close to rioters, arresting rather than dispersing them – the precursor to today’s BFEs. In November 1987, a militant activist shot dead two cops during a riot in Frankfurt. These shots meant, in police logic, that controlling access to demonstrations and keeping a close watch on what was going on “inside” the demo became vital.
Over the next 20 years, BFEs were constituted in every state and among the Federal Police. Laws were changed, banning both protective gear and face masks for protestors. At the same time, personnel in “critical” situations was increased: on May 1st, 1989, when thousands of West-Berliners again attacked police directly, 1200 officers were on duty. This year, there were around 6000 cops, for a few dozen people throwing some bottles.
3.1. Personal equipment
3.3. Other equipment
German protest policing revolves around the idea of preventing a loss of control of the situation and making qualified arrests, meaning arrests which come with enough evidence to achieve a conviction in court. The BFEs are instrumental to this approach.
4.1. Maintaining control
Police will attempt to tightly control who comes to a demonstration, what those people have with them, and how the demonstration will proceed. To this end, they will usually try to influence the route the demonstration takes beforehand – not too close to important infrastructure, the “red zone” of the summit etc. Preliminary measures also include turning back suspected “violent” protesters at the borders, or “advising” residents of Germany to not go to Hamburg.
At the demo itself, police may try to search “suspicious” individuals. This can mean a short pat-down, a look into your backpack, or running your ID through police systems to see if you have been registered as an offender at protests in the pasts. It is possible – and indeed, we would recommend it – to circumvent these controls. You might decide to join the demonstration after it has started at the next corner, or find others which whom you collectively refuse to pass the checkpoints.
After the protest has started, police will use a varied approach to maintain control. This may include de-escalation, defusing a potentially violent situation by giving in before things escalate, or attempting to talk people out of a certain behaviour before sending in riot squads to force them to do so. It may also mean accompanying parts of the demonstration closely by cops walking to the left and right of the march. Often, these will also film the demonstrators for potential future reference in case things escalate.
An important tactic to maintain control is the encirclement of entire groups of people. This tactic is know as Kessel (literally: cauldron) and can either serve to prevent further movement of the encircled group or to prepare for a mass arrest. Unfortunately, it is impossible to be sure what kind of Kessel you have ended up in, and the police’s objective itself may change. The former might be used, for example, to prevent a group of activists moving around until a G20 delegation has completed its way from the airport to the venue; the latter could be observed at the “M31” protest of 2012, when around 500 people were pushed out of the demonstration, encircled and later arrested.
It is of absolute importance that you keep your calm during an encirclement. It is by far the worst situation of all to attempt militant forms of action, especially once the Kessel has stabilized after the first few, often chaotic, minutes. Get rid of any possibly incriminating evidence, including face masks, gloves etc.
At the end of a demonstration, or at other large assemblies of people, the cops will attempt to “mix up” the crowd. This involves sending small units – usually BFE squads – into the crowd, who will casually and seemingly aimlessly stroll around. This serves a dual purpose: it places the BFE squads into positions where they can strike in any direction in case there is trouble, without having to use an obvious approach path. And it prevents the formation of a united crowd, which can be used to prepare and conduct attacks against the police.
4.2. Qualified arrests
This is another point where the BFEs come in. They are trained and equipped for targeted arrests against individuals who were either caught on film or observed by plainclothes cops. BFE cops will use a number of means to get close to their target, quickly overpower them and extract them without “losing” their objective. A standard tactic involves simply sneaking up on the individual to be arrested. Walking slowly, apparently not paying attention to whoever they want to nab, they will approach to within a few meters before suddenly lunging forwards and grabbing the target. Another tactic is to use distractions: common procedure is to use a couple of squads to attack a demonstration on one side – as protesters surge to that side, attempting to fend off the cops, more squads appear in the rear and make use of the distraction to grab individuals.
In any case, these arrests are videotaped – though don’t count on it if you become victim to excessive force. The video material serves primarily as a means to identify further potential suspects. If the squad making the first arrest is attacked in some form, a second can come in to conduct an arrest of the attacker(s). Theoretically, this “chain” can continue almost endlessly.
4.3. Loss of control
Of course, just because the police wants to maintain control at all times, doesn’t mean it does. If a situation gets out of hand, the go-to tactics of German police are massed charges on foot, often – especially in Hamburg – in combination with watercannons. The aim is to force people away from a certain point, for example a barricade they have erected, make them disperse into sidestreets and generally (re-)establish a situation in which the BFEs can perform their specialty tricks. Bear in mind that these charges are, most of all, scare tactics. Police in Germany have made the general experience that 50 cops running at a crowd, screaming and waving around their batons in a threatening fashion are easily able to make 500 protesters run away.
So, how to defend against this form of protest policing? First of all, it is important to remember that numbers are usually, and especially at an event like the G20 summit, in our favour. 15 000 cops deployed in Hamburg mean that there will rarely be more than 5000 on duty at any given time. Our numbers, on the other hand, will easily reach into the tens of thousands.
The second conclusion is pretty obvious: deny police the opportunity to establish and exercise control. If they start accompanying a march closely, spread out, vary your speed, stop entirely or disperse… If they attempt to mingle with the crowd, block their access (they will usually not try to push it, for fear of starting a riot which could have been avoided). If you see cops getting ready to make arrests, link arms with others. Don’t fall for their distraction tactics – have one member of your affinity group be the look-out to the sides and rear. Change clothes if you think your outfit might have been videotaped while doing something illegal.
If police charge at a crowd you’re in: DON’T RUN. Again, link arms, remain calm, stand your ground or walk backwards slowly. Bear in mind that BFEs are best suited and equipped for low to medium intensity confrontations – when facing a solid, militant crowd their tactics go to pieces. During Blockupy 2015 in Frankfurt, police recorded more than 450 criminal acts during the protest. So far, less than 10 (!) people have been convicted in court. Why? Because police were attacked with such force that they simply did not have the time to prepare and conduct arrests.
We will not be covering counters to individual police weapons here. There are other – and more in-depth – manuals on how to deal with pepperspray, teargas etc. on the internet.
6. A short bit of legal advice
Again, there are more in-depths brochures on legal proceedings in Germany on the internet. However, a few things should be noted, not least because they tie in with police tactics.