Germany Taking Hard Line to Foil Disruption at G-8

A G-8 protester relaxes at an encampment in Rostock, Germany. Some activists worry that strict security measures will prevent them from being heard.
A G-8 protester relaxes at an encampment in Rostock, Germany. Some activists worry that strict security measures will prevent them from being heard. (By Fabian Bimmer -- Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

REDDELICH, Germany, June 5 -- The protesters, thousands of them, are packed into a soggy tent city next to a potato field. They have spent months honing tactics and discussing strategy, all for a particular goal: to disrupt the summit of the world's biggest economic powers that begins Wednesday.

To do so, they will have to get past 16,000 police officers who are backed by helicopters and armored personnel carriers, not to mention a seven-mile-long fence topped with razor wire. The odds are not lost on many of the people who have traveled here from across Europe and North America to make political points but already seem resigned to an unsatisfying result.

"The biggest concern is, will we be able to get our message out, or will we just be completely shut down by the police?" said Lisa Fithian, a 46-year-old protest organizer from Austin. "Will we have a chance to have our voices heard, or will we just be beaten, clubbed, tear-gassed and hit by water cannons?"

The German government has spared no expense -- spending upward of $100 million -- to safeguard this week's summit, which brings together leaders of the industrial countries known as the Group of Eight. German authorities have taken an offensive-minded approach, using a variety of tactics that critics say conjure bad memories of the country's totalitarian past.

For instance, police and prosecutors have surreptitiously acquired scent samples of some protest organizers to make it easier for police dogs to locate them in a crowd, authorities have acknowledged. The technique was pioneered by the Stasi, the East German secret police.

In the days leading up to the summit, some German officials called for preemptive arrests of G-8 opponents in case they were planning to cause trouble. Although the government backed away from that approach, it has taken a hard line against allowing public demonstrations within a four-mile radius of the summit's location.

German authorities have defended the aggressive stance as necessary to avoid chaos, as well as national embarrassment. They pointed out that more than 500 police officers were reported injured in clashes with anti-globalization demonstrators over the weekend in the nearby port city of Rostock. A nearly equal number of protesters were also reportedly hurt. Each side blamed the other for starting the fights.

"The riots were indeed shocking," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday in an interview with the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur. "Sadly, it was proven in Rostock that strict security precautions are necessary."

The G-8 leaders will spend three days discussing issues, making toasts and posing for photographs at Heiligendamm, a 214-year-old Baltic seaside resort founded by Grand Duke Friedrich Franz I of Mecklenburg. Most of the participants, including President Bush, will fly to the site by helicopter and remain far removed from any demonstrations.

While many G-8 opponents who have turned out want to make their views known without causing disorder, organizers of the tent city want to disrupt the gathering. They have vowed to blockade the numerous two-lane country roads that lead to Heiligendamm in hopes of preventing other members of national delegations and support staff from getting to the summit site. "The main goal is to completely block the G-8," said Michal Osterweil, 28, a doctoral student from Carrboro, N.C.

The protesters espouse a variety of causes. Some oppose globalization, capitalism or economic inequality. Others want wealthy nations to spend more money to fight AIDS, combat poverty in Africa or protect the environment.

In Reddelich, a farm village about five miles from Heiligendamm, a temporary camp had filled with about 5,000 people by Tuesday evening. Organizers had installed showers with solar-heated water, a concert stage and a three-story wooden tower so lookouts could keep an eye out for the police. Lots of people wandered around in dreadlocks, black T-shirts and other counterculture styles.

One field had been roped off so people could practice sit-down demonstrations and listen to lecturers' advice on how to respond to baton-wielding police. On a grassy knoll, about 100 people suddenly took off all their clothes and locked arms, a technique designed to thwart security forces.

Friederike Habermann, 39, has been organizing anti-globalization protests for nearly a decade but said she didn't know quite what to expect from German police this week. She said she took part in protests over the weekend alongside a group known officially as the "Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army," whose followers dress up in costumes and try to make officers laugh by mimicking their movements.

"In a way, the police have to laugh as well," said Habermann, who lives in a forest commune outside Berlin that prohibits use of money. "What can the police do otherwise? The clowns are so obviously nice guys."

While most protesters are peaceful, past G-8 events have drawn hundreds of black-hooded anarchists and others who seem to relish scrapes with the authorities. Leaders of this week's demonstrations have repeatedly disavowed violence, but said there is only so much they can do.

"We have to make certain that the nature of the events remains as peaceful as we want it to be," Werner Raetz, a protest organizer, told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. At the same time, he added, he could not rule out more outbreaks of violence as the summit begins.

"We have to assume it is possible," he said. "There are some people and small groups who are almost impossible for us to reach."

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