Spin and rumours at the G8
With proper wars it is a well-known occurrence for one side’s propaganda department to try and spread the most horrific stories about the other party. The opposition are depicted as brutal barbarians who ravage children and should be opposed at all cost. In military jargon this is known as ‘psyops’. During the protests against the G8 in Heiligendamm there were clear indications of a similar strategy. In this case the infamous ”black block” played the part of the barbarians. This is a biased summary of the misinformation and its effect.
A number of persons were arrested because they were carrying a banner with the slogan, “Free All Prisoners!” as they passed by a prison on their way to a demonstration. The Police judged this as incitement to actively help people break out of prison. (Source )
(NB: Many links in this article link to German language sources. featured picture cc/Fels)
Two years ago, during the protests against the G8 in Gleneagles in Scotland, we had to pay an unexpected visit to the police station in Stirling because one of the Dutch activists had lost his passport. While we were in the waiting area we saw an electronic news display on the wall constantly making announcements about the protests. To our surprise there were horrendous stories about violence against the police, which I almost certainly knew were not true or at least grossly exaggerated. Suddenly that classic urban myth popped up: demonstrators had supposedly attacked one of the officers with a knife! At almost every large confrontation between police and protesters this story surfaces, although there has never been any evidence of it actually occurring.
During ‘Heiligendamm’ two police officers supposedly suffered knife attacks (Focus) . As usual some of the press willingly repeated this report without checking if it actually happened. You can count yourself lucky if there is any mention it is based on a police report (1). It is remarkable that the media almost never ask for proof. These rumours are mostly launched amidst an enormous chaos of events, giving the reporters no time whatsoever to check on statements. If they did they would find the police unable to present the alleged ‘victims’, because they don’t actually exist.
When the dust has finally settled it only concerns one incident among many, not worth rectifying or investigating. You certainly don’t want them considering that sort of thing and then constructing ‘evidence’, which happened for example in Genoa during the G8 protests there in 2001 (2).
The imaginary stabbings are only a small part of an entire arsenal of lies and rumours about the protesters that seeped into the world. When the opening march on June 2nd ended in intense rioting the floodgates opened. Media which had originally been suspicious of the state-organised army of repressive forces did a u-turn to directly opposing standpoints. Some of the protesters were supposed to be ‘capable of anything’ and it was a good thing the police had taken preventative measures to protect civilians and politicians against these savage hordes. Again, to the attentive observer, these events turned out to be mostly staged. The riots had indeed been intense, but no more serious than the average clash involving autonomes. In the reports by the mainstream media however it seemed the end of times was near. This reporting was actively fed by the police and other authorities who produced ominous reports about thousand injured, many of them seriously, including over 400 (433 to be precise) police officers. The high point was (again) the Berlin paper Der Tagesspiegel which ran a headline about ‘a rain of rocks splintering riot squad helmets’. Of the Berlin police alone 18 officers were supposed to be in hospital with serious injuries.
These reports lead to grotesque scenes whith the police managing to elevate themselves to the role of victims. The online chronology of Der Spiegel only reported every pitiful mention by the police as well as a battue of the police by the autonomes ([15:31] Einzelne Gruppen von Polizisten werden von Autonomen regelrecht gejagt.)
Days later some newspapers managed to deconstruct the story and found it had all been severely exaggerated. Every scratch and every blister had been included and the most serious injury sustained by an officer (a broken leg) had been caused by his own colleagues stumbling over him when they ran down a staircase while hunting for protesters. Two days later, according to the right-wing weekly Focus no-one was in the hospital anymore. This kind of rectification however never makes the front page. Meanwhile the image was already firmly in place and politicians and even spokespeople of NGO’s like Attac were falling over one another demanding tougher (!) measures against the protesters. A police union even demanded the employment of rubber bullets. This wave of real or pretended indignation still continues. Politicians have announced they will take further measures against what they call the ”black block”, like constructing special databases and a ban on dressing uniformly in addition to the long-time ban on face coverage already in place.
For a considerable time the largest repressive operation in years had been taking place. All kinds of police departments as well as the army had already come to the aid of the police, who were already prepared to the hilt with 16.000 personnel and all technical equipment available. Legally also they had little cause for complaint: the freedom to protest had been drastically reduced in many areas. The smear campaign was meant to make the population and the media accept the repression, and preferably embrace it. The reports were probably also meant to incite the officers themselves to take stronger action. They are human too, and sometimes question the justice of their ‘work’. A continuous stream of propaganda about the opposition’s maliciousness has to keep them motivated. A fourth target group of this stream of false reports are people considering joining the protests. If they believe this might be life threatening or there might be football-hooligan-like situations they don’t support, they might decide to stay at home.
There was much discussion among the protesters about the cause of the riots on Saturday afternoon. Rumours about police provocation quickly abounded. The more radical segment of the activists had already been harassed for weeks, for example by the raids on 40 apartements on May 9th and on May 25th at a march against the EU-ASEM summit in Hamburg. This didn’t just happen in Germany: on May 5th an entire bicycle demonstration was arrested in Utrecht (Netherlands)(3).
As Heiligendamm drew closer the vice-like grip of the measures instated by the police tightened. It was clear that bomb would eventually burst. But the ‘blame’ of course isn’t entirely on one side. The ”black block” attended as usual and was rather large in Rostock (many sources estimate around 2000 people, some even 5000). These were people who no longer wanted to let themselves be pushed around and some probably felt like finally taking a stand against the police. (4)
It was typical that there had been almost no incidents during Saturday’s entire demonstration, including the “black block” (with the exception of one broken window at a Sparkasse bank and one at a supermarket, the origin of which was not clear). It is however interesting to investigate why things got out of hand at the closing manifestation in view of all the cameras.
A few incidents suggest police provocation. Firstly there was a lonely police van parked in the middle of the protest marches’ route, while all other vehicles had been put safely in a guarded parking lot. There are striking film images of this. Also compare the reports on Spiegel TV in which at first a picture was painted that “the entire centre of Rostock is being smashed up by the “black block” (supposedly consisting of a mixture of neo-nazis and Iranian women?) and then mainly showed people blaming the police for the escalation.
When the riot didn’t kick off at the lonely police van the famous pseudo-arrest incident occurred. While not much is happening an undercover police officer inside the march looks around and suddenly attacks a person dressed in black, pushing him to the ground (film ). Some pushing and shoving ensues and a riot police ‘hundertschaft’ lined up nearby charges at the demonstration. People get angry, start throwing things, and the riot can begin. After that the riot police units and protesters were at it for hours. Every time things seemed to calm down riot police units attacked anew. There has been a lot of debate about this incident (for example here ). Most likely is that also the two supposed ”black block’ers’ were actually police officers. The prisoner doesn’t make any attempts to escape the arrest. The purpose of this operation would be to incite the crowd.
These events mainly took place in one single side street along the harbour square which was broken up to provide missiles. Some cars were turned upside down and one of them was set on fire. For days that one Ford was the main image on TV and in the newspapers…. To continue that thread towards all protesters against the G8 seemed child’s play.
The big spin machine could be set in motion. Suddenly (the source turned out to be the German press agency DPA) a horribly mistranslated quote by one of the speakers on stage at the closing manifestation appeared in the media. Walden Bello, a well-known representative of the critical Southern globalization vision, had words put into his mouth claiming he had called for violent resistance, to “bring the war into the demonstration because with peaceful means we will accomplish nothing”. This suggested that Bello (and with him the entire organization of the march) was calling for violent resistance. In reality Bello had called attention to the war in Iraq and argued for the protest to include this because “without peace there can be no justice”. Hundreds of media repeated the DPA-version. Media activists immediately got to work publicising this scandal and spreading the true content of Bello’s speech, which lead to an apology by Der Spiegel, but the damage had already been done.
Up a gear
In the following days the police, who suddenly thought themselves covered by massive support from the public, press and politicians, employed pretty much all means a their disposal to disable further protests. Protesters were continually being pulled from their cars and searched, demonstrations for which permits had previously been issued were made impossible and continually surrounded by large police forces. There are too many examples to list them all, but take this one as an indication.
It was clearly thanks to the protesters that things didn’t escalate further. On the way to a demonstration-with-permit at Rostock airport Laage one of our two buses was stopped for the n’th time and everyone was arrested (including a mother with a three year old child who were also put in cages, ID’d and photographed!. Even the always calm and quiet photographer U. was roaring with anger that next time he would be throwing rocks.
Here you can see how an entirely peaceful demonstration (commemorating the Lichtenhage pogrom of 1992) is messed up by the police.
A recurring phenomenon after Saturday’s riots was police units attacking small groups of protesters to arrest people. Pepper spray and batons were used and caused many injuries. Peaceful situations kept getting transformed into chaos and panic. Even the local S-bahn trains (see film) on which activists traveled from one march to the other were repeatedly stopped and raided by riot squads.
New urban myths
All of this only scetches the context in which the rumours were released. A new high point was for example a story in Monday, June 4th’s Berlin Tagesspiegel predicting that Saturday’s riots were only child’s play compared to what was yet to come. Remember, the blockading of the G8 itself hadn’t even started yet. The journalist in question, Frank Jansen, quotes an anonymous ‘hochrangiger Sicherheitsexperten’ (renowned security expert) claiming to know that protesters are using ‘fruit containing razor blades or stanley knives’ as ammunition. This story is soon repeated by many other media. (5) The story mentions other absurd weapons like enormous catapults made of athletics training equipment and supposedly being assembled in the action camps. Again, there is not a shred of evidence and afterwards the police has never shown any of these contraptions to the media. A version of this story, about a potato with nails in it, appeared on local newspapers MV Regio’s website. A picture was published of a similar potato which according to the newspaper had been ‘displayed’ at the Reddelich action camp. In no time other media report this as fact.
In retrospect it is clear to see how the bizarre accusations often are a back and forth passing play between the press and the police. At a press conference or via the website a police spokesperson reports a gruesome bit of news, one of the media takes it up (and perhaps mentions that it is a police assertion): DPA: “Laut Polizei vermummen sich Autonome und bewaffnen sich mit Molotow-Cocktails und Steinen.” Then Spiegel Online and NDR-tv repeat it and present it as fact (source).
One of the most bizarre urban myths concerns the clown army who form a specific problem for the police. They are not just being funny but actually take part in many of the actions: making the police look ridiculous, getting in the way and sometimes breaking through police barriers. The police had been warned in advance by the secret service about the clowns, who according to the service are a lot more dangerous than they pretend to be. An attempt was made to make the clowns look dangerous despite their hilarious outfits. Many clowns carried water pistols (after all, an army carries weapons) which they passionately sprayed at both activists, onlookers and police. Soon the rumour was spread that the clowns’ water pistols didn’t contain water but a scary acid..Here the version of tv-station NDR.
In retrospect this horror story could of course not be maintained. Asked about the background of this accusation the police version was that they had noted ‘stripes on the uniforms’ of the officers who had been sprayed. Upon investigation however these turned out to be caused by soapy water. But by then the rumour had done its job. This story might well have been especially constructed to make the police take stronger action against the clowns.
On our way back to the Netherlands we met a large group of Bavarian riot police in a parking lot on the motorway, they were also on their way home. We couldn’t resist confronting them with the front page of the (Hamburg) paper Morgenpost, which broadly ran the story of the police provocateur who was exposed when he was collecting rocks and trying to incite the protesters to attack the police. The returning officers’ retort was a pathetic story about how terribly frightening their profession had been over the last couple of days and the ‘clowns-with-acid-guns’ soon surfaced. We were convinced they actually believed it….
After Saturday’s riots and the media storm that followed the situation seemed grim and fairly hopeless. Yet later on the atmosphere slowly changed again. One important reason for this was that the activists didn’t allow themselves to lose the plot and by the thousands they just went to work doing what they had come to do: building the camps, holding actions and demonstrations and preparing for the blockades. This shows the importance of having well organised movements, and also that part of the population is quite politicised. During the first three days the situation was nevertheless dramatic, because of the severe repression described earlier. An important switch came on Wednesday when the first blockade-actions were executed. The massive marches by determined and cheerful protesters, outsmarting the police and striking throughout the entire area surrounding Heiligendamm, made a strong impression on the onlookers, press and fellow protesters. In addition the ban on demonstrating which had been instituted for the entire 5 km zone around Heiligendamm was rendered useless by people voting with their feet. Thousands upon thousands entered the area with the police unable to stop them. It remains bitter that in several places the police still responded with brutal violence. The feeling among the local population was also much better than was previously feared. Despite mentions in the media (like in the Dutch Volkskrant) that the population was hostile towards the activists, there were many expressions of the opposite. Many houses sported protest flags. Local people supplied water and food, and in the evening they handed out wood for the campfires. Even farmers whose fields were flattened by protesters walking through indicated that they mainly blamed the police.
Another important event was the discovery of a group of police infiltrators at one of the non-violent sit-down blockades. They were busy bringing in rocks and tried to get the protesters to attack the police. However they did this so clumsily that the protesters became suspicious and started shouting they were police. They were surrounded and one was overpowered and recognised as an plain-clothes officer from Bremen. He was almost assaulted but activist lawyers accompanied him to the police and handed him over. Many media witnessed this incident. At first the police denied the plain-clothes officers were theirs, but after a while even they couldn’t stand up to the massive amount of evidence to the contrary and were forced to admit the men were infiltrators. The police continue to deny these infiltrators’ instructions were about incitement and provocation, claiming they were just gathering information as usual, but by now no-one believes this anymore. Many see this as evidence supporting other observations of police officers dressed in plain clothes actively trying to incite.
What to do?
Of course the activists did not sit still during this media frenzy. A well-equipped indymedia centre in Rostock was working full time publishing their own reports or correcting the commercial media. Various other media activists and bloggers threw themselves into the fray. But the playing field was far from level (also see a previous sketch: The Media gets the Massage)
It remains fascinating that the mainstream media systematically exaggerate militant actions by protesters and pay very little attention to police violence. At the end of the action-week about half the population of the action-camps was sporting bandages and splints as a result of police activity. Even one of the clowns speaking at the press conference sustained a broken finger on the final day. A number of people were seriously injured , some of them by the water cannons. At least two people are in danger of losing an eye. Have you seen any of this covered in your media? Or any of the innumerable smaller incidents like when a group of clowns were surrounded for an entire afternoon at a McDonalds on the way to Bad Doberan and forced to hand over all of their money as bail? The hundreds of arrests with no legal basis, the inhumane conditions in the cages on the industrial estate which were supposed to pass for prisons, the many incidents involving journalists or doctors being arrested by the police? At most the scandalous torpedoing of the Greenpeace boats received some media attention, but other than that it was utter crap.
The stupidest way to respond is by immediately becoming defensive and distancing yourself from ’the violence’, like quite a few spokespeople for NGO’s and various left wing parties did. Continuous discussion about the chosen means of action is obviously necessary, but it became very clear in Heiligendamm that if we want to change the world we should not allow ourselves to be dictated by the government and the media. The most important victory of this G8 mobilisation is that the actions and blockades were executed so succesfully. Now it is time to learn from this experience and to further strengthen the structures.
Also see the survey by the exellent Grundrechtekomitee.
A good survey of the reports about the G8 by the German mainstream media can be found at the Badespasz website.
The unsurpassed website gipfelsoli has set up an archive of the reports about repression .
Here is an English summary of police repression: http://de.indymedia.org/2007/06/185126.shtml
There are many analyses of the repression and the media lies to be found, for example here and here and here and here .
This analysis adresses how a naive reaction to media-manipulation can lead to a distancing from more militant forms of action.
And finally it needs to be said that not all mainstream media should be tarred with the same brush. there were some positive exceptions. Germany has a few progressive newspapers that reported differently (Junge Welt, Neues Deutschland, Jungle World. The Tageszeitung mainly howled along with the mainstream wolves…). Of the ‘quality press’ the SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung provided a more balanced reporting. While one lokal newspaper Nordkurier committed mainly blatant propaganda for the G8 and the authorities, the other – Die Ostzeezeitung or OZ – appeared to be a relieving exception. Also see this hilarious report by the BBC.
(written by: Kees Stad, globalinfo.nl Translation: Hooligirl)
(1) Not only right wing papers traditionally slandering protesters like Bild or Focus, but also ‘quality papers’ like Financial Times Dld : “Mindestens ein Polizist wurde verletzt, als ein Demonstrant ihn mit einem Messer angriff.” or Der Spiegel.
Der Spiegel (in its online version) played a peculiar part in the reporting by systematically almost literally passing on the police reports.
(2) Immediately afterwards a police spokesperson claimed that during the scandalous raid on the Diaz school one of the officers was attacked with a knife. The knife was supposed to have been deflected by the officer’s bullet-proof vest. This clearly slashed vest was presented to the media together with the knife supposedly belonging to the ‘attacker’. During later court cases however it was proven this knife could never have made the cut in the vest. Two molotov cocktails presented by the police as having been found in the school turned out to have been planted by the police themselves during the raid.
(3) The mass arrests, after which people were kept in inhumane conditions, caused little or no consternation with the press or politicians. Some of the detainees were among the people who were refused entry at the Germany border. This points to a cooperation between the Dutch and German police, using completely illegal blacklists.
(4) The many mysterious stories about the ”black block” form part of the criminalisation and smear campaign against protesters. The ”black block” is of course not a tight knit organisation at all, but a not very secretive demonstration-tactic: by dressing more or less the same and taking other preventative measures you can prevent being forced to follow the police’s whims. It enables the group, or members of it, to execute actions which would otherwise be impossible. The level of militance is usually kept within conscious limits and, unlike those of the police, there have never been any fatalities caused by this group’s activities. For more background information see the book ‘Les Black Blocs’ by Francis Dupuis Deri or ‘Autonome in Bewegung’ (AG Grauwacke).
Also see: interview with a Berlin autonome in the July 4th edition of the SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung .
(5) Via the newspaper’s office I got the e-mail address of the journalist concerned and politely asked him for his contact information so I could ask him a few questions about his story. So far he has not responded.