About 300 West African refugees reached the German city of Hamburg early last year after a long and perilous journey from Libya.
They had, like countless other refugees travelling from north Africa, crossed the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa the name that the group of 300 later adopted for themselves.
The refugees had hoped to receive refugee status from the German state. However, authorities, deferring to European Union guidelines, refused to provide them with any sort of accommodation and tried to expel them from Hamburg.
As refugees, the Lampedusa group had nowhere else to go. They decided to stay and began organising a solidarity campaign to counter the intimidation from the authorities. What no one could have predicted is the immense, spontaneous wave of support their campaign gained.
Churches and mosques opened their doors (although the mosques were often less public about it). Squats and left-wing cultural centres made space for refugees. About 80 refugees were taken in by the St Pauli Church.
St Pauli Church received daily donations of blankets and food to support the refugees. The professional football team FC St Pauli donated drinks and fan apparel. They gave the refugees free tickets to every home game.
Two trade unions organised a welcome party in their headquarters and accepted the refugees as members, giving them the legal protection of the union. In one of the campaign's more unique moments, a well-known club bouncer spent weeks guarding the church after passersbyers harassed the refugees and shouted racist slurs.
The refugees returned the solidarity on October 28 by playing a key role in a demonstration against rising rents organised by the local “Right to the City” coalition.
Despite the solidarity, Hamburg's city government (led by the Social Democratic Party) stuck to its story: the refugees' presence in Hamburg violated European law, so they must go.
The movement's political momentum accelerated in early October after a ship full of refugees sank near Lampedusa, killing 270. Solidarity from below grew, but no change was signalled from above. Rather, Hamburg authorities laid down an ultimatum that all refugees had to register with the police by October 11.
On October 11, large-scale racist police checks were undertaken with the aim of registering the refugees in preparation for deportation, triggering a wave of protests. That evening, more than 1000 people took part in a spontaneous, loud and angry march. The same happened the day after and the day after that.
Hamburg's most famous left-wing autonomous centre, the Rote Flora, hosted a general assembly to discuss how the police checks should be dealt with, culminating in another demonstration. The assembly answered the government's ultimatum with one of their own: should the government not end the police checks within the next few days, the movement would escalate its tactics.
Their statement said: “We will not limit ourselves to legal forms of protest while innocent people drown in the Mediterranean every day and the Hamburg Senate replies with increased pressure on refugees, despite international pressure.”
They made good on their promise: more than 1000 protesters assembled in front of the Rote Flora on October 15 and marched through Hamburg's Schanzenviertel without a permit. Given the German state's preference for polite, orderly political assemblies, this was quite a provocation.
The march was able to cover only a few hundred metres before enduring a brutal police attack. Marchers responded by throwing rocks, bottles and fireworks. Smaller groups of protesters continued to fight with police for hours.
The next day, more than 1000 people marched from the refugees' protest camp through Hamburg's central districts. St Pauli football fans announced a solidarity demonstration for October 25, which brought 10,000 onto the streets after a football game.
Then, on November 2, 15,000 marchers showed their support for the refugees. Weekly demonstrations began to take place.
Right to City movement
The protests draw their strength from connections to Hamburg's Right to the City movement, a broad coalition fighting against the privatisation of public space and for affordable housing.
Hamburg has a long history of urban struggles. In the late 1980s to early '90s, Hamburg's autonomist scene was able to squat, occupy and successfully defend rows of apartments in the Hafenstrasse, the Rote Flora and others, usually organised as communal apartments and living spaces.
The Rote Flora specifically has persisted as an occupied, autonomist community centre without any sort of contract or agreement with the city authorities since 1989. It has provided an important logistical and social support network for many left-wing groups and movements since then.
Even when squats and occupied centres were defeated by the state, such as the eviction of the counter-cultural trailer park Bambule in 2002, it was never without months of sustained and sometimes highly militant demonstrations that usually dissuaded the city from further evictions.
Starting in the late 2000s, Hamburg witnessed an explosion in rent prices. A “Right to the City” network was formed in response, organising annual protests against “rent insanity”.
As soon as new investors' plans for redevelopment of Hamburg's central districts go public, protests invariably ignite: banners hang from apartment windows, houses are occupied and neighborhood meetings are held.
The protests have been unable to stop most of the redevelopment plans or prevent rising rents. But they have forced all major political parties to make rising rents a central element of their electoral campaigns and promise extensive building of new apartments.
Activists have also achieved some small victories. In 2009, for instance, large groups of artists occupied a historic area in downtown Hamburg. Investors had planned to demolish the streets, but the occupation succeeded and now the streets exist as a non-commercial, independent living space and cultural centre.
Given the political context in Hamburg, it comes as no surprise that these activists have associated themselves with and referred to the refugees' struggle as part of their own.
So far, Hamburg city government has allowed the refugees to erect a series of heated shipping containers on church property to survive the winter. However, the actual demand of the refugees the right to stay in the city continues to be ignored.
The protest movement is organised primarily by autonomists, Die Linke (the Left party) and some sections of the trade union movement. Practical solidarity, such as food and clothing donations or social events for the refugees, has mostly been limited to the historically left-wing districts. In other parts of the city, the government's position is still largely supported, sometimes due to racism.
To build support, activists around the Rote Flora issued a call for a nationwide demonstration on December 21. More than 10,000 supporters turned out to march.
The demonstration did not manage to get far. After just a few metres, the police stopped protesters, despite it being a legal, police-sanctioned assembly, and unleashed waves of tear gas and water cannon attacks.
Thousands of participants refused to accept the state's violent and illegal attempts to do away with their right to peacefully assemble. The ensuing street battles were more intense than anything Hamburg had seen in years.
The strength of the movement in Hamburg demonstrates what is possible when the refugee rights movement links with local social struggles, such as those against rising rents and privatisation. In Hamburg, these struggles were able to grow on the basis of a strong and durable left-wing neighbourhood presence and a radical left voice in parliament provided by Die Linke.
Central to these developments has been Hamburg's large and healthy left-wing cultural and political milieus with their squats, cultural centres and a plethora of activist groups interacting with trade unions, Die Linke and the left-liberal media. Those of us in Germany who are frustrated at the slow pace of political development and low level of mobilisation on the radical left should be hopeful.
Hamburg shows us that more is possible. There are many other cities with many of the ingredients that led to Hamburg's explosion.