Armored cars and helicopters patrol Hamburg, shielding G-20 summit from protests

Armored vehicles rolled through the streets of this affluent German port city on Friday as police helicopters buzzed over head aiming to prevent anti-capitalist demonstrators from interfering with a meeting of the leaders of the world’s biggest economies.

Protesters played a game of cat and mouse with police through the city as they tried to blockade major streets and disrupt the first day of the G-20 summit proceedings.

Police used water cannons, truncheons and pepper spray to disperse protesters, who shouted anti-capitalist slogans in Spanish, chanted about democracy in English and heckled officers in German. 

“The G-20 says it stands for 80 percent of the world, or the world economy,” said Jana Schneider, 26, a criminology student in Hamburg. “Well, not me.” 

The night before, German security forces had used water cannons and pepper spray to clear an anti-capitalist march that featured anarchist protesters. There was rioting throughout the night and militants torched cars and smashed in shop windows. 

Meanwhile, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, announced he would headline a demonstration on Saturday, pinpointing President Trump as a target of activist ire. 

By early Friday, police said they had made 44 arrests and that 111 officers had been injured.

“The police behaved very badly last night, and now they’re worried,” said Christian Buettner, 33, who works at a call center in Neubrandenburg. 

Thursday’s skirmish followed an hour-long standoff adjacent to Hamburg’s harbor, where protesters were attempting to move from a public square toward the downtown conference center where Germany’s chancellor, ­Angela Merkel, is hosting foreign leaders, including President Trump. A concert in the evening will take place at the Elbphilharmonie, a crown jewel of a city that is among the country’s most affluent and yet is burdened by higher-than-average unemployment. 

When police attempted to separate a group of “black bloc” activists from the roughly 12,000 people who had assembled to protest inequality and economic greed, authorities were met with a hail of rocks and bottles. As police rushed the group, some of the protesters fled. But a phalanx of activists dressed in dark clothes, with their faces concealed, held their ground. They carriedsigns that condemned the state and declared “Welcome to hell.”

Police vehicles spewing powerful volleys of pressurized water rolled toward the protesters. Smoke bombs detonated in the crowd. Police said they did not have an estimate of the number of protesters injured, but medics could be seen treating people on the sidelines of the demonstration. 

Activists accused authorities of using excessive force, but police said the masks donned by some of the protesters suggested they intended to commit crimes. 

At stake are questions about security, free expression and democratic assembly — newly relevant alongside a summit that, while traditionally devoted to economics, may also showcase different approaches to human rights and the rule of law. Merkel, who is chairing the summit, said she will highlight climate, free trade and the shared obligation to succor refugees. 

Her critics say her policies are part of the problem.

“This week is about Angela Merkel’s austerity policy going global via G-20,” said Jan van Aken, a member of the German Parliament representing the far-left Die Linke party.

He criticized the German government for seeking to suffocate protest, saying its approach was autocratic and would “make Erdogan, Putin and Trump feel at home here” — a reference to Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, as well as the American leader.

The government is sensitive to this point. 

“The main issue is that the summit is again, after Brisbane, in a democracy,” said Wolfgang Schmidt, a Hamburg politician involved in summit preparations. Summits in Turkey and China followed the 2014 meeting in Australia. “You want to make sure that protest and dissenting views are heard, but you also need to maintain security, and with 42 highly protected heads of state and finance and foreign ministers, it’s a challenge.”

The street marches unfolding alongside the summit — similar to the forceful dissent seen at past G-20 gatherings — cover a range of issues, including calls for environmental protection, denunciations of ethnic nationalism and opposition to free trade.

But the Hamburg protests have gained added momentum as a stand against Trump and his brand of “America First” populism. An estimated 100,000 protesters were expected to converge on the old merchant city during the summit. 

Meanwhile, 20,000 officers were being deployed at about 30 registered demonstrations in the largest police operation in Hamburg’s history. Forty-five water cannons were available to disperse crowds, and a no-fly zone was in place over portions of the city. 

Protests were expected to continue Friday and Saturday, stoked by the presence of divisive foreign leaders, including Putin and Erdogan. But a particular flashpoint is Trump, whose presidency is as bewildering to some Germans as it is frightening.

“I still can’t believe Americans elected him,” said Sebastian Keller, 35.

Peter Grant, a 68-year-old self-identified Communist who moved from the United States to Germany 45 years ago to study, said he was worried that Trump’s presidency was encouraging far-right groups in Europe, a continent riven in the 20th century by nationalism. He said 20 world leaders, cloistered in a conference center, “have no right to decide on the future of humanity.”

A 33-year-old woman studying education, Katalina, who declined to give her last name, said the problem was bigger than Trump.

“Refugees are dying at sea,” she said. “Who will speak up for them?”