Protest in retrospect: G20 summits

Protest in retrospect: G20 summits


In the first article in the series 'protest in retrospect' we will be looking at protests that took place during, at and around G20 summits. We will be looking at the 'Zombie March' during the G20 Hamburg 2017 summit, the ‘Robin Hood Protests’ during the G20 of Cannes in 2011 and the ‘G20 Meltdown’ during the G20 of London 2009. All of these protests happened amongst many others during the G20 summits.


Contextual information

Before I go into these specific contexts I want to elaborate on the concept of the ‘G20’ – for the way it is organized as well as the topics that are inherent to the G20 to some extend set the context for many of these strikes.

         The first thing in relation to the context of the G20 that has to be noted is that it is very much of a western event. Not western as the geographical west but western in the political sense. Countries that are denoted as the G20 – the great twenty – are neither neccesarily only those with biggest surface nor only those with the highest population nor those with the highest GDP[1],[2]. It is a mix of these premises which are all deduced from political economic power. These are the countries that depend strongly on each other to maintain some sort of economical hegemony in the global economy as well as their continental economy. This does not mean these countries are economically the closest friends – possibly the opposite. In this way the G20 is more of a global balancing act. As the proverb says, keep your friends close, and you enemies even closer.

         The countries that today belong to the G20 are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union and depending on the state of affairs some guest countries of which Spain is a permanent guest.


What is the G20

Along the nineteen countries and the European Union, all the corresponding finance ministers and the governors of the central banks of the respective countries join in as well. The G20 is also accompanied by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and, by judging its parts, it is explicitly an economicsummit.

         The first G20 was organised by George W. Bush during the aftermath of the financial meltdown in 2008 and since 2011 it is held annually. In the period running up to a G20 summit, all of the financial ministers meet multiple time to do preparatory work. This signifies the overall intention and subject of the G20: economics. It is organised and put to use as a “new mechanism for informal dialogue […] to broaden the dialogue on key economic and financial policy issues among systemically significant economies and to promote cooperation to achieve stable and sustainable world growth that benefits all”[3]

         This clearly shows the main goal of the G20 – which will also form the main vocal point of critique in protest, which is “achieving a more balanced pattern of [economic] growth”.[4]The important demarcation in this aim is that it is confined to the countries in the G20, economic growth would besides be most necessary in the countries that are notpart of the G20 – which would also mean that the economic position of those part of the G20 would suffer. This, again, denotes that the main premise of the G20 is to reproduce and maintain economic status consequentially at the cost of those not partaking in the G20.

         This forms one of the most important topics of protests that surround the G20 summits. So, let’s start by investigating a few examples of such protest.


Zombie March – G20 Hamburg 2017

On Wednesday the fifth of June of 2017, just a few days of before the start of the 2017 G20, the streets of Hamburg were occupied by a post-apocalyptic zombie horde “clawing through the streets in eerie silence”.[5]The 1000 participants of the ‘Welcome to Hell’ march were covered in what later became clear to be grey clay. According to the German collective, 1000 Gestalten, the zombies “represent a society that has lost their believe in solidarity and in which everyone fights for their own progress only.”[6]The zombie metaphor, in which former people have lost every sense of (self-)consciousness, responds to what (global) economics can do to individuals – it reduces them to mere mindless recourses that can be (mis-)used and traded all for economic gain often without consent. The metaphor also works the other way around: finance turns leaders, bankers, and all those profiting from it into mindless zombies – who just want to eat ‘brains’ regardless of the consequences. Interestingly enough references to zombies or walking dead have been made more often during protest taking place around G20 summits, such as the ‘Government of the Dead’ and ‘G20 Meltdown’ which will be discussed later.

While the two-hour performance progressed, the participants, one by one, took of the layer of clay which revealed colourful clothing, “they symbolically freed themselves from their petrified structures”.[7]When a spokesman of the collective was asked for the motives of the performance, he answered that “We want to put back in memory how compassion and public spirit conveys identity for a society. […] What will save us in the end is not our account balance but someone who will offer their holding hand.” Correspondingly, they tried to make Hamburg the capital of resistance against “old and new capitalism”[8], instead of the crystallisation of it during the G20.

         Interestingly, The Sun classified this protest as a “left-wing” protest, which implies that critiques of capitalism as it is, are necessarily left wing – which the article’s writer, Jenny Awford, probably directly associated with communism. I think she misses the point slightly here. The collective 1000 Gestalten, never protested for the abolishment of capitalism itself, but against the forces – in this instance the nations of the G20 – that maintain the destructive form of capitalism. The gathering of these forces in Hamburg, symbolised the ‘hell’ the performance’s title refers to. Regardless of the rhetoric character of the words as well as the symbolism used in this protest, one of the organisers notes that “we can’t expect for change to come from the most powerful people of the world. We all have to take our political and social responsibility”.[9]

         The zombie march protest itself was done by more than a thousand volunteers, from all over Europe, and was financed only by donations.

Willem Thomsen. Welcome to Hell. 1000 Gestalten. 2017.

CHRISTIAN_ANGL_CF005566_webjpgChristian Angl. Welcome to Hell. 1000 Gestalten. 2017.

Robin hood protests – G20 Cannes 2011

The Robin Hood protests share the nature of the Zombie Marches, they argue that “the people come first, not finance”[10]Just as the Zombie Marches the reason for it seems to be, to use Habermas’ words, that the expert system of finance has colonialised the lebenswelt– the world in which we live. The Robin Hood protests fight for a method to reclaim a part of this lebenswelt – to make finance serve it again. As the old folklore story goes, Robin Hood steals from the rich, to give to the poor. The Robin Hood figure is especially interesting in this specific situation, for the people that embody the figure during the protests, by embodying the figure, try to steal back what has been stolen already. It is not just about money, it is about political agency – having a say in the political systems and structures that dictate life. One thing differed in the Robin Hood protests in regards to the folklore, which is the lack of use of violence. Where the ‘real’ Robin Hood actively robbed the rich, these protests remained friendly and good-spirited.[11]

         The Robin Hood protests are part of a bigger movement that argues for a small ‘transaction-tax’ over financial transactions – supported by many institutions such as Oxfam and the WWF. This income over this tax could in turn be used for social improvements such as health care or culture. The goal of this tax is “to force banks and investors to contribute more to the economy and society”.[12]The underlying premise seems to be the argument that the current financial situations and its actors only exhausts society and economy.

         Controversially also Microsoft leader Bill Gates, one of the richest people of the world, joined the movement.[13]Bill Gates is one of those people who could possibly suffer under the proposed tax of the Robin Hood group. Nevertheless, the fact that he showed up in support actually shows one of the virtues of this specific movement: it is not too radical. It allows a certain aspect of economy and finance as it is, it just argues for an implementation of a mechanism that would allow economy and finance to be fairer.

         British actor Bill Nighly, who joined the protests as a representative of Oxfam, said during one of the press conferences that "A tiny tax, fifty pence, in English terms, on every 1,000 pounds (1,596 dollars) generated on the kind of casino-style sterile, nonproductive banking that takes place in cyber space."[14]He said this while lying in a hospital bed, in a casino, while receiving a “phony saline drip, meant to represent the financial transaction tax”. The being ‘sick’ analogy, while receiving a medicine which stands for the tax, paradoxically works both ways. In one possibility this analogy illustrates that when the tax is used it can become temporal remedy, to keep the sick financial systems just strong enough to be able to continue to ‘gamble’. The second interpretation would be that the medicine would ‘cure’ the financial system from having to gamble at all. The question this analogy raises, is what the real effect of the medicine could be? Does it heal the financial system from and for how long? More pressingly, does it tackle the problematic part of the financial system, or not?

 dsc08340jpgSource unknown.

The Robin Hood Tax.

G20 meltdown – G20 London 2009

The first example, of the Zombie Marches, artistically physicalised the current state of affairs in which the human being has been ‘zombified’. In the second example, the iconic figure of Robin Hood brought inspiration and even a method for an alternative implication of the financial system. The next and third example somehow shares the premise of the first: it shows a different world, but with a less positive outcome (the performances do not end in people ripping of their zombie outfits), it is called ‘G20 Meltdown’, which is a “carnival, headed by ‘Four Horsefolk of the Apocalypse’” which happened on the 1th of April in front of the Bank of England.[15]

         The G20 meltdown protests were somehow more aggressive and, at least artistically, more traditional. The G20 in London 2009, was the first G20 after the start of the financial crisis. This offered, for many protests, a reason to argue that capitalism was breathing its last breath. Therefore the word ‘meltdown’. During one of their protests, the ‘zombie pancake walk’, the message was “capitalism is dead and bankers are therefore zombies”.[16]

         The G20 protesters started from four underground station, rising from the depths, to march to the Bank of England – which against expectations they did reach.[17]These protests were more violent than the others, protestors raided and vandalised the Royal Bank of Scotland, which just received billions of tax money to prevent it from falling down.[18]The “horsemen of the apocalypse” tried to “lay siege” on financial institutions.[19]

Written and published by Eef Veldkamp on 27-05-2018

Kashfi Halford. "small section of the crowd". 2009.

Kashfi Halford. "G20 injured protester and police". 2009.

[1]When compared to the nominal GDP Argentina is not in the top 20, but The Netherlands and Sweden are which are both not in the G20.

[2]Especially when compared to the highest GDP per capita, just three of the G20 countries are in the top 20 of this list. (In this comparison I excluded the European Union, which has great difference in GDP throughout its member states. France, Italy and Germany however are included as independent member states of the G20). “The Richest Countries in the World” WorldAtlas. 2018. Accessed on 24-04-2018. (Quebec:, 2018)

[3]“Statement of G-7 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors September 25, 1999 Washington, DC” Office of Public Affairs.(Washington: U.S. Department of the Treasury, 1999). Article 19.

[4]“Statement of G-7 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors September 25, 1999 Washington, DC” Office of Public Affairs.(Washington: U.S. Department of the Treasury, 1999). Article 4.

[5]Lauren Said-Moorhouse. “’Zombies’ descend on Hamburg for G20 protest”. 2017. Accessed on 26-05-2018.

[6]“1000 GESTALTEN at G20-summit – get rid of your shells!” 1000Gestalten.2017. Accessed on 26-05-2018.

[7]“1000 GESTALTEN at G20-summit – get rid of your shells!” 1000Gestalten.2017. Accessed on 26-05-2018.

[8]Jenny Awford. “ZOMBIE NATIONS Hundreds dress like zombies at ‘Welcome to hell’ protest ahead of G20 summit in Hamburg”The Sun.2017. Accessed on 26-05-2018.

[9]“Bizar zombieprotest bij G20 in Hamburg” NRC.2017. Accessed on 26-05-2018.

[10]Ben Rooney. “Protestors descend on G20”. CNN. 2011. Accessed on 17-05-2018.

[11]Ben Rooney. “Protestors descend on G20”. CNN. 2011. Accessed on 17-05-2018.

[12]Ben Rooney. “Protestors descend on G20”. CNN. 2011. Accessed on 17-05-2018.

[13]The Associated Press. “’Robin Hood tax’ gaining support at G20”. CBS News. 2011. Accessed on 27-05-2018.

[14]The Associated Press. “’Robin Hood tax’ gaining support at G20”. CBS News. 2011. Accessed on 27-05-2018.

[15]Matthew Weaver. “A guide to G20 protest in London” The Guardian. 2009. Accessed on 27-05-2018.

[16]Bill Stickers. “G20 London report: Meltdown in the City” Anarkismo. 2009. Accessed on 27-05-2018.

[17]Bill Stickers. “G20 London report: Meltdown in the City” Anarkismo. 2009. Accessed on 27-05-2018.

[18]Bill Stickers. “G20 London report: Meltdown in the City” Anarkismo. 2009. Accessed on 27-05-2018.

[19]Ben Brown. “Police clash with G20 protesters” BBC. 2009. Accessed on 27-05-2018.