And so it comes around again, the ritual of rocks and bottles, batons and boots. May Day. Berlin. Kreuzberg. You know this one.
The trend of declining violence during Berlin’s May Day celebration/streetparty/protest/happening/boozebath was successfully reversed this year. Congratulations to all involved: the Polizei — green, riot-helmeted lemmings, bobbling off to their job as representatives of Order, State and Democracy, 200 of them injured; the protestors — black-hooded hurlers, tabloid media favourites, ready for their frontpage close-up.
Before all the evening clashes, early in the day, the first flashpoint was out in Köpnick, a town in the former East. It’s 800 years old, I learned a week previously as I inadvertently walked into birthday celebrations for its Old Town, one of the few unmarked by WWII. Visiting on a warm spring day, the usual bunch of beige-chinoed local history buffs and old folks were celebrating. Grey people were parked in rows by the front of a traditionally-dressed oom-pah band.
Beyond such pleasantness, Köpnick is also the home of nationalist NPD party leader, Udo Voigt. On May Day the ailing party — bankrupt, discredited, despised, a sad joke — was to host a picnic there. A “family day”. Much like the one I’d seen the week before, along the banks of the Spree, only this time with generous servings of Turk-bashing and anti-Semitism between burgers.
Various anti-fascist groupings decided to blockade the town, laying down on the train tracks in both directions, shutting the station for at least an hour. Police did their usual heavy-handed thing, a warm-up for the later street battles. The situation briefly erupted after a local funny-guy made the Hitler salute from his balcony. Rocks. Abuse. Etc. No blut(wurst) was spilled, but the Left’s point, I suppose, was made. Whether their point could be made more effectively by, erm, organising and speaking with the NPD-sympathetic East Germans left behind by re-unification — well, that’s a debate for another meeting.
After the NPD had been dispatched, around lunchtime, there was the union and ‘legit’ show of labour and left politics along Unter den Linden. Speeches. Applause.
For the assembled masses, it was onto the U8 train and out to Kreuzberg, a place retaining some of its infamous radical politics. There have been recent signs of increasing militancy: some 90+ upmarket cars have been torched and upturned this year in a campaign against gentrification along the Eastern axis of the city (Friedrichshian, Kreuzberg, Treptow, Neukölln). With the winds of capital blowing through its streets, this corner of Berlin is still a site of foment.
It’s a pertinent place for discontent, for grievances to be aired. People living here, for example, have a life expectancy some four years lower than those living in Wilmersdorf, a few stops west along the U1. Around a third of Kreuzberg is living below the poverty line. Something like a third of the population is of Turkish origin, managing to not-quite-exist in a Germany that neither loves nor entirely loathes their presence. As elsewhere, for many Germans it’s a matter of ethnic calculus — one Turk (with a Döner shop), good; 2.8 million (with children), bad.
This year’s violence took place at the bottom of Berlin’s signature post-war apartment towers – where many semi-integrated Turks live with their satellite dishes. Kottbusser Tor was once going to be the site of freeway, but with the Berlin Wall zagging around this corner of West Berlin and enclosing it on three sides, it was a road to and from nowhere, leaving Kreuzberg a place for squats and Nick Cave. The towers encircle a roundabout, with twelve lanes of traffic and two trainlines flowing through it. The perfect gathering spot for protests, an urban space that is at once dense and open.
May Day night, everything was in its place. Things flared, positions were staked. Fires, uplifted cobblestones, covered faces.
The police were prepared for their part in all this. 5,800 of them were deployed. Their vans lined up along surrounding streets and held some 300 arrested people by the night’s end. The vans stretched for hundreds of metres, two vehicles deep. Helicopters buzzed overhead all day. Sirens pierced the double glazing. Friends of mine, driving over from Prenzlauer Berg, could not reach us, the city streets locked down.
Police exploited access to the newest surveillance technologies. They openly sat in their vans, hunched over laptops in full combat wear, surveying real time maps and information on the flow and movement of people. They closed off streets at the first sight of trouble. The thin skein of democratic capitalism rests on Google Maps. Plus water cannons. And thermal imaging.
By 11pm, many of the scuffles around Kottbusser Tor had dissipated, the police segregating protestors into small groups. A carpet of broken glass and lumps of rock were reminders of earlier actions. The lumpy riot police stood around, shuttered in behind helmets and armour. Drunken blow-ins were shouting, raising false alarms and giggling. The macho nonsense of so much street protesting glides easily into the macho nonsense of drunk idiots out with mates.
Around the corner from the Tor, Myfest — the marketed, publicised and endorsed face of Kreuzberg’s May Day celebrations — was in full force. Or rather, at full blast. An ear-drum warping seven stages are arranged around Oranienstrasse and its sidestreets. (The revolution will not be … without infrastructure?) Add to this some ad-hoc DJ sets outside cafes, bars and taxi schools. The street was thick with people, dancing, drinking, eating, contending with streams of other people navigating their way around the dancing people and the eating people and the drinking people and the people looking for other people they’d come with who were here a minute ago but now lost somewhere in this sea of people dancing, drinking, eating…
There was none of the Tor’s tense quiet here. The music bounced off the tall apartment facades. The street party’s energy — bodies pressed in close, moving — was different from that of the protest. Better. It felt spontaneous, joyful, open, creative, one vision of people creating something together. Families with food stands, musicians, DJs. It was telling that the protest, by contrast, felt only staged, repetitive and “blocked”. Twenty-two years in a row of pitched battle on the same day, at the same time, on the same streets — sometime soon, the value of this protest form must surely be questioned in whispers around the various circles of Berlin’s Left.