May Day for dummies

Each May 1 for the past two decades, in a much-anticipated ritual of unbridled violence, Kreuzberg has turned into a battlefield as police clash with rioters under the bemused gaze of excited, camera-toting tourists. But how did it all begin?

Image for May Day for dummies
Photo by _dChris (Flickr CC)

Each May 1 for the past two decades, in a much-anticipated ritual of unbridled violence, Kreuzberg has turned into a battlefield as police clash with rioters under the bemused gaze of excited, camera-toting tourists. But how did it all begin? And why?

This article, published in EXBERLINER’s April 2010 issue, triggered this reaction from Berliner Zeitung.

May Day is not Germany’s most exciting holiday. The trade unions and the Social Democrats organize rallies replete with cheap beer, greasy bratwurst and bad music. But as we all know, Berlin is not Germany, so it is here that all the fun takes place: a massive left-wing demonstration – with front banners reading “Capitalism means crisis and war!” – next to concert stages, and Marxist speeches – “The working class needs to fight for its liberation!” – next to food stands. And, most importantly, Kreuzberg SO 36 ritually turns into a war zone: masked youths throw rocks and bottles, smash the windows of banks, and set cars on fire while thousands of police in riot gear fan out across the Kottbusser Tor area.

May Day – a phenomenon combining Germany’s knack for organization with Berlin’s predisposition for nihilism – has come to epitomize the city’s much-sought-after alternative edge, alongside hardcore electro and underground clubs in old warehouses. Erasmus students, expats and out-of-towners in search of a kick turn up for a night of Krawalltourismus: when a dumpster starts to burn, the flashing digital cameras can be brighter than the flames. “People from across Germany and Europe come to Revolutionary May Day” says Bill H., who conducts walking tours through Kreuzberg for RevolutionaryBerlin. “But virtually none of them, not even the people from the neighbourhood, know how this tradition developed.”

The 1980s: how it all began

With its immigrants, students and occupied houses, 1980s Kreuzberg was a poor West Berlin neighborhood surrounded on three sides by the Wall. The KreuzbergerInnen were autonomists, feminists, anarchists, anti-imperialists, Stalinists, Trotskyists and every other shade of ‘left’. On May Day, they formed their own “red-black blocks” at the trade unions’ demonstrations, even though the trade union leaders tried to force them out – and after the marches, they would return to Kreuzberg for a street festival.

But on May 1, 1987, a fight started between the police and the autonomists. Ulrike S. remembers watching the events from her flat on Lausitzer Platz, where she used to live with her small child: “The police attacked all of a sudden. Someone helped the women and children escape to the basement of a nearby café, where we waited for things to calm down. It wasn’t until late at night that someone came with a VW minibus and got us out of there. We couldn’t set foot in our apartment for three days because it was saturated with tear gas.” In the course of this Kiezaufstand (“neighborhood uprising”), a Bölle supermarket was burned to the ground. The ruins stood as a reminder of the event until a few years ago, when the enormous mosque opposite Görlitzer Bahnhof took their place.

The 1987 riots were so impressive that the following year, the Kreuzberg lefties decided to hold their own, “revolutionary” May Day demonstration. After the trade union demonstration in 1988, up to 10,000 people gathered at “O-Platz” (Oranienplatz) under the rallying cry “No liberation without revolution”. They marched down “O-Straße” with their arms linked together, their red flags and homemade banners flying, and their faces covered with black ski masks – the uniform of the old-school autonomists. This day, like so many May Days to come, ended in rioting.

The 1990s: the fall and rise of Revolutionary May Day

Around the world, the early 1990s were hard times for the left. In Germany, reunification unleashed a wave of nationalism – a wave ridden by the neo-Nazi movement. While left-wing activists busied themselves with antifascist campaigns, Revolutionary May Day was weakened by infighting.

The demonstration moved to Prenzlauer Berg (which, amazingly, was full of squats at the time) for a few years, and it wasn’t until 1999 that it returned to Kreuzberg. That year, the band Atari Teenage Riot performed at Revolutionary May Day for over 10,000 people protesting against the Nato forces’ imminent attack on Yugoslavia. In 2001, with the summit siege in Genoa on the horizon, the conservative Berlin government banned the demonstration – which drove even more people out onto the streets for a massive illegal protest. More than 5000 riot police, brought in from across Germany, couldn’t keep the situation under control. Some 270 officers were injured; 289 people were arrested.

The 2000s: whose fest is MyFest?

When the prohibition failed, the city came up with a new strategy: it would fill the streets with party-goers, music, food and beer. This was “MyFest” – presented as an initiative by residents, but financed by the police. In 2005 and 2006, the demonstration was pushed out of the heart of Kreuzberg by MyFest, but soon a counter strategy emerged: the activists held a concert at the edges of the event, featuring well-known international musicians like Kenny Arkana, from France, and Banda Bassotti, from Italy. At 6pm, the demonstration started there and thousands of people joined in.

In the last three years, the Revolutionary May Day demonstrations have become bigger than ever, and while 2007 and 2008 were relatively calm, 2009 was different. According to Markus B., one of the organizers, “in the month before the demonstration, the media – and not just the tabloids from the Springer Publishing Company – organized a massive campaign against us”.

The 19-year-old activist who registered the demonstration was denounced as a “Chaot” (hooligan) on the cover of the tabloid BZ. “This gave the police the feeling that they had a free hand to attack us with clubs and pepper spray,” Markus says. But some demonstrators were also out for a fight and violence ran wild: a picture of a policeman running, his green riot gear in flames, made the front pages the next day.

Erster Mai 2010: what to expect

This year, blocks organized by school students, trade unionists, squatters and the Antifa (antifascist) movement are planning a massive demonstration with the motto “End the crisis – abolish capitalism!”

A popular theme will be gentrification, an ‘evil’ some leftist groups have been busy fighting (by burning cars in Prenzlauer Berg) as the colonisation of former working-class districts by yuppies creeps across the city. Organizers like Jonas S. are already predicting a special year: “The tabloids, the conservative parties and the police association all have an interest in lots of violence – and most people at the demonstration are angry about the effects of the capitalist crisis. That’s an explosive mixture.”

But who will join the demo, besides the usual ageing autonomists in leather jackets, Kreuzberg kids and bored middle-class teenagers from the provinces? These three stereotypes will be amply represented, but Markus argues the demonstration has a much broader scope: “Workers, students, unemployed people and youths angry about the misery of the education system come together to fight for anticapitalist change.”

Of course, May Day is more than just a Kreuzberg tradition. It can be traced back to the legendary Chicago workers’ strike in 1886 and has, since 1890, been celebrated by labor movements around the world as International Workers’ Day. Local activists still quote Berlinerin Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words: “As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.” Yet many Kreuzberg teens who unleash their own version of fun on May 1 have never heard of “Red Rosa” or “Labour Day”. And a police officer from Hannover anonymously acknowledged it was the only day of the year when he could ignore all the rules: “They have their fun and we have ours.”

So… it looks as if there will be a lot of “fun” to be had at this year’s Revolutionary May Day. “It might seem scary if you’ve only seen images on TV,” says Bill, the tour guide. “But if you just follow a few of tips [see sidebar], you’ll be able to protest against capitalism while having a great time.”

Originally published April 2010.