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Seymour Gris: The revolution is a joke

It's that time again: the May 1 riots in Kreuzberg 36. Seymour Gris explains the history behind the brouhaha and gives his thoughts on what it is today. Hint: he's not a fan.

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Photo by Montecruz Foto (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The people behind the “Revolutionäre 1. Mai” (“Revolutionary May 1”) demo in Kreuzberg have tweeted that the route of the traditional 6pm demo – celebrating its 30th anniversary this year – will go right along Oranienstraße and down Naunynstraße. In other words straight through the middle of the “Myfest” street festival which has been celebrated in Kreuzberg SO36 since 2003. The family-friendly Myfest is, of course, as any good anarcho-communist will tell you, a plot by the police to squash dissent and allow the greedy bars, street food vendors and Spätis of Kreuzberg to profit from the revolutionary day. So it deserves to be disrupted by hundreds of black bloc rioters in North Face jackets and ski masks who think they’re in a revolutionary video game. Obviously.

Ah, the first of May in Kreuzberg. When the same old crew of Autonome, spoilt children that they are, throw bottles at police and then scream “Fascism!” when one of them hits back. And make a big mess of the neighbourhood and get their 15 minutes on TV. Same procedure as every year.

The original uprising on May 1, 1987 was a more or less spontaneous revolt that attracted a large cross-section of the population of Kreuzberg SO36. Back then, Kreuzberg was an impoverished backwater bordering East Berlin, inhabited by immigrants, the poor, punks and anarchists. The area was neglected by the West Berlin government. There were plans to demolish hundreds of old buildings and build an Autobahn right down Oranienstraße – which were successfully hindered by left-wing squatters. Another factor at the time: The police were far more repressive towards left-wing activists than they are today.

On May 1, 1987, the street fighting between protesters and police escalated to the point that dozens of shops were looted and the police were completely driven out of the neighbourhood between Schlesisches Tor and Hallesches Tor for a day. The extreme situation sent a strong message to the Senat, and in the years to come, huge investments were made in the social infrastructure of the neighbourhood. Kreuzberg became a much more liveable place.

Thirty years later, the Revolutionäre 1. Mai demo (as it’s been called since 1988) that keeps alive the legend of revolutionary Kreuzberg is a meaningless ritual. The only thing that interests anyone is how many people are going to get hurt. The actual theme of the demonstration is lost in the spectacle of violence. This year its main message is the anti-gentrification cry of “Wir bleiben alle!” (“We’re all staying!”), in case you’re interested. They’ve been saying that every year for the past decade, but Kreuzberg continues to gentrifty at a rapid pace (see our upcoming May issue for more on that). I would argue that the protests have even contributed to the expensive hipness of the neighbourhood. I’ve overheard real estate brokers explaining to foreigners looking to buy a flat how the demo was one of the things that made the neighbourhood around Kottbusser Tor so “interesting.” An annual day of colourful anarchy is great for property prices.

Every year the schedule looks like this: The demo kicks off at 6pm. By around 7pm the “black bloc” guys start playing revolution, running around frantically and throwing a few bottles and stones at the cops. The ritualised provocation and counter-provocation makes for some beautiful street theatre – no wonder the demo is so popular with tourists. By 9pm or so the march is more or less over and the real fun begins: a dumpster gets burnt to the ground, a bus shelter smashed to pieces or, if we’re lucky, a car or two gets set on fire – usually a small car, not a fat cat’s SUV. By around midnight, the revolutionaries get tired and head home for a Feierabend beer. The overthrow of capitalism is postponed till next year.  

I’m not opposed to demonstrating. Marches against TTIP, genetic engineering, both Iraq wars, East German communism and countless others – including the original 1987 protest – are effective ways for the voice of the people to be heard. Marching through the streets with thousands of like-minded comrades gives you an incredible adrenaline rush. You get swept up by the energy of the crowd and are filled with the sense that you’re on the right side of history. However, the “Revolutionary May 1” demo degraded into a nihilistic spectacle long ago – a destination for Krawalltouristen (riot tourists) and bystanders hoping to get a taste of some political violence.

I have a suggestion: why don’t the demonstrators leave Kreuzberg alone this year and pick on some real capitalists? I hear there are plenty of them in Grünewald.