• Politics
  • Red Flag: What’s behind the Silvester Riots?


Red Flag: What’s behind the Silvester Riots?

Berlin's New Year's Eve riots made international news. Did we really experience a "new dimension of violence"? Nathaniel Flakin thinks this is more like a right-wing moral panic.

Is Germany going through a moral panic with its response to the New Year’s Eve fireworks? Photo: IMAGO / Marius Schwarz

What we should have been talking about after New Year’s 2022: It was 18.1 fucking degrees! Holy shit! Sure, it was a pleasant evening — but it was also the warmest December 31 ever recorded. Across Europe, temperature records were broken by up to 5 degrees. The planet is burning. The German government, meanwhile, is currently destroying the town of Lützerath in order to dig up lignite coal.

What we are instead talking about: politicians from across the spectrum are talking about a “new dimension of violence.” There are reports of rioters attacking firefighters and paramedics. I’ve been doing this reporting thing for quite a while now, and I notice that politicians declare a “new dimension of violence” just about every year — and especially before elections. Just google it and see.

What we are experiencing right now is a racist media campaign — it’s right-wing moral panic

I remember the last big “new dimension of violence,” when the G7 summit came to Hamburg in 2017. There was talk about “500 injured police officers.” When reporters went through the list, this was mostly cops who had breathed in their own tear gas, or had gotten a cold before the protests even started. Now, the Berlin Police claim that 40 officers were injured on New Year’s — but refuse to say anything about specifics. So let’s first sort through some of the fake news coming from the Right.

What we are experiencing right now is a racist media campaign — it’s right-wing moral panic, and even more dangerous than the last one. Conservative politicians are not limiting themselves to racist dog-whistles — these are bullhorns. Jens Spahn, the hyper-corrupt former health minister from the CDU, said the problem wasn’t with fireworks but rather with “unregulated migration.” Fellow conservative MP Christoph de Vries said the real problem was: “West Asians, dark skin colour.”

As an autistic person from Texas, I find Germany’s New Year’s tradition perplexing on multiple levels. It’s not just that the loud noises are unpleasant and fine particle matter are terrible for our health. In Austin, the authorities let people walk around in public with loaded assault rifles — but even they say it would be too dangerous to sell fireworks within the city limits. In Berlin, in contrast, where Ordnung reins supreme, anyone can walk into a chain supermarket and get as many explosives as they want.

Conservative MP Christoph de Vries said the real problem was: “West Asians, dark skin colour.”

While they claim to be upset by all the chaos, these right-wing idiots are fanatical defenders of the right to Böllern. (Why not add it to the constitution?) Apparently they see this as part of their German Leitkultur, as if they picture Arminius’s hordes throwing firecrackers at the Romans. If one wanted to calm things down on New Year’s, one obvious solution would be to stop flooding the cities with €120 million in fireworks. But no: they see fireworks as a fundamental right of “good Germans” — they just want “bad foreigners” to be arrested or deported for exercising that same right. That’s the whole point of “prohibition zones” — Böllern would be allowed in a wealthy suburb but not in a poor inner-city neighbourhood.

While politicians denounce this “hatred against the state,” very few are asking where this hatred comes from. What reason do people have to resent the authorities?

“All the young people let out the frustration that has been built up over two years of Corona.”

I think it’s telling that the violence was concentrated not just in Neukölln, but in some of the poorest areas of Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods, like the High-Deck-Siedlung and the Gropiusstadt. These massive social housing complexes were built between the 1960s and the 1980s at very edge of West Berlin, pushed right against the wall. The architecture is beautiful, even utopian (check it out!), but unemployment can be over 50%. People who grow up here are constantly dealing with poverty, structural racism, and police violence. Sharing a room with four people goes against fundamental human dignity — and even more sore during the pandemic. The Tagesspiegel quoted a neighbor: “All the young people let out the frustration that has been built up over two years of Corona.”

Poor people don’t have a voice in our society. Just try to find a quote in the big newspapers from someone who was rioting — or even knew people who were rioting. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” 

The left-wing paper nd dared to visit the “scary” streets of Neukölln the next day, and they met a 31-year-old in a café who explained that the riot wasn’t just about fun — it was about revenge. “On normal days, the young people can’t do anything about the police, and so on days like this they go berserk.” In Neukölln, young people who look a certain way are subject to constant police harassment — does anyone expect them to accept that indefinitely? When right-wing politicians say that now we need more stop-and-frisk, they’re only going to get more resistance.

…the planet is burning before our eyes. That is the real “new dimension of violence” — capitalism’s violence against humanity.

So, if all this frustration needs to get out, why is it on Silvester? Well, when else would it be? We don’t have a real workers movement to give these meaning to this “language of the unheard”. Imagine if Berlin had a revolutionary workers’ movement, like back in the Golden 20s — back when the Communist Party got 37% of votes in the city. Young people who are sick of exploitation and repression could sign up for their local communist youth group, and they would give their rage an organised and political expression. That would mean fighting back against the billionaires and their paid thugs — rather than directing anger at the system against paramedics, who are also just working folks with a lot of the same problem.

As a communist and an autistic person, New Year’s leaves me feeling ambivalent. I really wouldn’t mind if people could chill with the loud noises a bit. At the same time, I’m happy to see poor people coming up. It’s the responsibility of Berlin’s Left to politicise this anger.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the planet is burning before our eyes. That is the real “new dimension of violence” that we are confronting — capitalism’s violence against humanity. And we are going to need an actual “new dimension of violence” is we want to stop it.