Seymour Gris: On the streets

What's the point of May Day? Gris joined the May 1 Revolutionary Demo for its March and witnessed a wide-array of behaviour from both demonstrators and cops. And has a feeling for what it's about.

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The revolution ended at 10pm. Thank god. It was exhausting. Four hours was enough. Yesterday, I followed the 25,000-strong 1. Mai Revolutionäre Demo, riding a human river from Lausitzer Platz through Neukölln and Kreuzberg to the Willy-Brandt-Haus near Hallesches Tor.

Marching with the far left through the city is exhilarating, at any rate. The chants are infectious: “ANTI-ANTI-CAPITALISTA!” “HOCH DIE INTERNATIONALE SOLIDARITÄT!” and so on.

I admire the courage the members of various tiny Marxist groups exhibit carrying their flimsy banners, surrounded on all sides by extremely intimidating riot police. Nonetheless, I would never want any of these people with their hammer and sickle flags ruling the country or the world. Their aggression towards anyone taking pictures is absurd and ranges from giving the finger to shopkeepers filming with their phones to actually punching the video camera of an Irish film team. The paranoia and arrogance of some of the more militant protesters that makes it clear they’re living in some delusional fantasy in which they’re morally superior warriors battling a fascist state.

Of course, May 1 is the most interesting street theatre spectacle of the year. All of Berlin’s misfits and outcasts march alongside the demo. Old alcoholics spouting nonsense. People in electric wheelchairs waving in support. Automonen, young men all dressed in black North Face jackets, ski masks and sunglasses darting frenetically through the crowd, seeking confrontation with the Bullen. Several times, one of these bumped into me or stepped on my feet and would apologise with an oddly polite “Entschuldigung”. And then there were the young Kreuzberg youth: Turks, Arabs, Roma along for the ride, hoping for an eyeful of gratuitous violence.

I didn’t see that much. Some car mirrors got ripped off. A few bottles were hurled. Both sides provoked. Several times, helmeted, padded riot police walking alongside the political blocs of the demonstration, triggered by something like a firecracker, would erupt into the mass of protesters, punching and kicking indiscriminately, like deadly wind-up dolls. Every time this happened hundreds of protesters started chanting “Hau ab!” (“Fuck off!”)  or “Ganz Berlin hasst die Polizei” (“All of Berlin hates the police”).

From my vantage point the police did sometimes overreact. Other times, they acted with restraint. I saw a drunk young man who was held back by his friends as he unleashed insults at one particular cop: “You fucking freak of nature, you piece of shit, you bastard…” On and on and on. I almost felt sorry for the policeman, who exhibited extraordinary calm and restraint.

So what’s the point of such an infantile, primordial outburst of human frustration and energy into the streets? Revolution? Forget about it. Germany’s bankers lost no sleep last night. I can even imagine a real estate broker using the Revolutionary Demo as a selling point when it comes to property in Kreuzberg: “And once a year, there’s this incredibly authentic and colourful protest that goes through the neighbourhood… just watch out for your car.”

No, sometimes a massive “fuck you” is in order. And that’s the point of the May 1 Revolutionary Demo. The march ended within a couple of hundred metres of the Willy-Brandt-Haus, the headquarters of the SPD. For the far left, the SPD became traitors to the international socialist cause when they voted in favour of Germany joining the First World War 100 years ago. For them, the betrayal didn’t end then. With Gerhard Schröder’s Hartz IV welfare cuts, the SPD sold their soul and caused more impoverishment than any other post-war German government. Those reforms fractured the progressive vote for years to come, paving the way for the age of Merkel and endless CDU dominance. The SPD, founded as the party of the disenfranchised and exploited, needs a wake-up call. And maybe bodies on the street is really the only way they’re going to listen.