Techno and Teargas: My Very First First of May in Berlin
K, so I originally thought this blog post would be a short little summary of my very first May Day in Berlin, but when I sat down and wrote out my notes the next day, I produced pages and pages of text. So, this is my attempt to reduce everything down to a brief narrative with some pretty pictures. But I won’t keep you in suspense: I wasn’t teargassed or pepper-sprayed or tasered. Most of my day was actually spent wandering around the MyFest street-fair, dancing at a few open-air events, and hanging out with friends. Even the infamous “18Uhr Demo” was mostly peaceful—at least until the end. (Slideshow of 51 images at the end of this article.)
May Day (or, International Worker’s Day/Tag der Arbeit) has been a major holiday for the labor movement (and, consequently, left-wing politics) since the Haymarket Affair of 1886 in Chicago. It became an official holiday in Germany under the Nazi regime in 1933, and it remained a state holiday in both East and West Germany after World War II. But May Day has also been an important North-European spring festival for centuries, usually celebrated the night before with bonfires on Walpurgis Night (Apr 30).
But in 1987, something happened during Berlin’s May Day festivities, and the day ended with an all-out street battle between police and rioters. The story of exactly how it started remains disputed and fragmentary: the police responded to a traffic incident at Lausitzer Platz in the immigrant and punk/countercultural neighborhood of Kreuzberg; they returned from the scene to find their van tipped over; they called for reinforcements; the reinforcements arrived and proceeded to launch tear-gas grenades everywhere around the Platz, including through the windows of nearby apartments; some neighborhood residents reacted forcefully against the police’s indiscriminate use of force; surprised by the ferocity of local resistance, the police were forced to retreat out of Kreuzberg and only return when the violence had abated.
Ever since 1987, the first day of May has also been a day of left-wing protest, demonstrations, marches, and riots; some years have been nearly violence-free, and some years have nearly reproduced the 1987 riots. In 2003, the combined efforts of local residents, borough politicians, and the Minister of the Interior brought about MyFest, a street festival that featured musical performances and food stands. Experience in other cities had shown that street festivals are effective in deterring this kind of street violence, and so MyFest filled the Kreuzberg streets that were trashed on a yearly basis—Oranienstraße, Adalbertstraße, Kottbusser Tor—with family-friendly entertainment and benign revelers. This had the desired effect for many years, but the infamous “six-o’clock demonstration” (18Uhr Demo) continued to take place, and occasionally it nonetheless ended in violence. 2008 and 2009 were the last years with major riots, each resulting in approximately 300 arrests and as many injured police officers. (Check out this article for a more detailed history of the Eintagskriege in Berlin; in German.)
Right, so, about my day: I started the morning by being a good boy and taking care of some editorial work at home. I’ve been working on guest-editing a special issue of Dancecult Journal on the theme of “nightlife fieldwork,” and the day before was the deadline to submit article abstracts. We had a surprisingly massive response, so I had a lot of reading and organizing to do. After processing all of the submissions in my inbox and filing them away, it was about 13:00 and time to head out and join the MayDay festivities.
14:00 Walking around Kreuzberg’s MyFest
By then, I already had several text messages from friends inviting me to join them at various open-air dance events around the city, but I decided to head to Kottbusser Tor and walk through the heart of the SO36 neighborhood (Adalbertstraße, Oranienstraße) to Görlizter Bahnhof and beyond to Spreewaldplatz, where my friends were waiting for me at the open-air party in front of Kleine Reise. I walked around “Kotti” for a while and started taking pictures of the crowds and the festive events. There were thousands of people on hand, most of the streets north of Kotti were closed to traffic, and both Adalbertstraße and Oranienstraße were so packed with people that it was sometimes hard to move.
Every restaurant, most stores, and also what appeared to be several enterprising families had set up tables and barbeques and were selling grilled food of various sorts. All the vendors seemed to be making pretty brisk business. I know what I’ll do next year! It’s time for someone to set up a Peruvian grilled food stand.
There were several sound-stages on the streets offering live music or DJ sets, mostly located in front of the businesses that were sponsoring them. On Oranienstraße, for example, there was Luzia hosting a techno stage; YAAM hosting a reggae/ska/etc just north of the crossing with Adalbertstrasse; SO36 hosting a a DJ set-up playing a mix of disco and soul (at least while I was there); and Core-Tex Records hosting a punk/hardcore stage—just to name a few.
And, of course, there were lots of impromptu musical performances, too. On Heinrichplatz, there was a group of percussionists in a circle, jamming in a style that seemed to shift between Brazilian, Afro-Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan African (very, very broadly speaking). In front of a Turkish instrument shop on Adalbertstraße, two middle-aged men in slacks and woven shirts walked out of the shop and began to perform as a zurna (piercing reed instrument similar to a shawm) and davul (bass drum) duo—a combination common in Anatolian folk music and associated with weddings and rural contexts. I managed to get a bit of video of them performing, which I’ve uploaded to YouTube and I’ve included here below:
At some places (especially near the sound stages), it became very difficult to get around. And so, it was kind of amazing to see how many people were there with baby carriages, trying to push their way through the crowds. It was also absolutely impossible to keep my phone on the cellular network. I was constantly getting messages from friends asking where I was, and then trying frantically to respond to them before the question became moot. I think it mostly had to do with the insane concentration of people with cell phones in the immediate vicinity. In any case, I was only periodically in contact with my friends until I found them at Spreewaldplatz later.
Although everything was very placid, you could hardly miss the rows and rows and rows of police vans parked along the streets. I lost count of how many there were, and their presence foretold a lot of the kind of violence they expected. There were also “Anti-Konflict Teams” milling around at all the historical hotspots for violence, in police uniforms, neon-yellow reflective vests, and what appeared to be tasers; I’m not sure what their notion of “conflict resolution” was. As I was walking over to Spreewaldplatz (near Görlitzer Bahnhof), I passed the fire station at Wiener Straße. The street was completely lined with police vans and people in riot gear, and the sidewalk in front of the fire station was completely closed to pedestrian traffic. Talk about show of force…
16:00 Spreewaldplatz and the Kleine Reise Party
The triangular block circumscribed by Wiener Straße, Spreewaldplatz, and Skalitzer Straße was where most of the dance-oriented open-air events were going on. Among the bars and cafés hosting DJ sound-stages with large crowds dancing outside were: Hannibal, vor:Wien, Café Quitte, Morena, another place next to Morena, and Kleine Reise. And around the corner from the Omar mosque near Manteufelstraße, both Soju Bar and Kjosk had sound-systems blaring as well.
As I wandered around Spreewaldplatz, I quickly ran into one of my friends, who led me to the rest of them. They were all sitting on the grass a couple dozen meters back from the façade of Kleine Reise, hanging out and chatting and drinking cheap sekt (non-Champagne champagne). Another friend of mine was looking for me somewhere in the dancing crowd ahead of us, so I headed up to find her a buy a drink. In the process, I ran into another friend near the bar and tried to talk to him, but the music was so loud that all we could do was exchange hand gestures and yell in vain. There was apparently some sort of loudness-war going on between Kleine Reise and the other open-air party a few doors south. The music was mostly downtempo house, with the occasional hipster-y vocal track à la Soul Clap.
17:00 Soju Bar
Realizing that I hadn’t eaten since midday, I headed out with a friend to go hit a Geldautomat (bank machine) and find some food. After casting about near Görlitzer Bahnhof, I made do with a scaldingly hot gözleme cheese-and-spinach Turkish pastry from the restaurant of the Omar Mosque near Soju Bar. Since we were already there, we decided to go and dance in front of Soju Bar, where we ran into even more friends. Paramida and Katovl were spinning a mix of classic and cheesy 90s house (including Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody”!). The weather was actually kind of perfect at the moment: hot and sunny but not blazing, and with plenty of shade.
I checked the time and suddenly realized that I would soon be late for the 18:00 demonstration, which I intended to join with another friend of mine. So, we headed back to Spreewaldplatz, said hi to the rest of the crew, weathered a very short rain shower, and then I struck off on my own to the gathering point for the “18Uhr Demo.”
18:00 The “18Uhr Demo” (and Riots)
Ironically, Kleine Reise’s party on Spreewaldplatz was only a short walk away from the meeting point of the “18h00 Demo”, which was to gather at Lausitzer Platz. In fact, it was on the other side of the U-Bahn tracks (ha!). I made my way over and tried in vain to get my phone back on the cellular network long enough to contact the friend that I was supposed to join for the protest march. In the meanwhile, I wandered around Lausitzer Platz a took a few pictures of the gathering crowds, with their political-faction flags, banners, and pamphlets.
I eventually gave up and headed to Görlitzer Bahnhof to find some food before the march, and I ended up walking right into my friend and his companions. After a brief snack and a chat, we headed back to Lausitzer Platz, listened to a Kurdish rapper perform from the flat-bed truck that would lead the march, and took pictures of men peeing against the church at the center of the Platz.
Things were taking some time to get started, so we headed up Eisenbahnstraße to find a Spätkauf (late-night corner store) to buy a couple of bottles of beer. We noticed that all the Spätis in the neighborhood were closed, even though it was the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday—albeit a holiday. We wondered if they did that out of self-protection or due to police/legal demand. I had already noticed earlier that day that all of the bright orange trash bins usually attached to streetlamp-posts had all been removed throughout the entire neighborhood. I imagine both actions were done to reduce the supply of glass bottles and combustible materials for would-be rioters. Clearly, the Berlin Polizei have become pretty familiar with May Day riots in the past 25 years (yes, this year was the 25th anniversary of the riots).
There was actually a police cordon closing off access to Eisenbahnstraße from Lausitzer Platz. They let us through, but we saw that they were preventing people from re-entering back to Lausitzer Platz, especially if they had beer in their hands. That seemed like an infringement of the right to free assembly, but that was just a foretaste of the the “kettling” strategy the police would use later. Instead, we took the long way around Naunystraße, finished our beers, and then joined the demonstration from the north, close to the U-Bahn tracks.
Before the march started, some dark figures appeared on the rooftop of one of the few remaining anarchist squats facing Lausitzer Platz (and one of the few remaining in Kreuzberg), lighting fireworks and holding up banners with slogans (which I couldn’t read from where I was standing). The march eventually got moving—albeit slowly at first—headed at the front by a group of people with banners protesting the recent rises in rents in the city. Rent-hikes have been going on for quite some time in Berlin, but last year was especially steep, with rents going up an average of 8% across the city (and much higher in particular “renewal” districts). We fell in behind them, following the march and taking the occasional picture as the afternoon sun set.
Eventually, the march picked up steam, heading down Lausitzer Straße then west along Reichenberger Straße. We passed Kottbusser Tor, where the police had erected a fence that separated the south side of the roundabout from the north side, essentially putting a quarantine-wall between the protest march and the street festival going on north of us. I noticed that the police “escorts” here were wearing full riot gear. The endless lines of parked police vans were a pretty clear message to the protesters.
We continued on Skalitzer Straße until we got to Prinzenstraße, where we turned and headed north to Moritzplatz. A quick turn around Moritzplatz had us heading west along Oranienstraße, past the Axel Springer tower (conservative new media tycoon) and then south along Lindenstraße. The march was supposed to wind north again, past several government administration buildings in the wealthy Mitte district, and then end on Unter den Linden—a rather cheeky move on the part of the march organizers, considering the end-point of the protest march has historically been the start-point of riots and street-battles. A report from the Berliner Zeitung described the crowd: “From the beginning, demonstrators were equipped with stones and disguised.” While I indeed saw some typical “black block” protesters clustered at the front of the march, the vast majority of the thousands of people marching in the demonstration looked like a relatively random mix. They were mostly young, but dressed in a pretty wide variety of fashions and representing a mix of ethnicities. There were also some young couples with children and groups of older folks cracking jokes to each other in Berliner dialect. From my vantage point in the parade, most of the crowd seemed pretty benign and anodyne.
In any case, the police blocked the march right in front of the Jewish Museum on Lindenstraße, which struck me as not without some heavy symbolism. I don’t know if the police thought that having the Jewish Museum as a backdrop for the ensuing clashes would weaken the protester’s image in the media, but as the ranks of riot police jogged into the crowd, plowing over protesters in order to subdue and arrest rock-throwers, someone behind me started chanting “Nie wieder Deutschland!” (Never again, Germany!), which seemed more directed at the ranks of uniformed troops than at the protesters.
In any case, it was pretty unclear what happened and what prompted the march to be cut off at that point. One report on Der Spiegel (in English) claimed that “The escalating violence ultimately led officials to put a premature end to the march,” but I have to admit that I didn’t see any violence from the marchers until after the march had come to a halt. Similarly, the same Berliner Zeitung reported that a Sparkasse bank branch, a supermarket, and a gas station were all attacked, but I didn’t see any evidence of violence to nearby structures as we passed by, which means that such violence must have been happening near the tail-end of the marching crowd. Interestingly, a politician and observer from the PiratenPartei claimed in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung that the intention of the police all along was that “the march should not enter Mitte under any circumstances.” (More on this below)
Mind you, I was probably 200 meters or so behind the head of the march by the time it ground to a halt, so I didn’t see the first clashes up close. We heard the roar of the crowd up front, clouds of tear-gas, the crack of firecrackers, and eventually the glow of something burning. By the time that we had moved closer to the front, the clashes had settled to a back-and-forth rhythm, where riot police would slowly advance toward the crowd, bottles and stones started flying, and then the riot police would dash into the crowd in clusters, surround suspected rock-throwers, and then rather violently subdue them and drag them off.
In any case, once the police closed off the road ahead on Lindenstraße, they also closed off the road behind us, essentially using a “kettling” strategy to keep people trapped in the area while they searched for and arrested apparent trouble-makers. Presumably, part of the strategy here was to prevent would-be rioters from dispersing, regrouping in multiple locations elsewhere, and starting more trouble.
The Return to Kreuzberg
After some time milling around, we started trying to get out of the area by the side-streets. At several points along each side-street, there were police barricade lines, which would let some people through but not others. They would sometimes shine a flashlight in your face before letting you through or blocking you. At certain points, the police were letting no one through, telling people that they had to go back, turn another corner, and go up another street. My hunch is that the confusing instructions and endless detours were part of the police’s strategy, trying to prevent people from leaving the area efficiently and through the paths of their choosing.
In our case, we went up Markgrafenstraße, past two police lines up to Rudi-Dutschke Straße, which was blockaded with a fence and two massive military vehicles with flashing lights. We were told to go around the block west to Charlottenstraße. We were able to cross onto Rudi-Dutschke Straße there, but the street was blocked eastbound by police vans, so we had to keep going north to Zimmerstraße, where the police line wasn’t letting anyone through. They told us to go a block further west, but there was already a group of increasingly angry people (not all of whom appeared to be protesters at all), complaining that they had been told the exact same thing at the last 3 blockades they had been unable to pass.
While the people next to me on the east side of the street argued with the wearied police-people on the eastern side of the street, the occasional person was getting through on the western sidewalk. At the same time, bicycle-riders and cars were getting through without a problem. When a taxi driver came by and some pedestrians tried to get into the vehicle to take them across the police line, the officers stopped the vehicle and forced them to disembark. When one of my friends asked why we were being prevented from moving away from the riots, she answered that, last year, the end of the parade led to rioters regrouping in Mitte and causing damage in that neighborhood. Apparently, they were didn’t want the unrest spreading to the wealthier parts of the city. Eventually people just started quietly going over to the western sidewalk, where the police officers seemed to be paying less attention to who was passing. We slipped through and shortly afterwards there was applause as the police line broke (or they gave up).
After that, we walked up to Leipziger Straße and made our way east, eventually walking to the Spittelmarkt U-Bahn station. We went to Alexanderplatz and got on the U8, only then noticing that the U-Bahn wasn’t stopping at Kottbusser Tor. (Neither was the U1, we later found out.) Apparently, the BVG had closed the station entirely for the duration of the night. We got off at Moritzplatz and walked along Oranienstraße to Möbel Olfe at Kottbusser Tor, where a friend of my friend was working at the door. There were police lines at Moritzplatz (and the bank machine in the station was destroyed; and only one exit was open), but they let us through with little comment.
After saying hello at Möbel Olfe, we headed over to the Ritterstraße side of Kotti to get a köfte sandwich. We heard some scuffles from Kotti and saw a large contingent of riot police march down Ritterstraße in formation, so one of us went along and took some pictures. There seemed to be a few people hiding in the crowds and throwing the occasional bottle to incite police reaction. Nothing particularly explosive, though. We then walked through Kotti and up Adalbertstraße to Oranienstraße. We were supposed to meet another friend at the sound stage in front of Luzia; Tobi Neumann was spinning on the Luzia stage at that time and the street was pretty much packed from one side to another. It was fun and the music was pretty good (apparently Magda was playing earlier), but my feet were killing me and it was already 23h30. So, I headed off along Oranienstraße towards Spreewaldplatz to see my friends at Kleine Reise one last time.
0:00 Once Again at Spreewaldplatz
I walked along Orianienstraße, over all the trash on the street, and back to Spreewaldplatz. I quickly found my friends and got to dancing and chatting. Everyone was REALLY messy that night, albeit in a mostly fun way. There were lots of hijinks: one of my friends even set a new record for making out with strangers in one night.
In some cases, things got Berghain-quality sloppy. There were these two guys leaning against the wall close to the Kleine Reise bar who started making out, then sticking their hands down each others pants, and then trading blowjobs. Right at the front of the crowd, next to the bar. Apparently, one of them had already been banned from the bar. They both were tall, skinny, older, and rather scrubby. They were definitely at the nastier end of the whole “crusty gay” scene in Berlin. (You’ll be relieved to know that I have no pictures of them to show you.)
By 2am or so, my feet gave out on me and I started making my way home. The last train had already come and gone, so I had to walk along Skalitzer Straße and past Kottbusser Tor. There were still tons of police at Kotti and the fence was still up, so I had to go all the way around the far side of the roundabout to cross to the north side and get a late-night kebab. Aside from the police standing around and looking menacing, there wasn’t much of anything else going on at that point. I eventually made it home, hands greasy from my kebab and feet dusty from walking about 6 kilometers and dancing for hours.
See also this slideshow of the May 1 Demonstrations here at Berliner Zeitung.