May Day in Berlin

 May Day in Berlin.

Based in whatever dancing-gayly-around-the-May-Pole pagan history, for more than a hundred years May Day in Berlin is the holiday where you express your political philosophy. Even if that is having no political philosophy. May Day means ‘take this day and tell the world what you think!”

In the recent past, May Day in Berlin has meant mobs of angry workers, bloody fighting in the streets, Nazi marches, Commie parades, and then in the late 80s it took on its current reputation. Misspent punk rock, anarchist riots in the streets, complete with Police water-cannons, tear-gas, and black hooded mobs throwing rocks and burning cars.

But May Day Berlin has actually for some years been quite different than that. The day is still in a very real sense political, but now it’s a big party in the street. (Pictures follow below)

First, a little history:

After the Chicago Haymarket affair became the rallying day internationally for the labor movement, Berlin’s worker unrest in the early 1900s began to focus around the first of May. In the 20s, however, unrest in Berlin was a year-round thing, to the point, indeed, that the post WW I German government had to set up in Weimar. The Weimar government then failed several times to make the controversial day into a holiday, nevertheless everyone kept ‘celebrating’ the day by taking to the streets…which in Weimar were already full of angry people to start, which led to huge riots…among others an infamous bloody fight around the day in 1929 between the Commies and the Socialists (leaving a rift that still exists today between the left and the super left), and later historical bloody fights between the Commies and the Nazis.

During the war the day was made a holiday used by the Nazis to show their supposed support of the worker. And then there’s the grand GDR parades of the post war years, tanks rolling down the Karl Marx Allee and all the comrades marching, waving red flags, wearing a red carnation on their lapel.

And then, in 1987, in the West Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg, the low-income, immigrant and rather bohemian (punk rock and junky) neighborhood, May Day gained yet another face. In response to the West German government wanting to take a modern census, which it hadn’t done in some time,  popular support was rallying against the census and on the 1st of May in Berlin the youth took to the streets, and they were angry.

Kreuzberg burned for days. And for years during the 90s it got pretty bad. Lots and lots of injuries, arrests, millions in property damage.

Tradition became in Berlin that half the city took to the streets as either union marcher, Kreuzberg rioter or violence voyeur, and the other half  fled the city altogether.

When we lived here six years ago, there were still mild riots…several hundred arrests were made, dozens injured, cars burned…but the city had begun to introduce a new idea, and the violence was actually less than years previous. After trying the tough love strategy in the 90s, basically attempts at overwhelming police presence, that only resulted in running street battles and bigger and bigger riots, in around 2000 the city came up with idea, maybe they should try something else.

Why not flood the area where they normally riot with concerts, crafts, and general festival, if they’ll spend their time macking on girls instead of throwing rocks?

“Invite more youth to join in the riot?” Madness, some said. But the city gave it a try.

The plan took some tinkering. It was scary to set up a party in the middle of a war zone, and they were perhaps too timid at first, throwing too small a party, and accordingly too few people came at first.

But each year the party grew bigger and each year the violence gradually declined. This year, in 2011, only a few dozen were injured and another several dozen arrested.

In the morning, the Unions marched , tens of thousands of union members whistling their way through the city. Here and there clusters of police brigades gather in preparation for any ruckus. And ruckus, there was.

But almost exclusively of the peaceful sort. The masses of Berlin’s youthful people, tens of thousands gathered in a show of solidarity…and then they danced to live music, ate food from local restaurants who set up on the street, discussed politics at info stands, and drank copious amounts of beer and calparinias. Not a corporate sponsored party…a mostly organic, locally organized party. And that is political in itself.

Yes, alas blowing stuff up isn’t as popular as it once was in Berlin. Today’s Berlin is a peaceful place, where Brazilian cocktails have replace the molotov sort. Instead of marching with their fellow tradesmen, since we’re all freelancers, instead of burning cars and buildings and stoning the police, as was once ‘all the rage,’ Berlin’s youth prefer in this case (and in most cases) to have a big half-spontaneous party to show solidarity with the modern worker, themselves. Take a friggin’ day off.

Here’s a few picts.

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About Andrew Flohr-Spence

Something about the sound and the word. Was a singer/bassist for five years, a German major for five, an English teacher in Germany for another five, then a journalism major in Denver for 5 more, and now I'm back in Berlin (for a while, I intend).
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