A very German riotBerlin's 1 May mayhem

28th April 2005, Comments 0 comments

Even riots are well-organised in Germany. Expatica wraps a scarf around its face and observes Berlin's reliably anarchic 1 May mayhem.

Good cops ... bad cops

It's nice to know there are some things in life you can depend upon. Like a German riot, for instance. The annual 1 May ruckus in Berlin's infamous Kreuzberg district is a very German riot: punctual, reliable, well-organised. When the sun goes down on 1 May, you know the rocks are going to start flying.

In fact, the whole thing is so ritualised it makes Christmas look positively spontaneous in comparison. Arguably the last true Volksfest, it's one of the few grass-roots traditions yet to be sponsored by a beer company. You would think it would be supported by government grants and featured in National Geographic.

You might also wonder what young people in the world's third richest country have to protest about. You might think that a government composed of a coalition between the Social Democrats (a member of the Socialist International) and the eco-friendly Greens would be left-wing enough to keep most young rebels happy. You might suppose that one of the most generous welfare states in the world would convince the youth that Germany is not such an evil place after all.

But no. As always, the capitalist system's only desire is the exploitation and oppression of the populace, not to mention the rest of the world, and revolution--as the posters promoting the 1 May protests will tell you--is the only solution. (A sentiment once shared, ironically, by the Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who threw a few rocks of his own before becoming part of the hated establishment.)

Forgot to bring your own rocks to hurl? Never mind, you can buy some instead

And so every year various radical groups with names reminiscent of Monty Python's mutually antagonistic Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea overcome their differences to stage a joint demonstration through Kreuzberg, waving banners with subtle slogans such as 'smash capitalism'. Then, when it gets dark, projectiles get thrown, cars get set on fire and capitalism (in the form of supermarket windows and telephone boxes) gets smashed. The whole thing is as dependable as the German railway system.

Part of the ritual is the Berlin police's Canutian attempt to dissuade the youth from throwing rocks by organising parallel events such as football competitions, in the vain hope that this will prove more attractive than urban violence. Fat chance. What could be more fun to a disaffected teenager than taking on The Man head to head?

Not that the police's efforts to stop the riot are entirely convincing. While it may cost a huge amount of money to police (cash which earnest newspaper editorials repeatedly urge would be better spent arresting drug dealers and cracking child pornography rings), it's one of the few chances the police get in peaceable Germany to try out their new hardware. Futuristic armoured vehicles which you would never expect to see outside North Korea are brought out to patrol the streets and spray the protestors with water cannons. If throwing rocks is fun, imagine what it's like to drive a tank.

Doubled identities are a key part of any good folk tradition, and in Kreuzberg this is manifested as a take on the classic good cop-bad cop strategy. In the afternoon and early evening, nice young policemen with goatees and earrings mingle among the crowds, showing that they're down with The Kids and encouraging everyone to have a good time and not throw any rocks.

Then the sun goes down and, in a transformation akin to a mild-mannered schoolteacher mutating into a werewolf, the cuddly coppers disappear to be replaced by riot police in helmets and protective padding worthy of American football players. This second wave's softly-softly approach to community policing involves whacking protestors gently over the head with riot sticks and bundling them tenderly into the back of vans.

There goes the neighborhood

What no-one seems to realise is that with its traditions of distinctive dress, identity concealment and loosening of social mores, the whole show is actually Berlin's carnival. Forget the capital's half-hearted street parade at the start of Lent, this is the real equivalent of the Rhineland's chaotic Mardi Gras. The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin defined carnival as a time when the state's authority was overturned and replaced with ritualised anarchy, and if the Kreuzberg riots don't fit that description, it's hard to imagine what would.

So if you get stopped by a policeman as you head for the havoc in your black hooded top and Yassar Arrafat scarf, simply say that you are engaged in a spot of anthropological research and want to study the tradition at first hand before the breweries move in. Just check that he has a goatee first.

April 2005

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Inside Track, 1 May riots, Kreuzberg

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