Global Observer

May Day in Berlin: From burning cars to quiet riot

May Day in Berlin: From burning cars to quiet riot

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BERLIN -- Low on urban violence and high on alternative culture, Berlin has long been faced with a different kind of struggle: reconciling a German sense of order with its confrontational Berliner "snout".

BERLIN — When violence broke out between leftist protesters and police in former West Berlin on May 1, 1987, a makeshift battle ensued.

Protestors began barricading the surrounding Kreuzberg district, and in the unexpected face of burning cars, debris mounds and stones, police were eventually forced to pull away from the area, leaving SO 36 to its own devices.

The physical damage took weeks to repair, emotional scars remained even longer — and now 25 years on, the city is claiming its most peaceful May Day in years.

"It shows people have had enough of the escalations of the past," the Freie Presse paper reported May Day security responsible and Interior Senator Frank Henckel (CDU) as saying.

He added that a small portion of the whole will always be fascinated with the "relic" of riot.

Some officials were nonetheless dissatisfied with some of the day's events, citing one major demonstration, which was stopped short along its planned route.

"Our goal was a peaceful May [Day] demonstration. We were unable to achieve that," Berlin police spokesperson Stefan Redlich told the Berliner Morgenpost paper, referring to the destruction of a police watchtower, which officials say proved the 10,000-person gathering too high-risk to continue.

The march was intended to take place after the slogan "The pressure's mounting — for social revolution" from the heart of May 1st celebrations in Kreuzberg up into the governmental district of Mitte — but then ended roughly halfway through.

"The police did everything they could," Redlich said. "We talked with anyone who would talk, and there were many people who wanted to communicate their political goals peacefully. But then others resorted to violence."

While protesters admit there are often "rebels without causes" among them, May Day in Berlin has also been adopted as a means to protest against past mistakes of government — not least the advent of Nazism and fascism 80 years ago — with a number of peaceful social movements also being taken into the fold.

MyFest, a festival organized by the Kreuzberg district government in co-operation with protest leaders has become a haven for peaceful-but-poignant May Day activities. "Family safe" and minimally commercialized, the celebration stands in stark contrast to the May 1st clashes that occurred at the same spot a quarter of a century ago.

This year's gathering saw some 36,000 visitors eat, drink and and enjoy themselves over nine square blocks with much in the way of political statement. MyFest was also by no means the only mindful spot in Kreuzberg on May Day: the Berliner Morgenpost described how one Turkish cafe owner invited some 50 police officers in for tea.

“Police are people too,” Nazif Özcoban told the paper on Tuesday.

“This kind of hospitality is unheard of,” one officer said.

PHOTO: zeitfixierer/Flickr (CC)

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure