Going to Kreuzberg this May 1? Put down that Sterni! John Riceburg bemoans the orgy of drinking and dancing Kotti’s once-riotous May Day has become.
I’ve appeared in two major movies, even though I never agreed to. Do you remember in The Bourne Supremacy when Matt Damon and Julia Stiles hide in the middle of a demonstration at Alexanderplatz? There, somewhere in the crowd, is yours truly. My second appearance was in a German production: 1. Mai – Helden bei der Arbeit, an anthology film about how four different people experience May 1 in Kreuzberg. In an establishing shot of the demonstration around Kottbusser Tor, there I am, walking past the camera with a red flag and a megaphone. That was back in 2003 – my first time at the May Day protests.
The first riots
I’ve celebrated May Day in Kreuzberg 11 times, but the tradition is much older. International Workers’ Day was proclaimed in 1889. Kreuzberg’s grubby version of the same started in 1987 at Lausitzer Platz – at the time, I was in preschool in south Texas and too young to find “Berlin” on a map.
The pungent pepper smell showed the cops were using their favourite weapon. I turned my head away and prayed to Marx.
How did it start? Just a normal day at Kotti in the 1980s. Police attacked a lefty street festival, and autonomists in balaclavas started flipping cars, breaking windows and looting shops. But in contrast to an everyday riot, this one was joined by the workers and families of the Kiez. Before the Bolle supermarket on Skalitzer Straße burned to the ground, old ladies were rushing out of it with armfuls of groceries.
And the rest is history. Since 1988 there has been a demonstration in Kreuzberg every May 1. Some years, there are more than 20,000 people and it feels like a festival. Other years, cobblestones fly through the air until the early hours of the morning.
In a battleship
Last year I was in the 12th row of the demonstrations, my arms locked with punkish kids on either side. Everyone around me was fitted out with black hoodies – I was wearing my neon yellow track jacket (a psychiatrist once told me I’m a narcissist). The sunset was flooding Oranienstraße with violet light. Fireworks cracked, punctuating the deep male voices calling out “A, Anti, Anticapitalista!”
But our militant parade came to a stop. On each side of us were Berlin’s Prügelbullen, the police who live in barracks and only interact with us civilians via truncheons. In their black armour and spherical white helmets, they look like a bulkier version of Robocop. Five metres ahead of me, they were trying to pull a demonstrator out to the side – but he had his arms linked in a human chain, so the whole block was rocking back and forth like a group of sailors in a musical. The pungent pepper smell in the air showed the cops were using their favourite weapon. I turned my head away and prayed to Marx they would stop soon. I have gotten pepper-sprayed twice, and I am happy to admit I am a coward. But we all held fast, the police weren’t able to grab anyone, and they soon retired. Our black-hooded battleship continued to the end of the planned route.
The MyFest conspiracy
But last year, there was no riot. In fact, the press called it “the most peaceful May 1 in decades”.
The demonstration was huge, but sedate – I saw plenty of protesters pushing strollers. Even huger was the street festival filling every intersection of SO36: MyFest. Most May 1 revellers experience the day as a chaotic potpourri of parades, parties, outdoor concerts and yes, maybe some protesting. But by crossing from the drunken, dancing masses of MyFest to the shouting demonstrators (who are also drunk, but less so), they’re actually crossing the line between revolution and counterrevolution.
MyFest likes to present itself as a “broad alliance of neighbours, businesses and civil initiatives”. But it’s really not much more than a front for Berlin’s Polizei. For decades, they failed to keep demonstrators off the street. Only in 2003- 2004 did the city’s Social Democratic masters have a bright idea: The best way to block a demonstration is to fill the street with other people. Yes, the police have financed MyFest for more than 10 years. Just Google it.
This year, there was even talk of MyFest being taken over by Willi Kausch, the party manager who gave Berlin the bro-tastic World Cup Fanmeile at the Brandenburg Gate. Because what says “International Workers’ Day” better than a celebration of nationalism, sexism and homophobia? But after a few days, the district government declared it “wasn’t the right partner for a political festival”. Weird. I guess in a sense, a desperate attempt to keep politics out of Kreuzberg is political.
Kotti is the focal point of my life, and not just on May 1. I’m writing this essay at Café Kotti. Next to me, a Syrian refugee is being interviewed. Across the room, two different socialist groups are having meetings. As a reporter focused on protest movements, I feel like at least half of my work takes place around Kottbusser Tor. The locals protesting against rising rents at the Kotti & Co. shack. The refugees who once occupied Oranienplatz and the former school in Ohlauer Straße. And round-the-clock protest rallies of Kurds and Palestinians.
This all comes together on May Day. That’s why I’m back every year. But just like MyFest has introduced a reeking festival of commerce, any emancipatory initiative like this 28-year-old anti-capitalist carnival procession can get sucked into the brutal gears of the market economy. Even I’m involved in marketing the grubby chic: I offer walking tours around Kotti to inform people about the history of the protests, as well as practical tips for demonstrating. So I’m part of the problem. Hell, I’m even using demonstrations to advance my movie career.
But I’m going to be back on the streets of Kreuzberg this May 1. I’m going to fight against the rule of money over our lives – and try to earn a few bucks on the side. Meet me there, with about 20,000 friends.
Originally published in issue #148, April 2016.