May Day in Kreuzberg
May Day in Kreuzberg refers to the street festivals and demonstrations organized by left-wing and far-left groups on May 1, International Workers' Day, in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg. Specifically, the term may refer to the May 1, 1987, when particularly severe rioting in Kreuzberg led to the Berlin police having to completely withdraw from the eastern area of Kreuzberg, SO 36, for several hours. Since then, Autonomists and Anti-fascist groups have held so-called "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations" almost every year.
- 1 Background
- 2 1st of May 1987
- 3 1st of May 1988
- 4 1st of May 1989
- 5 1st of May 1990
- 6 Later Years
- 7 Since 2000
- 8 Classifications of other radical left-wing activities on 1 May
- 9 Literature
- 10 Films
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Kreuzberg has always been a hotspot for street battles between squatters or autonomists and the police. In particular, the district SO 36 has been the focus of the autonomous squatter and punk movement in Berlin.
On Labor Day, often referred to as the day of working-class struggle, Lausitzer Platz has traditionally hosted an annual street festival, organized by political groups including Autonomists, the Alternative List (AL) and the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin (SEW). In the years before 1987, there were also minor riots, demonstrations and other political actions on the fringes of the street festival. These were, however, considered routine for Kreuzberg at the time and hardly recognized by the public.
In 1986 and 1987, the so-called Affected Block or Revolutionary Block, an entity which rejected the official policy of the German Trade Union Confederation, took part in the demonstrations.
The Block consisted mainly of persons from the New Social Movements, and came to over a thousand participants. Because of its rejection of the official policy of the German Trade Union Confederation, the police had to intervene to break up clashes - something welcomed by the speakers of the German Trade Union Confederation.
1st of May 1987
The Kreuzberg rioting on the 1st of May 1987 became known worldwide by the international press. It drew large public attention to the district, in particular, Kreuzberg SO 36.
Background to 1st of May 1987
In 1987, the left-wing political scene in Berlin was dominated by the census boycott, a campaign against the census and a call for its boycott. The center of this resistance (and the left scene in general) was situated at Mehringhof (in Kreuzberg 61), where, among other things, the campaign office was located. On May 1, 1987, at 4:45am, this office and other rooms of Mehringhof were broken up and searched by the police on the grounds of Periculum in mora.
The mood in Berlin was already tense due to the repressive measures of the CDU-led Senate and the preparations for the 750th anniversary of Berlin.
The traditional street festival was peaceful at first, but the mood among the leftists was damaged by the search of the census boycott campaign office. In addition, the police had also initiated anti-rioting operations against the "Affected block" at the May 1st demonstration of the German Trade Union Confederation. This led to the block leaving the German Trade Union Confederation demonstration under protest and joining the street festival.
At around 4pm, Autonomists near the street festival overturned an empty police car and later that evening two construction trailers were thrown into the street. Meanwhile, most visitors enjoyed the street party unaware of any disturbances. Despite this, the police responded to the disruptions and finally broke up the whole festival using batons and tear gas.
As a result, visitors to the street festival erected barricades on several adjacent streets. The police retreated back to the area around Skalitzer Strasse at around 11 pm and remained there until the early morning.
Despite a cancellation of public transport to the area, and the erection of large roadblocks, more people arrived to the SO36 area throughout the evening. This was in part due to the live coverage of the events by leftist radio station Radio 100, which mobilized many sympathizers of the radical left-wing scene.
Barricades - including construction vehicles and parked cars - were erected and set on fire throughout the area. At each corner of Oranienstraße stood large burning barricades being defended by people throwing stones. Even Molotov cocktails and slingshots were used. Fire trucks of the Berlin fire department attempted to extinguish the fires were also attacked. In one of these incidents, a fire engine crew abandoned their vehicle, which was then also set alight.
More than thirty stores were looted, including small and large chain stores and independent retailers. The looting of a branch of the Berlin supermarket chain Bolle at the underground station Görlitzer Bahnhof attracted large media attention. Following being looted, the Bolle supermarket building was set on fire and burned completely to the ground. However, according to the fire department, no danger was posed to the surrounding residential buildings. Only years later it became known that the supermarket fire was not caused by members of the autonomous scene, but by a lone pyromaniac who had witnessed the looting whilst passing by.
The underground station Görlitzer Bahnhof, a center of the unrest, was set on fire, with hundreds of protestors drumming on the cast-iron struts of the elevated railway in order to make noise. The station had to be closed for several weeks until repairs were complete.
Putting down the riots
Between two and three o'clock in the morning on 2 May 1987 the police launched a counterattack. After hours of rioting and looting, plus the heavy consumption of stolen alcohol, the demonstrators were now largely fatigued. Using water cannons and armoured riot control vehicles, the police advanced against the burning barricades and the remaining protesters. The area of Kottbusser Tor, which was difficult for the Autonomists to maintain, was pacified, as well as Adalbert and Oranienstraße. Also, the resistance at the Görlitzer Bahnhof and Lausitzer Platz gradually collapsed.
Over a hundred people were injured and 47 people were arrested. Among the arrested was Norbert Kubat, who took his own life on the night of the 25th-26th of May whilst in police remand, after he was found hitchhiking along Skalitzer Straße by plain-clothed officers on the morning of the 2nd of May. In response to the suicide, there was an arson attack on a department store, Bilka, on Kottbusser Bridge during the night, and on May 28, a funeral march with approximately 1,500 participants took place.
As a public reaction to the riots, a special unit of the Berlin Police, the Einheit für besondere Lagen und einsatzbezogenes Training (EbLT), was set up. This unit received special equipment and training for street fighting in order to make "evidence-capturing arrests" during violent demonstrations and to act aggressively in the center of the action. However, after a few missions, the unit received heavy criticism. It was accused of using disproportionate force against demonstrators by political groups, the media, the public and state institutions. The unit was dissolved in January 1989.
The Autonomous movement's interpretation of the events proved controversial: "Their judgments varied between the excitement of keeping the police out of the neighborhood for so long, and the fact that so many people took part in a revolt in what they considered to be completely depoliticized actions."
The actions were criticized for the alcohol abuse, accusations of sexism, the looting of small businesses, and for endangering the safety of others. "While some Autonomists generally endorsed the revolt and explained the negative outcomes by saying that people can not change their whole socialization overnight, and that the subjectivity of the people who took part in the revolt was an expression of social status, others have judged the revolt as a ‘Riot of Assholes' without any political background."
1st of May 1988
In 1988, because of the previous bad experiences with the German Trade Union Confederation's 1st of May demonstrations, especially surrounding the Revolutionary Block group, and the support they’d had within their "own neighborhood", organized a separate "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration".
Under the slogan "Heraus zum revolutionären 1. Mai" (Onwards to the revolutionary 1st of May), and the quote from Rosa Luxemburg, "The revolution is great, everything else is quark", over 6,000 people were mobilized for the demonstration despite of police countermeasures.
The demonstration was largely peaceful, but at the end of the street festival there were some fights between police and demonstrators on Lausitzer Platz.
Police actions on the 1st of May 1988 drew massive criticism, especially the new EbLT riot unit who were accused of using disproportionate force. Among other things, it was pointed out that three police chiefs who were observing the intervention operations were themselves victims of attacks by police officers and suffered minor injuries. The riots were determined to have been carried out by young people, tourists and the drunken, instead of by autonomists.
1st of May 1989
In 1989, the first Red-Green Senate in Berlin tried to defuse 1st of May troubles using political and police restraint. Both the controversial EbLT police unit and the political department of the prosecution office had been dissolved in advance.
However, the mood within the left-wing radical movements was angered by the hunger strikes of the Red Army Faction prisoners and the arrest of two Berliners on charges of membership of the militant women's group, The Amazons. They also wanted to emphasize their rejection of an SPD-Green government.
On the night before the 1st of May, a building on Oranienstraße 192 was occupied and two shops were looted. The police used water cannons and arrested 16 people, but declared that they would not immediately clear the occupied building.
The next day's Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations attracted about 10,000 people. The police were very reluctant to intervene during the demonstration. Even after the demonstration destroyed several sex shops, plundered a supermarket, set fire to a waste disposal container and looted another department store, the police only reacted by making a cordon.
After the demonstration was over and the participants had moved in large numbers to the street festival on Lausitzer Platz, clashes also occurred there. Initially the police only made a loudspeaker announcement to stop throwing stones, but then disbanded the festival using tear gas and water cannons.
The intensity of the ensuing riot surpassed that of 1st May 1987. Estimates suggest that more than 1,500 people participated in the violence. At times even larger police units were surrounded and forced to throw stones in return, since, according to them, their only other option would have been to shoot.
In contrast to the two previous years, the violence was hardly directed against businesses, but targeted the police. Of the 1,600 police deployed, 346 were injured. Property damage was estimated at 1.5 million marks. The damage to 154 police vehicles alone amounted to 530,000 DM. The next day, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper ran the headline: "Beirut??? No, that's Berlin!"
Within the Autonomous movement, the events were criticized, were questions were asked about the political motives behind the rioting and the purpose of it in regards to their goals. On May 10, the Trade Union of the Police organized a demonstration against Interior Senator Erich Pätzold's strategy of de-escalation and the violence on May 1st. It was later speculated that chief executive officer Heinz Ernst, who was close to the Die Republikaner political party, deliberately acted negligently to discredit Pätzold and his de-escalation strategy.
1st of May 1990
May 1st, 1990 was marked by the reunification of the two German states and the emerging of German nationalism. The motto of that year's Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations testified to this: "Rather on the street than home to the Reich!"
In the run-up to May 1st, 1990, the media reported negatively against the radical left-wing scene. The leftist movement tried to address this situation with a close coordination between the organization of the street festival and demonstration, as well as political action days in advance.
The demonstration was attended by about 12,000 people. In addition, another demonstration took place in East Berlin with 2,000 participants. In contrast to 1989, the demonstration was largely peaceful. In Berlin-Neukölln, however, several demonstrators were injured when they came under air rifle fire from a nearby residential building.
Although the street festival had been banned, it did take place and was peaceful. Despite or because of a massive police presence of roughly 3,800 officers, significant clashes were avoided until the evening, and even then their intensity and duration were not comparable to those of previous years.
The participation, estimated at 500 persons, was significantly lower than in the previous year. While Interior Senator Pätzold wrote that the relatively peaceful 1st of May was a triumph of his "de-escalation and presence" concept, the Autonomous scene believed that the behavior of the police was the trigger for the riots.
As in previous years, disproportionate police violence was criticized. Interior Senator Erich Pätzold had to publicly apologize for a police attack against two press photographers and a camera team from Radio Free Berlin. According to the General Students' Committee of the Technical University of Berlin, the media were also responsible for the disturbances due to their reporting on the demonstration in the run-up to May 1st. Parallels were drawn to the murder of Rudi Dutschke. The Autonomists rated the day as a success, as both the demonstration and the street festival took place and with a growing number of demonstrators.
In 1991, 1992 and 1993 there were conflicts regarding the route (through East or West Berlin) and also sometimes violent conflicts between different leftist groups over their attitude to Stalinism or Marxism–Leninism. The Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) was part of the demonstration in 1991 and 1992, but in 1993 they were expelled from the demonstration. Despite the conflicts, between 10,000 and 15,000 people participated in the Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration in each of the years. In 1994, this demonstration no longer took place: the RIM has since organized their own demonstration with 1-2,000 participants every year, while the undogmatic groups didn't have a demonstration in 1994 and 1995. In 1994, there was however a satirical "Demonstration against disturbance of the peace by night and against senseless violence", which 2,500 people attended.
In 1996, anti-fascist groups tried to resurrect the Revolutionary 1st of May. In that year and the following ones, there was an undogmatic "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration" attracting 8,000 to 15,000 people, next to the RIM's demonstration that continued to take place. The Berlin police's new tactic is to counter violence by supporting alternative events, such as the new Kreuzberg street festival Myfest, which takes place in district SO 36, the traditional center of the riots. By having tens of thousands of peaceful attendees, this festival is supposed to stop the violence in its tracks. It has had some success in that the intensity of violence has decreased considerably, though there are smaller conflicts in the surroundings of the Myfest. The organizers of the "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations" criticize the Myfest as a way to pacify social conflicts and ban radical left demonstrations. The Myfest enables authorities to forbid registered demonstrations to take certain routes. In 2005 and 2006, the official demonstrations were therefore cancelled by the organizers and spontaneous demonstrations took place after that. 2008 was the largest "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration" in 8 years, with 11,000 or 12,000 participants. There were minor clashes with the police, 162 arrests and 103 injured policemen.
In 2001, the 6pm Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations was banned by police for the first and only time. At the conclusion of a 1pm demonstration, there were several spontaneous disruptions in Kreuzberg. The closing down of the street festival on the Mariannenplatz led to heavy street battles in the evening. In 1998 and 2000, certain parts of the route had been prohibited.
In reaction to the events of 2001, a group surrounding FU professor Peter Grottian proposed the concept "Think May New". This aimed "to have a big party with discussion, information and cultural events on all street corners" of the SO36 area of Kreuzberg. At the same time, they proposed the police should withdraw completely from the area. The plans met with strong criticism from a section of the radical left. The participation of the AAB in the concept led to a division within the Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration at 18 o'clock organizational group. As a result, two demonstrations - in addition to the 13 o'clock demonstration - took place. This split demonstration also took place in 2003.
Since 2003, the police have tried to counteract riots by promoting alternative events. This procedure is part of the Aha Konzept, first implemented in 1999, which supports, among other things, the annual Kreuzberg street festival, Myfest. The Myfest takes place in the traditional center of the riots in SO 36 and is supposed to stifle them by the presence of tens of thousands of peaceful visitors. The intensity of the violence has decreased significantly. Nevertheless, there are still at least a few riots around Myfest every year.
The organizers of the Revolutionary May 1 demonstrations criticize Myfest as an instrument for the pacification of social conflicts and the suppression of radical leftist demonstrations. Overlaps of demonstration routes with Myfest led in part to prohibitions of some sections of the registered demonstration routes. In 2005 and 2006, the demonstrations were canceled by the organizers at 18 o'clock because they regarded the available space as unacceptable. As a result, spontaneous demonstrations formed in both years. Since 2012, an unregistered demonstration has taken place regularly at the starting point of the 18 o'clock demonstration.
Since 2007, registered Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations again take place. The number of participants has risen steadily and reached 19,000 people in 2014 (information from the police) and 25,000 people (information from the organizers) is considered their highest ever. The intensity of the riots has decreased continuously. Most recently, large-scale attacks on police occurred during the 2009 demonstration.
Classifications of other radical left-wing activities on 1 May
In other German cities, left-wing radicals carry out Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations or organize a Revolutionary Block in the German Trade Union Confederation's May Day demonstrations. Since 2006 the EuroMayDay takes place in parallel in Berlin. The organizers hope that this European movement of the precariat will be followed by a modernization of radical left-wing activities on Labor Day. Already in 2005, the first EuroMayDay took place in Hamburg, Germany.
At least since 1998, an important part of left-wing activities on 1st of May is the mobilization of demonstrations to counter the right-wing extremist demonstrations of the NPD and its youth organization, Young National Democrats (JN), or those of the Free Comradeships, who also try to occupy the Labor Day politically. This is especially true of the Antifa movement.
In 2008, one focus of radical leftist activity was the prevention of a neo-Nazi march in Hamburg. The Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations of the undogmatic spectrum has therefore not taken place until 6pm since 1998 in order to allow participation in both the anti-fascist protests and the demonstration.
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- Dieter Rucht (ed.): Berlin, May 1, 2002. Political Demonstration Rituals. VS publishing house, Wiesbaden 2003, ISBN 3-8100-3792-3.
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- Ein Frage der Spaltung. Jungle World, 14. Mai 2003↑
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- Commons: Mayday Berlin - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files