May Day in Kreuzberg
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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.
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 new Berlin senate, which included SPD and Greens, tried to de-escalate the 1st of May by having politics and police show restraint. The much-criticized special police task force for street fights had been disbanded in advance. However, the radical left was upset by the Red Army Fraction's prisoners' hunger strike and by the arrest of two Berliners for supposedly being members of the militant women's rights group "The Amazons". They also wanted to emphasize their rejection of an SPD-Green government. Already in the night before the 1st of May a building in Oranienstraße 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, ca. 10,000 people participated in the "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration". The police showed a lot of restraint. Even after demonstrators had destroyed several sex shops, looted a supermarket and a department store and set a trash can on fire, the police only reacted by making a cordon.
After the demonstration, when large numbers of participants moved to the street festival, there were violent encounters there, too. Initially the police only made a loudspeaker announcement to stop throwing stones, but then disbanded the festival using tear gas and water cannons. After that, the intensity of vandalism was greater than the one in 1987. Estimates claim more than 1,500 people participated. At times even larger police units were surrounded and forced to throw stones, since (according to them) the only other option was to shoot. In contrast to previous years, the violence was not against shops but specifically against the police. Of 1,600 policemen 346 were injured. Damages were estimated at 1.5 million marks. 154 police cars were damaged for a cost of 530,000 marks. The next day, a Berlin newspaper ran the headline "Beirut??? No, this is Berlin!". Within the autonomous movement, the events were discussed, particularly whether the riots were still politically motivated and what their purpose is. The police union demonstrated against the policy of de-escalation.
1st of May 1990
In this year, May Day was marked by the Reunification of Germany, which inspired German nationalism. Accordingly, the "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration"'s motto was "Prefer to go out on the street than home to the Reich!". Approximately 12,000 people participated in the demonstration and additionally there was a demonstration in East Berlin with 2,000 participants. In contrast to 1989, the demonstration was mostly peaceful. The street festival had been forbidden, but it took place anyway and peacefully so. 3,800 policemen were on duty.
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 2009, 6,000 policemen were on duty in Berlin for the 1st of May. This was the first year that the police was attacked again during the "Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations". 273 policemen were injured, 289 people were arrested and 44 arrest warrants were issued, including 4 for attempted murder of policemen by throwing Molotov cocktails.
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- "Chronik der Ereignisse in Berlin vom 1.5.1987 bis zum 18.6.1987". archiv.squat.net. Retrieved 2018-11-13.
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- Frauke Lehmann, Norbert Meyerhöfer: Wünsche mir, dass es irgendwann so kracht wie früher. In: Dieter Rucht: 1. Mai 2002. Politische Demonstrationsrituale. Opladen 2003, S. 58
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