Was anyone else under the impression that May Day was all about May Poles, Love, Spring and Good Will? I was until I came to Berlin.
Berlin has all that, a festival that shuts down 16 city blocks, a live band in whatever direction you turn, food and cold beers (although, eaters beware. The home prepped meals & hot sun don't necessarily mix - yum, salmonella!).
All that is great, but cutting through the good tidings are the loads of police in riot gear. Berlin's "Erster Mai" features annual riots. There were literally thousands of cops and agitators, pissing each other off all day. The history of May Day in Berlin has been fairly violent, and this year's festivities marked the 80th anniversary of "Blutmai" where several protestors and cops were killed.
"Berlin emerges as yet again as a metropolis of contradictions. For starters, May 1 in Germany has seen street fights between right- and left-wing radical groups, as when the far right NPD and gangs of neo-Nazi ruffians decide that they can use the day for their own cause, which then leads to battle with Nazi opposition groups. These violent conflicts obviously contradict the messages of coexistence and peace that are the focus of several of the other groups hitting the streets on May Day."
This was something we had to see for ourselves. We headed out from the Hard Rock Cafe (where we did some mystery shopping, LOTS of eating, and a little self-shaming) to get a glimpse of the day-time celebrations. The plan was to quickly check it out then relax at home for a while and come back when it got spicy. Instead, we ended up carrying my "polizei" bag and Hard Rock Cafe leftovers deep into the night. Bad planning.
|Seattle Summer Solstice|
As we begin to walk around, police are still pulsing through the crowd, but besides the scary outfits, they look pretty tame. We wander to a stage where there is some music we can all dance to. Holding bags, drinks, and fighting the streaming crowd around us we dance. Until the inevitable happens. I need to pee.
It is very common to see men peeing just about anywhere in Berlin or in much of Europe. Public restrooms are scarce (one was even boarded up in the park we stayed in) and usually you can barter with a restaurant or store to use theirs. However, no one is taking chances today. All pride gone, I go with Ian to the park and he watches my back as men unzip from other areas of the brush. Just like camping right?!
After we finally find our group again, it is time to move to a new stage. As we settle into some Eurotrance, a stream of cops rushes by with the black helmets. We have already figured out that these are the guys to watch out for. Its hard to tell if the crowd is pushing at them, but it is obvious that some of the cops are getting angry and make several hard shoves at the backs of bystanders. The Polizei lines up at the end of the street as they start to quardon off the area.
Ian and I have started to yawn and take this as our cue. We say our good-byes and head for the Kotti U-Bahn. On the way, we catch sight of a band dressed in Middle Eastern robes and headdresses. Upon closer inspection, these guys are definitely not Middle-Eastern- so what's the deal? I think at one point they shout out "We are the Iraquis!" Really? Is that their name? They are terrific and we push into the crowd to get close to the stage. People are going wild for them- including us. They are singing and we are jumping and singing along to songs we have just heard for the first time. This tops my best concert experience of The Presidents of the United States at the Showbox. It was simply nuts.
Restarting our journey to the U-Bahn, Ian takes a picture with some while helmeted Polizei that seem to be enjoying the show. I pick up a huge pink key that appears to be from a little girls toy. Bizarre, but where is the mayhem?
We find it in the form of a road block- literally. A line of white helmets has cordoned off this exit as well and the crowd is getting restless. They are standing shoulder to shoulder blocking the street and the U-Bahn. Ian asks where to go and they wave off to the right. An apartment building straddles the street and some of the crowd has parked here and begun to throw bottles. We get the hell out of the street and watch a bit of the madness unfold. A battalion of black helmets comes up behind the white helmets with their sticks...and video-cameras? They are filming all this as well, apparently confident that their behavior will not be out of control - but the crowd's might. They are right; as drunk idiots risk the safety of all by trying to hit the police with bottles. The glass explodes upon impact like raindrops. Black helmets head into the crowd and clear the balcony over the street. Another comes to the right and blocks our exit this way. It appears almost like a game with the crowd pushing the police and the the police slapping them back down.
Seeing 2 exits shut-off, we decide it is really time to leave. We make it to the U-Bahn this time and watch as we pass other areas of congregation on our way home- but luckily no fires. We were happy to make it home and enjoy our capitalist burgers. This is a war we wanted no part in.
Want more mayhem? May Day 2012
American Expat Blog: May Day in Berlin and Beyond