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Berlin has tamed its notorious May Day bash. Does the once-radical holiday still have any political bite?
BERLIN, Germany — “BBQ and rioting (optional).” The sardonic web advertisement for an expat group's May Day party says it all.
Long troubled by violence on the traditional workers’ holiday, Berlin's bohemian Kreuzberg district has managed to turn a rally for left-wing radicals into what may be the world's most ironic block party.
Although diehards may worry that poseur radicals and commercialization threaten to rob the annual proletarian protest of its political bite, Ipek Ipekcioglu, a Turkish-German DJ active in the transformation, says she’s not worried.
“I still consider it a political action, even if it is getting commercialized,” she said. “We shouldn’t forget what May First is about.”
Known for her layered, multicultural tracks, the dark-haired Kreuzburger runs one of 19 stages set up for MyFest, a music festival that’s helped turn the focus of May Day away from time-honored traditions like smashing shop windows.
May Day, or International Workers' Day, was founded to coincide with the traditional pagan celebration of spring and commemorate a tumultuous Chicago strike demanding the institution of the eight-hour workday in 1886. It ended in an anarchist bombing and rioting in Haymarket Square.
The date has long been an important one for left-wing demonstrations around the world, including Berlin, where radicals in 1987 completely took over Kreuzberg — then still in the shadow of the Berlin Wall — forcing police to evacuate for several hours during a battle over squatters' rights.
Across Berlin, activists from left-wing groups such as Antifa still regularly clash with neo-Nazis and occasionally firebomb luxury cars to protest gentrification throughout the year.
As recently as 2009, left-wing radicals from a group known as Autonomous threw stones, bottles and firebombs during a May Day altercation with police that involved as many as 5,000 protesters.
Although police have since succeeded in keeping the peace with a dual strategy of engagement and targeted action, the authorities are hesitant to declare victory even today.
Still, the character of May Day in Kreuzberg seems to be changing as fast as the neighborhood, where yuppies have replaced radicals as landlords are renovating buildings and rents are skyrocketing.
Down with capitalism! But not iPhones. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Old-school Kreuzbergers fed up with violence started the change in typical Kreuzberg style, Ipekcioglu says. Tired of being trapped inside their homes, residents “squatted” in the streets, organizing barbecues and street stalls that radicals couldn't attack because they would have appeared to be targeting their own.
As the effort evolved, resident-run initiatives banned stalls from selling glass bottles and organized a crew of local young people to collect empties from the street.
But even if local restaurants and shops are partly taking over, turning the residents' block party into a commercial bonanza, they haven't abandoned politics altogether.
Security for MyFest — the music festival that emerged from the effort — is handled by a leftist-friendly Kreuzberg-based company and a Turkish-owned firm that employs local teens. One of the event's stages is reserved for Antifa (a group dedicated to fighting neo-Nazis), and the music program reflects a neighborhood that’s long been synonymous with the city’s changing ethnic character. One of the acts is a Kurdish queer band.
The city government has offered logistical support and funding.
This year, some 6,000 police officers — including around 2,500 on loan from other cities — will preserve order in the streets.
Riot police watch anti-capitalist protesters march in Berlin on April 30, 2014. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Not all of them will be in riot gear. Since a study of the 2009 riots suggested that rumors that the police were cracking down on protesters may have actually prompted the conflict, the department has increased the number of uniformed negotiators whose job is to defuse potentially violent altercations.
“We will talk as long as it is possible,” says police spokesman Stefan Redlich, “and we'll talk with anybody who is willing to talk with us.”