Mayday in Berlin

By Ramor Ryan


Mayday, a celebration of spring and all that is free in life for the rural peasantry, was transformed through persistent repression into a symbol of class struggle and revolutionary aspirations for the proletariat. Despite the historical change of perspective, Mayday is still premised, whether industrial or rural, carnival or resistance, in the same notions - namely, a refusal to work, disobedience and the spirit of anarchy. Mayday in Berlin is this, and more. Tales from the burning barricades, and a Bacchanalian song!

Mayday is a celebration of all that is life giving and free in this world. Long ago when Europe was still a vast forest, the people celebrated spring, the re-birth of the cycle of Nature with festivals of dance, song, feast and mirth. A pagan ritual in honour of Maia, the Mother of all Gods, it came to be celebrated specifically on the first day of her month. So it was, before Empire, before the Romans, before Christianity, that the people took this day to rejoice the end of the long winter and the start of the bright, creative spring. The feasting was great, the games, the dance, the drink, the merry-making and the inevitable lovemaking. Everywhere, people 'went-a-maying', a maypole would be erected for people to dance around, amongst other symbolism.

2000 years later we are still here celebrating. Specifically, it is a sunny afternoon in Berlin, May 1st approaching the end of the Millennium. In a tidy urban park, a few thousand locals enjoy picnics, music, drinks and games. It is peaceful and lazy, a gentle breeze flutters the leaves and we are content.

"Oh-oh, here comes the Romans!" says Mayday. Mayday is his real name and here he is with his can of Berliner Pils hovering around his lips and a look of concern on his sunny face. 'I didn't go to work today' reads the words on the chest of his red hoody, ' I don't think I'll go tomorrow. Lets take control of our lives and live for pleasure not pain'. Indeed, it is the first of May, it is a holiday, and nobody works.

Except the Romans. Here they come like a sky full of wintry clouds, a van full of tooled-up riot police to disturb the peace, destroy our tranquillity. Everybody knows there's going to be a riot, it is Mayday in Berlin after all, but also, the riot squad attacked the witches gathering last night in Kollvichplatz. A brutal, unprovoked attack on a large group of people performing a pagan ritual in a public park.

About a thousand years ago, the assault on Mayday began. Unable to suppress the popular pagan celebration, the Romans declared that Mayday would be a time to honour some Christian saints. This attempt to recuperate the ritual was ignored and ridiculed by the people, and the hijacking didn't work. Around 500 years ago, upon the dawning of the Age of Conquest and the imposition of Capitalism, the nation-state and slavery, the real repression began. Mayday was equated with paganism, paganism with heathenism, and of course whenever the authorities of the Middle Ages mention the word 'heathen', genocide is not far off. And so the suppression of Mayday and all things heretical was executed with a religious zeal and sadist fervour. Witches were burnt at the stalk, Maypoles were used as whipping posts, this kind of thing.

First they came for the witches of Kollvichplatz, and now the bullen were coming for the picnickers. Have you even seen a German Riot van? It is a tasteful green and white colour. The storm troopers are themselves decked out in a lighter shade of military green fatigue, a pastel green suggesting a gardener or a park-keeper. Out they jump from their bright van as if to say - here we are! A bunch of friendly minstrels to join your Party! But it doesn't work- oh wolves in sheep clothing. The heavy armour on the vehicles, the helmets, the shields, the big boots and the sticks don't fool anyone - it's a bunch of nazi's or indeed Romans back again to fuck up the peace of freedom-loving folk! It's a fierce provocation. We began to gather up our picnic, our beverages, and the bullen in tight 'turtle' formation (a Roman tactic!) advance while beating their sticks against their hard-plastic shields.

Like a band of merry outlaws from a black-clad Robin Hood flying column, the Black-bloc emerged dramatically from a little wooded bower. They poured out in gleeful ferocity, two dozen masked crusaders and counter-attacked the surprised bullen. They showered the gaggle of cops with a barrage of missiles and by sheer force of energy, the surprise attack and the flying stones, the cops panicked, turned in confusion and fled! They fled, bolting like, well, bulls, up the street, pursued by a band of almost frolicking masked miscreants and the howls of laughter and abuse from the assembled multitude.

Mayday is a ritual throughout history accompanied by bonfires. As the flames engulfed the abandoned Riot Van, the people danced around like a band of festive Celts of old. History dancing with us, here we are, the heathens of the ages, resisting the suppression of our day of leisure, our day of carnival, our merry-making.

The history of Mayday turns around some time at that point, 500 years ago, into one of resistance. In the spirit of outlaws, the rituals took on a new, more mischievous and intrepid countenance. The 'Lord of Misrule' presided over the proceedings; the 'King of Unreason' and the 'Abbot of Disobedience' took court. As a free expression of autonomy, Mayday came under increasing repression as the authorities attempted to discipline the people into a 'workforce'. It is in this ambience we are more familiar with Mayday. And it is this kind of mood that prevailed in Chicago in 1886, as a group of militant workers organised their Mayday demonstration at Haymarket.

It was an epoch marked by laissez-faire Capitalism (a forerunner of the Neo-liberalism of the 1980's and 1990's), the de-population of the countryside leading to migration on a massive level (this also sounds familiar today) and Capitalist expansionism. In response, the growing proletariat was beginning to organise strongly in urban areas as Industrial workers, forming unions and espousing political philosophies such as anarchism and revolutionary socialism. At Haymarket, someone lobbed a stick of dynamite into the police ranks, all hell broke lose and 6 workers were shot down. Later 8 anarchists were convicted in a farcical Show trial and so the Haymarket martyrs as they were to become known, became a symbol for workers resistance on May 1.

So Mayday, the symbol of spring, rebirth, joy and festivity for a rural peasantry became transformed through repression as a symbol of class struggle and revolutionary aspirations for the oppressed proletariat. Despite the change of perspective, Mayday still, whether industrial or rural, carnival or resistance, was premised in the same notions - namely, a refusal to work, rebellion, disobedience and the spirit of anarchy.

The modern history of Mayday in Berlin follows this model. It is a ritualistic confrontation between rebels and authority. As West Berlin became a haven for those avoiding the military draft, so an oasis of civil defiance, a pirate utopia, a quilombo of sorts was created by the dispossessed youth and the resident bohemian artists. The theatre of confrontation became Kreuztberg, traditionally a workers and migrants neighbourhood now colonised by a multitude of politicised squatters. Anarchists, autonomes, punks, Turkish and Kurdish youth fought pitched battles with armies of riot police. Burning barricades, tear-gas filled streets, fierce combat, mass arrests and police brutality became standard fare for Mayday in West Berlin.

So this day in East Berlin, the conflict has kicked off early. As the convoys of police vans descend on the park to witness posthumously the smouldering ruins of the burnt out carcass of this dead beast, we have all already taken off. Now is the hour of the black-bloc, the insurrectionary anarchists, the maoists, the trotskyists, the political hooligans, the casares (a reference to French rioters in 1984) and the drunken punks.

Mayday and I, aligning ourselves with one of the above categories (not sure which) cycle down to Oranienstrasse, the heart of historical Kreutzberg. There is a full-scale riot in progress and we arrive on the wrong side, behind the Police lines. The sky is full with flying objects raining down upon the besieged police lines. It is a truly astonishing sight as paving stones, bottles or whatever beat down like a medieval barrage. The lines and lines of riot cops are under intense pressure and occasionally one or another cop is carried behind nursing an injury. "A handful of skilled stone-throwers can fend off a whole battalion of cops," explained Ringrose, my elder sisters' boyfriend years before, when I was still a kid. He was of the earlier generation of Berlin Anarchists, they who raised the stakes in the early 1980's by taking to the street with combative resolve. And today, years later, his words resound, as we witness maybe 20 stone-throwing militants holding off this street-full of riot-cops. The tight street is a chaotic boiling pot of bedlam and as usual, the press are out in force, cameras everywhere, vultures stealing images to sell …

Mayday is gripped by a surge of rebel passion. "Come on! Come on!" he beckons "Lets go to the right side, get stuck in!" The right side that is the Left side, which is the wrong side, according to our guardians and law enforcers. The bikes secured, we roam around Kottbusser Tor to catch up with a mob chasing a convoy of police vans down Skalitzer Strasse. It is an extraordinary sight. An ecstatic horde of maddened youth flings half the pavement at the fleeing vans. The pavements in Berlin, inexplicably, are made of millions of small hand-sized stones that are easily dug up and perfect ammunition for the urban insurrectionary. A barrage of pavement stones are flying through the air, battering the armoured vehicles.

I watch my homey Mayday join the fray. He picks up the nearest pavestone, rushes down the street and flings it with all his might at the last of the retreating vans. It clanged against the metal grate covering the back window, harmlessly enough bouncing aside. Disappointed, he frantically locates another rock and that follows the first, this time smashing into the back door and leaving quite an impressive dent. I look at Mayday and he is radiant with rebel joy. He seems 10 feet tall, his arms thrown up in celebration and his face radiating pride. He exhibits all the rapture and rage of someone who has cast aside all the shackles of inhibition and demonstrated forcefully - 'I am alive, I am filled with passion, and I RESIST!'

It is contagious and addictive. Hooded-up, masked up, it is enough a glance of an eye to know who is a comrade and who is other. But we are all comrades here today, no agent provocateurs or undercover cops. A bevy of stones later, the pigs have retreated further but proletarian revolution does not seem to have yet materialised, so we retreat for a beer. Despite the widespread riots and the fog of tear gas many bars and cafes are still open for business - like a sign of solidarity for the thousands in the heaving, battle-weary streets.

Our eyes streaming from the poisonous gas, and blazing from the excitement of combat, we rest and gather our senses about us. "This is brilliant!" says Mayday, luminous. "This is like a carnival of resistance…" Mayday is an ebullient person. He was brought up on a in a tiny rural community in the back of beyond. His suffering father was a day-labourer, a bricky, dry-liner, labourer, whatever scarce work there was. From that background of grinding poverty emerged Day, as he was called then. Not for him the technical college or an apprentice. "I want to pursue my real desires, I want to travel, I want to make art and I dream of living in a completely different world…" he said. "You're mad," they said. '"I am," he said, and off he went on his high horse on his quest for knowledge, enlightenment, pagan celebration and heathen sex. It took him to London, then Paris then New York and finally to Berlin, a squatted house in Dunker Strasse, an artist-bohemian dwelling filled with fiery radicals and illumined creators. Inspired by this wild subterranean scene, he embraced anarchy and total freedom. Without a penny, nor a fear in the world, he vagabonded and thrived, accumulating friends like kids to a circus. A brick to the head at work brought him $10,000 injury damages, a princely sum that he spent with characteristic munificence and plaumass over a 6 month period, lavishing upon friends and acquaintances bountiful gifts and myriad beverages. Six high months of anarchy and luxury, of kindness and generosity. Then he returned to penniless vagabondage. Once more he immersed himself in art and politics, living and breathing both equally. He took his art and stunts into the streets.

Aghast by the straight thinking of the business community in the financial district, one day he mischievously set off to 'work' dressed in the finest stock-brokers suit (borrowed, or maybe stolen) handsomely carrying a brief case. As he regally marched down the main thoroughfare, the perfect image of the ideal city gentleman, he would suddenly let out a hoot, fling the brief case high up over his shoulder into the air, back-peddle wildly to catch the descending bag, and then…recover his composure completely, and continue his stride as if he was lost in thought.

This little stunt would have gone down wonderfully in the dada-ist journals of provocative street art, perhaps even made a few people think! - Who knows? Only, it went sadly wrong, as these things often did for Mayday. One more time he hooted, flung his briefcase high in the air and backtracked speedily to catch the bag. Only there was a little old lady struggling along directly behind him who took the full force of the flailing 6-foot tall 170-kilo Mayday. She screamed her face blue and the cop's dragged Mayday off, charging him with public nuisance. Which he was, and continued to be, proudly.

'Fucking Romans!' said Mayday, taking us back from our fond reveries into the present moment. A bunch of bullen has just burst through the door of our little sanctuary, this little café on Vienerstrasse. They overturn a few tables, whack a few coffee sippers and all chaos is unleashed. The customers and owners gang up and conspire to push the rampaging pigs back onto the street. Clearly its time to leave. We bale out onto the dusking street and the riot is in full swing.

Its early evening and Kreuztberg is burning. At this point it's worthwhile to have a word about tactics and strategy. What exactly are we trying to achieve by our belligerent actions? Why are we building barricades? Why are we engaging with a far superior force in arms and strength of the police? This question can be answered on multiple levels. If one would care to question each of the - how many? - 5000 people in the street, one would get a kaleidoscope of diverse responses. Some would argue that this is a simple rebellion against power, a fight that should be taken to the authorities at every presented occasion. Others would frame it in terms of the ongoing Class War. Others still would insist it is a fight for the right to party because the bullen were repressing the Mayday festivities. However, one thing is clear: the occupation of our civil living space by thousands of aggressive Riot Police is an intolerable situation. And this must be resisted.

The ariel view from the cop helicopter hovering over the barrio at this moment would look like this: ongoing running battles between squads of cops and rioters. Occasional barricades on fire, usually having a short life, as the water cannons quench the fire. Long convoys of cop vans snake around, generally being assaulted from all sides by missiles and stones. There are people crouching in every corner, in every shadow, every green space has a band of plotters, and most of all, rioters are taking advantage of the geography of the barrio. The streets are lined by enormous tenements, each of which has a doorway leading to the hinterhaus, the inner courtyard and usually linked to another courtyard, whereupon its possible to enter one apartment building, and exit through another, usually onto an entirely different street. Suffice to say, it's a labyrinth of connections and a urban insurrectionary's playground. Not forgetting that the roofs are easily accessible and offer a temptation to drop things onto police vans 5 stories below. So, all in all, the geography and architecture makes for very favourable guerrilla terrain.

So who is taking on the cops? The masked, hooded, and rowdy hordes in the streets, in the alleyways, building barricades, fleeing the snatch squads, hiding in doorways, sheltering in cafes - who are they? Well this kind of operation excludes, obviously, the elderly, the infirm, the panicky and people with large families depending on them…So no surprise, it is predominantly youth, although not necessarily male, and not necessary white. Critics from the more pacifist wing of the movement will say this kind of urban warfare excludes the population, alienates the masses. That it is no more than football hooliganism.

But just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it seems it takes a whole community to host a sustainable riot. The local population here in Kreutzberg is in general not hostile to the street insurrectionists; the local left-wing Berliners have a gripe of their own with the bullen, and the Turkish and Kurdish communities are certainly no friends of the state. Indeed, a good proportion of the youths engaging the cops are Turkish and Kurdish youth, probably militants from Dem Sol or PKK, two radical left groupings strong in this neighbourhood. And then you have a good network of sympathizers, activists, ex-squatters, ex-punks, students, artists and old communists who will actively support the rioters - offering refuge, opening doors, allowing their dumpsters be used as barricades, helping the injured, giving the cops hassle. One thing is sure, if the local community is hostile to the people in the streets, then its unsustainable. And this is one reason why the Mayday insurrection has occurred ritually in these very streets (or across eastwards in Prinzlauerberg), because there is a sea in which to swim around in, as Mao would have it.

Mayday and I have re-emerged from the café onto the street intersection and it is a tumultuous theatre of pandemonium - squads of riot-police are running around attacking random individuals, while objects are showered on them from every direction; indeed people are running in every direction, as the police and rioters seem to have got their coordinates mixed up or crossed and everybody has arrived in one spot, converging haplessly from all directions. If Charlie Chaplin was here, he couldn't make it up. In the middle of all this turbulence, familiar eyes behind ski-masks pull us aside. It's some of our neighbours - Irish, Spanish and Brazilian companer@s . "Watch out!" they call, and we are dragged into a doorway. Sure enough, a half dozen Molotov's are launched from a second floor window upon an armoured water cannon, causing it to reverse from the intersection at high speed, in flames. As the bullen go berserk, we run through the courtyard of the tenement, over a little fence, and out onto Naunyn Strasse, safe. Or at least for a moment. We run down as far as the plaza at Heinrichplatz. Bad move. Another armoured water cannon is speeding into the open space, spraying everything in sight with its powerful water jet. First it shines its massive beam of light at the target, then it unleashes the water current, then the squads of mobile storm troopers running behind the truck sprint after the target, sticks flying. These guys are the dangerous ones; they are fast, mobile and vicious; they don't take prisoners, they dish out beatings, and leave you in a pool of blood. Maybe afterwards some other bunch of cops will pick you up and haul you off to the van for arrest. Meanwhile the storm troopers have moved on, beating all and sundry in their path.

It's like one of those moments of horror like when you realise your car is about to crash, or your bicycle has gone out of control. So it was when the searchlight blinded our eyes and the gush of water smashed into us like a piano falling from the sky.

We are about a dozen people crouched in a doorway. The door is springs open from both the force of the water jet-spray and us falling against it. We tumbled in, and I glanced back to glimpse the most terrifying sight of a gang of riot-squad sprinting across the plaza towards us, silhouetted by the searchlight. Suddenly I realised that we were with a group of civilians, a couple of old folks, some teenage kids, a really young child - a family maybe just trying to get home, maybe out watching the sports. Anyhow, now they are in trouble. We all are. The kids scamper down steps to a darkened basement, and we split in various directions across the inner courtyard, as the first of the storm troopers burst through the outside doors. We are in their sights as we dash towards an 8-foot wall the other side. Glancing back again I register that the cops are coming for us, which means they won't go for the kids down the steps. For some reason this came to me as a relief, as I faced the daunting wall. It is said that total fear, absolute desperation and the death instinct gives you momentary superhuman powers of strength and perception. In that very moment I clambered over the enormous wall like a cat - I could not do it under any other circumstances. I flew over the wall as the first baton struck the wall some inches behind. Mayday was not so lucky; they hit him as he struggled over; I pulled him over from the other side. A half dozen bullen were whacking away at him as he reached the top of the wall and threw himself over, head first onto the ground the other side. The cops couldn't climb over because of their burdensome body armour, and Mayday, his nose gushing blood, and I scrambled away.

It was a feeling of indescribable jubilation to escape from the clutches of the bullen. I thought about the kids and the old folks and hoped they were ok; at least the pigs would have quietened down a bit with their frenzied attack stalled at the 8-foot wall. As for our companeras, I hoped they got away; but they know the score, the risks, they are not civilians. They go to the streets masked up, they have a legal number written on their skin, a phone number, they know what the deal is.

We emerge onto yet another street mad with violence, with heaving crowds, with fire and smoke and gas and the sound of discord and clamour as two armies clash by night. Mayday is in trouble, bloodied and disorientated from landing on his head. I want to get him out of there. "This way!" I gesture, and we begin running the opposite direction of the conflict. Disconcerted, we run blindly into the darkness as fast as we can. Mayday went down hard to the crunching sound of splintering bone. I looked back. He had crashed into one of those metal street bollards, groin height; like being kicked in the balls by a horse. He is rolling around in excruciating agony clutching his balls, his face bloodied, groaning frightfully. To stop me from laughing- for fucks sake, the ignominy of it all! - I picked him up roughly and dragged him away. "Come on! Come on!" as he suffered untold pain.

We collapsed into a quiet Turkish Imbiss away from the din of the madding crowd. I cleaned the blood off his face and we drank the most wonderful bottle of Beck's Beer imaginable. We were out of harm's way here, unless they started doing sweeps of the surrounding areas. When Mayday had recovered enough to continue, we hit the street scurrying along in the shadows like hunted fox. Police vans filled with prisoners screamed by, ambulances blared in the distance. Fresh groups of youths headed towards the theatre of unrest. And I thought - who gains from this Mayday ritual? Certainly the cops get an opportunity to test out the latest riot-control techniques in what is, more or less, a controlled real-life situation. (In so much as the resistance is never intensified, no arms or explosives are used, nobody gets killed). The young novice rioters get a chance to learn street resistance and hone their tactics and strategies, to feel the strength of solidarity and become skilled watching each other's backs. Nevertheless, it becomes a ritualised confrontation, full of sound and fury, signifying, well, if not nothing, at least business as usual.

With some relief, we finally arrive home, back into the welcoming old crumbling East Berlin Squat that shelters us, protects us. Home, after the battle, home from the wars. We fall into the gemeinshaft, the house-café/bar, where we are surprised to discover a full-scale party raging. Oh yes, it's Mayday, of course there's a big celebration. The people are all dressed up and dancing around a pole decorated with ribbons and party decorations. It's a delight.

The strobe-light exaggerates Maydays injuries- he looks well fucked-up. The people surround him, showering him with sympathy, shock and questions. "Did the bullen do this to you?!" they demand angrily. Oh God I hope they don't all decide to do some retributive 'action' in response; I'm tired, I want to drink and dance and fall into easy embraces. Before I have to sabotage the moment by announcing that he merely fell off a wall and ran into a post, Eva the peacemaker intercedes with gentle force. "No, give him space, sit down, bring drink…Questions later!".

Oh lovely compa. While Mayday gets pampered by the compassion brigade, I wander around the gathering. It is quite a spectacle! On stage they prepare for some theatrics and a drag show, on the dance-floor people are swinging around high as kites- must be some Ecstasy in the house, and the rest cluster around dark smoky tables. The babble of excited conversations fills the room, the re-telling of the days adventures while throwing back beers and smoking joints. The German autonomes and Anti-fa, the Spanish anarchists, the Sudanese exiles, the Brazilian queers, the Egyptian pot-heads, the Slovakian dj's , the Irish drinkers, the Polish hippies, the dancing Mexicans, the sociable Kurdish, the visiting Japanese - all the multitude sharing tables and space and their lives and coming together and making a little new world, right here. There are no bouncers, no security, no managers, no staff; we are not customers, this is our space, self-run, autonomy, here there are only companeros and respect, and it is beautiful. I am filled with a sudden feeling of happiness. It's only a big old squatted house but we really are doing it. This is something worth fighting for, worth defending.

"Ya, Ramon, they must turn down the music, I am asleep upstairs," this from Horst, the house grouch, an old artist who grumbles about everything. "I must to work tomorrow!"

"Yeah fuck off, Horst." This is not the night of the grouches and the jaded and the corpses. It is Mayday, it is our day and now the battle has passed and it is time to dance around the Maypole, make merry and celebrate everything that is good and free in this sordid life.

As Bacchanalian nights go, it rated. Mayday was soon back to his mischievous creative self, taking to the stage during the drag queen-show. I was really hoping he wouldn't do a repeat performance of one of his more talked about shows in Dunker Theatre. That one entailed walking on an empty, silent stage, naked, with a bucket. He proceeded to piss into the bucket, pick it up and then pour all the piss over himself. Finally he bowed gracefully and walked off, to much critical accolade. No, this time he got into the boisterous mood of the evening, painted dashing figures dancing on the stage wall, masked Zapatista insurgents performing boleros with, I'm not sure- some variety of drag queens. Or maybe portraits of Eva the Pole, or Jessica the American, or Rocio from Madrid, Maydays' favourite companeras. Either way, they all loved it and he was pulled into the swell on the dance-floor, engulfing him in a loving embrace. And I lost sight of him, carried away by the heaving tide of dancing figures.

Around dawn, as the sun appears stealthily and dramatically over the high tenement roofs- a still time of day that lends itself to mystery and illumined hyperbole, I walked into the silent street.. The party was over, the people went to bed, in groups, in couples, alone, but they all seemed content. Mayday fell playfully upstairs with one or three of his inspirations. Now it was silent, and the dawn air was light and refreshing. There she was sitting alone on a discarded couch on the edge of the sidewalk. She who I had been looking for. The witch from Kollvichplatz. She who I had wanted to approach, to engage, to embrace. But she had disappeared into the maddened crowd as the Bullen charged.

She smiles at me, I sit down, we touch and this was the last element of Mayday missing - Magic


More articles by Ramor Ryan