It was eleven o’clock in the morning on May 1st. The whole of Berlin was decorated with revolutionary posters in German and Turkish. The anti-Nazi demonstration began to gather on the Strausberger Platz. Dozens of riot vans were parked up on the Karl-Marx Allee. In order to join the demonstration, we had to pass through a cordon of police and submit to a body search. All water bottles (even plastic ones) were confiscated. The 2000-strong crowd was fairly Black Bloc-oriented and it soon became clear that the purpose of this demonstration was to seek out the Nazis and fight them.
Everything started peaceably enough as the protest headed eastwards along the Karl-Marx Allee in the warm sunshine. Riot cops marched in front of the demo and down the left-hand side. We turned south onto the Strasse der Pariser Kommune with the anarchists chanting ‘German Police Protect the Nazis’. Someone threw a tomato and it rebounded off a tree and nearly hit me in the face. The residents of this quiet neighbourhood came out onto their balconies to see what all the fuss was about. In one apartment block, a man sat thoughtfully ruffling a huge ginger cat.
The first clashes occurred as the forward elements tried to force their way northwards up a side-street, using their flagpoles as weapons to attack the police. The Robocops rushed ahead to secure the next street. There were loose cobblestones everywhere, making a mockery of the police’s attempt to prevent us from carrying missiles on the march. A second clash occurred on the corner of Gärtnerstrasse and the demo ground to a halt. The police formed up to block our progress down this particular street, but there was nothing to prevent us from heading south into the completely unguarded streets beyond. The demo had now evolved into a fast-moving free-flow march as the anarchists sprinted down one street with only a single riot van in front.
We arrived on a small square with a water cannon parked impotently to the north and a huge number of riot cops frantically deploying to the west. The riot van was pelted with cobblestones and – once again – one rebounded and narrowly missed my head. A loud cheer went up as the van accelerated away down the road. We were now in a large housing estate in the east of the city. The crowd was running very fast and I was finding it difficult to keep up with a bunch of teenage rioters who were mostly ten years younger than me. A distinctive banging and thumping sound echoed off the tall buildings as makeshift barricades went up in the road to impede the progress of the riot vans. I jogged past a burning skip, dodging to avoid the fumes. Up ahead of me, a group of anarchists were turning over a bottle bank. A silver Mercedes sports coupe had its windscreen smashed with cobblestones and the alarm honked in protest.
Suddenly, the riot cops arrived in force under a small bridge. Half the demonstration had already passed under the bridge and the other half trailed behind. I charged ahead with a water cannon deployed only ten metres to my left. The demo had now split into small groups and it was hard to know which way to turn. After ten minutes of running through a deserted industrial park, we arrived at the Nöldnerplatz S-bahn station. A group of anarchists helped a black man to buy a ticket from the machine on the platform as the green-helmeted cops streamed up the trackside half a mile away. It was doubtful whether there would be a train, since there were more anarchists legging it across the track in both directions. Nevertheless, a train came in on the eastbound platform, disgorging a carriage full of riot cops. I decided that it was best to get the hell out of this area and I abandoned the action in favour of a westbound train to the Zoo Garden railway station.
Fifteen minutes later, I emerged back into the zombie world of glassy-eyed shoppers and burger-munching tourists that is West Berlin. The anti-Nazi demo seemed a million miles away. It was half past two and the Revolutionary First of May demo would be starting from the Potsdamer Platz in ninety minutes. I took the U-bahn to the Potsdamer Platz and sat and waited for the action to begin. On the Ebertstrasse, a recently burned wheelie bin sat on the pavement like a work of experimental art. I sat and drank an overpriced fizzy water at a posh café that seemed to be exclusively patronised by punks wearing chains, combat clothes and multiple piercings.
Hundreds of riot vans lined the streets up ahead, but for once there were no armoured cars or water cannon. Three thousand autonomists lined up behind a banner that read: ‘RED ACTION BERLIN’. An announcement came over the loudspeaker that the NPD-demo had been blocked by anarchists in the eastern district of Friedrichshain. There had been severe fighting with more rubbish containers and a car set alight to use as barricades. The police arrested 55 people and used water cannon to disperse the counter-demonstration.
At five o’clock, the Revolutionary First of May demo began its long march eastwards into Kreuzberg. There was a carnival atmosphere as we plodded slowly past the Checkpoint Charlie museum and headed into the Turkish districts that lay beyond. The riot cops marched on both sides without their helmets. An anarchist carried an upside-down US flag emblazoned with a black ‘A’. A punk with ‘CHAOS’ stencilled on his jacket studiously filmed the cops. As we got closer to Kreuzberg, more and more Turkish kids came out onto the streets to join the demo. The police deployed evil slavering dogs to protect a petrol station, the fearsome beasts yelping and straining at the leash to take a bite out of my leg. I barked back at them like a madman.
One-and-a-half hours later, we reached our final destination at Kottbusser Tor U-bahn station. The roundabout was surrounded on all sides with riot police wearing a variety of different uniforms. The road leading to the Oranienstrasse in the heart of Kreuzberg was particularly heavily guarded. The demonstration began to peaceably disperse. I was feeling thirsty so I decided to go for a wander and buy a can of beer. Kreuzberg is like nothing else in Europe. This really is an authentic revolutionary neighbourhood – for miles around, there is nothing but squats and punks and hippies all having a massive party that never seems to end. Rock music blared out of one window, reggae from the next, hip-hop from a third. Turkish traders flogged cans of lager from shopping trolleys for one euro. I sat down at a bus shelter and listened to the cacophony of music emanating from a thousand different directions. It was seven o’clock and everyone was completely off their face.
Back on the Kottbusser Tor, the riot police were trickling away. The armoured cars crunched over the flattened cans and the broken glass. We bade them farewell with a cheery wave and a handful of plastic bottles. The last dregs of the demo lingered on as the light began to fade. A substantial fire had evidently been lit at some point, since the tarmac was scarred with ash and bits of debris. One block to the east, an open-air concert attracted hundreds of revellers on the Mariannenstrasse. Some Robocops lurked discreetly in a side street. Someone waved a giant red flag above the crowd. The atmosphere was absolutely incredible, a world away from the despondency of Mayday in London. This was more like being in Paris at the beginning of the Commune.
A fracas broke out at the crossroads up ahead. Hundreds of autonomists paraded past, many wearing black masks. Two police vans positioned themselves in the road ahead. It was clear that a riot was about to break out. The autonomists did a once-around the block as people flooded towards the action. They stopped to consider their options as a group of teenage girls sang ‘Stand By Me’ to cheers from the crowd. Emboldened by drink, they charged the police on the Mariannenstrasse, the rocks and bottles flying overhead. Halfway down the street, the police charged back and the crowd fell upon one another in joyful terror. The anarchists fired flares at the cops and the street glowed bright with pink and orange flashes. The sound of breaking glass and whistles came from the surrounding streets. The white helmets cleared the square with an almighty charge and the rioters fled pell-mell from the scene.
Things seemed to have quietened down for the moment, so I took the opportunity to have a piss up against a wall. I unzipped myself and began to urinate just at the moment that several hundred riot cops baton-charged the end of the street. I had to run for my life, cock in hand, with piss splashing down my trousers. The beer sellers whipped away their tables as the rioters surged past, but were trading again within minutes. In the next street, people were piling wooden crates and mineral water bottles onto a small fire. The stench of burning plastic filled the air. The cops put out the fire but the party continued.
This was a fairly minor riot by Berlin standards – 58 police injured (three hospitalised) and 166 arrests. In fairness to the Berlin police, they had tried to defuse the tension by de-escalating the response to the rioting and appointing special ‘anti-conflict’ teams to liase with the demonstrators. The following day’s papers reported that an old lady had been hospitalised after being hit on the head by a flying rock. The pictures – as always – were of masked anarchists hurling cobblestones and drunken rioters giving the cops the finger.
It was now ten o’clock. I had been on my feet for eleven hours and I was totally wasted. I walked out of Kreuzberg past dozens of riot vans, my boots sticky with spilled lager and half-eaten kebabs. The night air was filled with the twinkling of blue lights and the raucous cheers and whistles of the crowd. I trudged through the mass of knackered cops and thought of Baudelaire: ‘Everything in this world exudes crime – the newspaper, the walls and the face of man.’