So at the fair we had hooked up with some of Stefan's friends who were in the DGB, the German Association of Trade Unions (I think that's what it stands for, but exactly, I might be wrong, but they're unionists), and also fairly far to the left, holding membership in the Social Democratic Party. For the most part we kind of blended into the crowd at the street fair, some young people out for a nice time, but around 6PM we split from the jovial street bunch to the last march of the day. This is always a big one. It isn't the biggest--that one happened earlier that day along the big avenue near the Brandenburg Gate and was very well attended. No, this march is the one that the police make it a point to monitor and control, the one where you see the Black Block (BB) making cameos. In preparation we had all written on our arms the number 69-22222, a number they kept repeating throughout the march, the number of who to call if you ended up in more trouble than you were qualified to handle, who would come help you. We all wrote it on our arms, like we were just asking for it or something...it struck me as very odd, and I resolved RIGHT THERE that I wasn't going to be one of the ones in trouble.
Why on earth would you want to go in for something like that?
Well, I wanted to take part in this march for a few reasons:1. I believe in workers' rights (though "Alles fuer alle und zwar umsonst" would NOT describe my philosophy)
2. I am really frustrated at the crisis, and I think it's good to get out that frustration by yelling REALLY loudly at "the man" or whatever cosmic forces are keeping me down (better than reading Paul Krugman, drinking a bottle of 2-buck-chuck and crying myself to sleep like I suspect Jim Kramer does every night)
3. I'll admit, I was curious. In America we don't have a BB, and I've seen some of them before, though not in action. I've always wimped out and elected to stay away from the masked kids, to stay at the hotel and study rather than put myself in their path, but this time I was feeling brave and informed enough to jump in. Mistake
We started off with a tedious rally before the actual march. It featured an odd combination of rhetorical hot air from an 84 year old communist women and someone calling for a general education strike (both painfully idealistic, but I support their existence if not their specific philosophy) but then a rap artist, which made us all groan until he said "OK! Last song!" At which point we switched to cheering...the fact that it was over. Then we stood around for another long stretch. Didn't I say earlier that most of marching is actually just standing around? A Note on the Music: the music kept going almost the whole time, and it was not calming music at all, nor was it excessively political. It was angry music. It was music not meant to calm or motivate but to rile. There were some stirring Trotsky-ite tributes calling people to arms in swashbuckling stanzas, but these were in the extreme minority. What we got was thumping base so loud we could barely talk and the sounds of angry young men venting to music as the angry young announcer yelled at us to "take care of the police." I think that a little Indigo Girls might have kept the night from ending as it did, but no one asked my opinion.
It turns out that the reason we were standing so long (remember too when I pointed out that that was the big mistake of the day?) was because the police were changing the parade route. I understand this move. Having watched enough episodes of Dexter, I know that when you change the conditions of something, you are establishing that you have power. On this day, the police clearly thought it necessary to prove that they could throw a monkey wrench into the plans of the organizers, and that they certainly did with some very negative consequences. For a while we had considered just turning around and going back for a drink, but as I pointed out, I had come this far, and I wanted to not go back, so we stuck around until things actually got moving.
As we were gearing up, the DGB fellow in the Young Socialists shirt kept talking about how he had an extra pair of clothes should there be water cannons, and Stefan kept saying that we needed to keep the BB in front of us as opposed to behind. For me, though, as I looked at them up close, all I saw were a bunch of 19-25 year olds in black rain coats with H&M brand black scarves (like the women's department sells in the winter). This was not something that was particularly intimidating to me. If you really are against the capitalist system, I reasoned, and you're so dedicated, then why not...umm...NOT shop at a store in which the prices are so low because they hire enough Cambodian child laborers? I guess this just didn't occur to them. As I was laughing at them, Stefan said "but they will be causing trouble." "Naw, I bet it'll all come to nuthin." "Oh yeah, what will you bet?" "A night of gin fizzes vs. I make you dinner. Go out and buy your gin, kiddo!" Mistake...mistake...MISTAKE.
The parade was surrounded by people taking pictures, though surprisingly little police presence as we looped around the street festival, picking up some people from the crowd. I felt watched, but it wasn't particularly awful. The announcer was yelling about some of our comrades having gotten into some trouble, but the mood of the crowd was good to fine, and so I didn't worry too much. One thing I did notice, however, was that we kept being threaded through not the main arteries of traffic but small, cramped streets...the kind of streets where, if things should start to go wrong, you couldn't easily get the Pho (get it? like the name of the Vietnamese soup? Pronounce it correctly and it sounds--nevermind, my grandmas read this blog) out. This was slightly worrysome, as was the input from one of our taller comrades that beer bottles were being thrown up ahead, and some of the pavement stones were missing.
A Word on the Pavement: for some odd reason the Berliners REALLY like cobblestones. I guess watching chic girls falling over them is fun or something, I don't know, but they are stones of about 3 inches squared, packed into tight sand. This is not concrete, however, and the stones can be dislodged, sometimes from weather, or normal wear and tear, or someone in a black raincoat kicking at them. I don't know why they don't pour that cement and get ir done right!
So things were amping up, but then we got to the Church on Goerlitzer Strasse. This church sits in a large clearing, full of shops, and across from a big park, and this took off a lot of the pressure on those of us in the march. There were police all over the place, but we were more relaxed. They even started playing goofy ska music, which prompted Stefan and I to dance about, him spinning me until I spun out, flailing my arms in a silly fashion. It was a great moment...until I in my dizzy insanity almost ran into a line of black-clad, helmeted, unnamed riot police. Oops!
A Word on Name tags: American police are required since the craziness of '68 to wear name tags or badge numbers. Why? So that if they get out of control, if they become brutal, you can report them. It provides at least the illusion of accountability to the public. The German police have none of this. They are not named, they are not numbered, and worst of all, they monitored US like crazy. Everywhere there were police on the rooftops taking pictures; when they would run into crowds with riot shields, you'd see the conspicuous "video camera on a stick" bobbing up and down. Not only is it a little creepy, it's wrong. This is a throwback to when Germany really was a police state (60s, 70s, I'm looking at you), and it needs to be changed. What was even more troublesome was that when things heated up it was those on the left with video cameras who were some of the first to get wanged up side the head with billy clubs, making me REALLY glad I forgot my camera that morning (but I remembered the sunscreen!)
So we made it through the circle and were then channeled into a narrow street where we were again made to stand. This was where it became crystal clear that something bad would happen. The announcer kept saying things like "The police want us to stop our march!" which was greeted with boos. To calm us down, of course, they pulled up the rapper again, but I didn't listen to him too closely, because Stefan was getting nervous. The BB was putting their masks up, and we were so close together that it wasn't easily managed to get out behind them. Then a troupe of Kurds appeared waving a flag with a very generic looking mustachioed man on it. "Is that Ataturk?" someone asked. It was not. They got a shout out from the announcer, and a few minutes later we were on the move again, but this time things seemed more tense. Everyone wanted to get out of there and at the same time.
After this little road, we joined a slightly bigger one, but we had to manage a 90 degree turn, at which point we could see that the BB had consolidated to about 200 people (if you read the papers) walking together, looking MAD. We stayed to the side, but clearly we weren't far enough away from them.
Then it happened, a cop car had been parked in the middle of the road, without a driver. It was clearly there to draw fire, and that it did, quickly being engulfed in rock throwing black-wearing people. As I saw this happen, I calmly noted a row of shiny black helmets TEARING through the crowd. "Die Bullen!" I said. I didn't feel real fear though. It was just so, almost entertaining to see them slice through the crowd as they did. Then someone set off a firecracker, and all kinds of hell broke loose. The air grew acrid, and the crowd broke FAST. The police (special forces types) had clearly done SOMETHING to get them moved out. I'm going to say perhaps tear gas, but again, I don't know. What I do know is that we were quickly shoved against a firehouse, our group still all together. Stefan said that running would only make us look bad and draw police attention we didn't want, so we would have to edge our way out. We were almost even with the police car, to the right of the center of the action, but not far enough away to escape easily.
The cops fanned out, whopping anything in their path, perhaps trying to clear the area, but clearly not there for crowd control (they didn't have those plastic handcuffs on them; their mission was instead to whop). We kept being pushed more and more, but something was standing between us, the tee shirt wearing civilians, and bulls seeing red: the Black Block. I kid you not, for a few seconds they were between us, taking the blows. Of course, some will argue that they too were just trying to get out, and that maybe they deserved some beaning, but in my eyes they saved us a few seconds of real annoyance, but then they cleared out. They had a plan, and we didn't. I had my back to the action now, my head nestled against Stefan. My face being my moneymaker, I had NO intention of being a bloody-nosed hippy like they show on TV, and then I heard it. "Now comes the pepper spray, but it will soon be over."
Stop. I am QUITE familiar with pepper spray, and I am NO fan. This was when my "oh HELL to the NEIN" instincts started to kick in, and someone in our quartet started edging us away further. "Don't run!" yelled Stefan, and with good reason, though I was quite mad at him for saying it. We made it past the firehouse to an ice cream shop (boarded up of course) when the police made another run at us (I don't remember, but I think this was when the second wave of BB was hitting our location), and this time we ducked behind a sign advertising sundaes for 1 May. I thought "this won't end well," but we didn't really have a lot of choices, and as I stood there, opposite the wall and a pissy looking young man in a keffia, the cops slammed into the sign. "Yup, knew THAT was coming." It slammed into the guy, who looked indignant. How DARE they jam Gabriel's finger? Just who did they think they were?! And he revved up to shove back. I grabbed his shoulder. "Hei, das war die Polizei; lass es!" and I rubbed his shoulder twice, while he gave me his injured and PMSing look. Brat.
If I remember correctly, this was when my AHS-honed instinct of avoiding major trouble took full effect. I felt the police leaving to wang on someone else for a few moments, and I made my move. Just as I was pulling away I saw a kid push over a bench, and someone said "Shit! They're putting up baracades." It was either get out now or face an aggressively annoying situation. The whole "don't run" thing was forgotten, and I grabbed two hands and moved my ass. I don't know if I ran or speed-walked granny style, but I led us out. I led us past the barricades on the BB line (to try to get past the police would have been foolish, and would have landed us further from the train out), past the BB kids who were giving each other hand signals, past the panincking civilians.
A Word on the Coordination of the Black Block: Urban warfare has grown in many ways quite sophisticated. Take for example the tactics of the BB. As they ran through the crowd, they would run in small groups of 10 or so, holding each other's shoulders like an anarchist conga line, just the same way the police were doing. They also had their own ways of silently communicating. One boy I saw held a fist in the air, then held up one finger, and then pointed it in a direction, which a few people then followed. These kids knew their stuff to a reasonable degree.
So we got past the circus, and onto a larger street, and I'll tell you, I let out a holler that felt SO GOOD. My legs were shaking, my whole being felt alive, full of adrenaline, pride. I hooted and hollered and "OH MAH GAWD"ed for a while. I wasn't the only one who had gotten a bump from this encounter though, the kid in the Socialist tee shirt was also racing. I was glad to be safe, but I was also glad that I had stuck it through, gotten out, and could say that I had a run-in with Berlin's annoying-est. The crowd blew up again, running in a heard down the street where we were yelling "WATER CANNONS" but the police were headed in the opposite direction, taking all the caterwauling with them and leaving us in peace to figure out what the heck to do next. My whole existence was tired, though oddly geeked up, so two of the guys and I decided to go home (though I took a more...roundabout way than the others) and Stefan ventured into the street fair again to look for his friend. It was an amazing encounter, and
from it I take the following pieces of information:
While I concede that the Black Block made a good deal of the trouble, I think the Berlin police are the ones who should be ashamed. This kind of thing happens every year, and who is more capable of intelligent change: mad 19 year olds or a honed system of educated law enforcement officers?
It's the same instinct on both sides, really. I woke up that morning to an sms saying "are you ready to kick some nazi butt?" Some cops surely woke up to the same message but saying "leftists." The police volutneer often to work on this particular day. This is the same testosteroney energy that is channeled in two different directions that become diametrically opposed for about 24 hours in May
The street festival for next year has been cancelled (no surprise), but such things, putting partyers in the middle of an awkward situation, is unwise
EVERYONE needs to take lessons in crowd control and deescalation, from the event planners, to the speakers at the marches, and ESPECAILLY the police
I truly think America lacks a black block, and I have no idea why. I will do more thinking on this, but I think it is because we are either that apathetic, or we feel like we have other channels. Here it seems to be born from the APOs (out of parliament organizations) of the 60s and 70s, and in the States, though we have had our liberties quite curtailed at times, it has not been that bad, so the tradition leading up to it simply does not exist
I am sorry if any of this was alarming to you guys, but i am fine and so is almost everyone who went through the day