On the first of may 2021, more than 20,000 demonstrators gathered at Hermannplatz for the revolutionary demonstration at 17h. As such, it was the largest 1. May demonstration in Berlin, ever. Its success was owed to its intersectional perspective: uniting migrants, Persons of Color (PoC), and Flinta* with the more traditional leftist “scene”, it attracted humans who would never have demonstrated before. What started as a peaceful, joyful gathering quickly ended in confusion and clashed between police and demonstrators. It took me some time after the demonstration to make sense of what had happened. I will try to give a subjective yet informed account of what I experienced.
(Flinta* designates cis-gender women, lesbians, intersex, non-binary, transgender, and agender persons)
In context: a quick history of the 1. May in Berlin. May 1st is the day for worker’s solidarity worldwide since 1886, when a Chicago strike and demo led to massive police violence and repression– 38 civilians killed and seven anarchists later unjustly hanged. A century later and on another continent, in 1987, 1988 and 1989, violent clashed erupted for numerous reasons in Kreuzberg, which was and remains Berlin’s most leftist district. Since then, the traditional syndicates of the DGB (IG Metall, Verdi, etc.) demonstrate separately, since they are accused of being pro-employers and pro-capital instead of defending the working class. Political parties also mainly stay clear from the revolutionary demo, which is more autonomous-anarchist and anticapitalist. In 2003, the authorities introduced the MayFest, a large family-oriented street festival, in order to hinder violence. The Corona pandemic has led to the cancellation of the Mayfest and to a reduction of the DGB-demo at the Brandenburg gate. Last year, a spontaneous revolutionary demo attracted some 2.000 protesters in a peaceful atmosphere. This year was bound to be special, after one year lockdowns, a strong repression against autonomous bar/ housing projects like the Liebig34, the Meuterei and the Syndikat, and because of the internationalist alliance.
Who organized the demo? The Migrantifa (for “migrant” and “antifa”) was born after the Hanau terror attack close to Frankfurt, on February 19th 2020, when 9 racialized persons were killed by a right-wing terrorist. Feeling that the German state had long abandoned them, Migrantifa collectives were formed in all the country to promote justice and defend immigrant rights. Together with an alliance of Turkish, Kurdish, Sri Lankan, Peruvian, Columbian, Palestinian, and Jewish organizations, the Berlin Migrantifa allied with the more established antifa, anticapitalist and anarchist scene for the demo. “No class struggle without migrants” was their main slogan. The demo served to underline how all oppression are interlinked: racism, patriarchy, antisemitism, capitalism, colonialism, rent inequalities and ecocide are all part of a larger system of domination. No wonder that it attracted a large public, from racialized youth and migrant workers, to more hedonistic and techno-oriented protesters. The first 5-6 front blocks were from the internationalist alliance, then came a large Black Block, then the communist and syndicalist blocks. The demo was supposed to walk from Hermannplatz through Neukölln until Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg. The former is an underpriviledged district with a strong proportion of migrantized and racialized inhabitants; the latter is the traditional meeting point for the 1. May revolutionaries. The organizers had specifically called for a peaceful protest and for police restraint: since numerous PoC and Flinta* were among the first blocks, they feared an exaggerated police violence. As PoC’s, they had no interest in escalation, since police brutality over-proportionally affects racialized persons.
Now, what happened before the situation escalated? The organizers held speeches and music after 17h. I was not there, so I cannot comment on their content. The Hermannplatz was overcrowded, yet the police blocked the demo from starting like planned at 18h. At around 18h30, the demo started advancing, but it was stopped every few hundred meters by the police, which had massively cordoned the whole sector with 5,600 officers. Nearly all protesters wore face masks, but social distancing could not be respected, first because of the large amount of people, and second because the police blocked the demo and hindered it from advancing. Thus, it remained compact and the distance between the blocks could only be respected with great difficulty. At 20h, two hours later, the demo had only advanced one kilometer along the Karl-Marx-Straße. From start to end, circa 20.000 people were packed on circa 650m between the police blocks, this leaves circa 60 square centimeters per protester. One can hardly imagine how they were supposed to respect social distancing in these conditions.
Yet the protesters remained extremely positive and friendly. After one year of lockdowns and pandemic, the atmosphere was almost ecstatic. While taking pictures, I got hundred of smiles, the music was joyful, people seemed very happy to finally meet again. The slow walking rhythm and the massive police presence didn’t seem to affect them as much as I had expected. It was an extremely joyful, colored and diverse demonstration. Truly, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Nearly all nationalities must have been represented. It was the first time that I saw queer Palestinians walking hand in hand with Jewish antifa, Kurdish feminists, Tamil survivors and Peruvian orchestras. I was blown by the cultural diversity and yet the combative atmosphere. It was nothing like an apolitical street festival, but highlighted the oppression of numerous minorities worldwide instead.
What happened at approx. 20h? The first blocs reached U-Bahn-station Rathaus Neukölln and the neighboring mall “Neukölln Arkaden”. This area is also a construction site, with numerous fences and chocking points. There, it was again blocked but this time, hundreds of police officers entered the demo and separated it. The official reason is that the black block did not wear face masks and respect social distancing, which seems quite absurd, since the black block is always masked and since social distancing was impossible for all demonstrators. Instead of solving the distanciation issue, the police intervention further compacted the demonstration and trapped many in chocking points between the mall and the construction sites. The tactic was to isolate the black block from the rest of the demo; yet this lead to high tensions and scattered protesters around the whole neighborhood. From that point, the first internationalist blocs continued to demonstrate a few hundred meters further on the Sonnenallee, where they were also met by heavy police presence; and the more traditional antifa-anarchist-anticapitalist blocks were surrounded by the police in front of the mall. At first, the they remained mostly calm and joyful, singing songs and arguing with officers. Tensions rose when the police assaulted and captured a speech-platform-truck and started surrounding small groups of demonstrators to arrest them.
What happened after 20h? The police continued to surround small groups, make numerous arrests, and charge into every attempt of barricade-building. Since no water cannons and less-lethal ammunition were in used, the police made intensive use of their batons and pepper spray. They had blocked all neighboring streets, thus making it difficult to escape or leave. In response to this very contact-oriented intervention, numerous clashed erupted. Protesters threw bottles and stones, tried to erect barricades, and put fire to one e-roller and to one trash bin. Others attempted to argue, negotiate with the police, and mainly got arrested trying. Basically, there was a common pattern: a police team run into a crowd of angry or disoriented protesters, make some arre during the Yellow Vests protests, when the CRS massively cut through demos, isolated small groups, and blocked all escape routes. At 21h, the demo was officially dissolved, but this pattern of intervention lasted until approximately 22h, when the curfew kicked in, and many protesters went home. Some sporadic clashed continued until midnight. Then, a small solidarity demonstration was held in front of the Gesa (the police station where all arrested persons are brought to) at Tempelhof until 2h30am.
What was the toll of the clashes? Was there police violence? Almost 400 protesters were arrested, but only 20 or so were actually accused of something, so that 95% of arrests were done without reason other than breaking up groups. 100 police officers were wounded in these interventions; there is no number of wounded demonstrators, yet I could estimate numerous hundreds as well. Almost all the arrests I witnessed were violent and seemingly unjustified. People stand or yell slogans, the next second they get arrested. Hundreds were pepper-sprayed or hit with batons. But mainly the police pushed people to the ground, sometimes intentionally against sharp objects and broken glass. I heard of many protesters being hit in the face with pepper-spray canisters, kicked in the genitalia (one women I talked to feared for her fertility), or being pushed from behind. Those getting arrested were mainly persons I read as men, but those experiencing violence were many women*, as well as some elderly.
What about police violence against the press? I witnessed unacceptable level of hostility towards our profession. I was myself hit by a police officer and his baton as I was retreating from an incoming charge. I had clearly identified myself as a photographer and had taken a picture of the officer one second before he hit me. A TV crew next to me was also threatened, they witnessed and confirmed the assault. Many journalists, including myself, were pushed aside violently by the police, which often hindered us in taking pictures. Regularly, a group of officers would run up to me and my colleagues, leaving less than some centimeters between us, and then threaten of hitting us if we didn’t respect the social distancing towards them. Some of my colleagues were insulted generously, as in the following dialogue: An officer barks at a journalist to leave and threatens him with his pepper spray. The journalist: “I’m doing my job, just like you”. The officer: “You suck at it, you piece of shit”. We were summoned to go home dozens of times even before the curfew started. Some colleagues were wounded during the clashes by bottles and stones, but all in all I experienced solidarity from the protesters. Many came to me asking if I was okay after I was hit and offered emotional support.
Why was the police tactic radically different than usual? In all other demos I photographed, the police walks in front, behind, and on the sides of the protesters. Thus it creates a sort of frame around them, controlling the movements and rhythm of the demo. Normally, de-escalation teams are very present and make many announcements before charging. Normally, also, the demo is allowed to walk until its destination before being dissolved, no matter if sanitary rules are respected or not. Numerous corona-deniers and neonazi demos are thus escorted and dissolved in a peaceful way, even if the protesters are very aggressive and wear no masks, harbor antisemitic slogans and neonazi insignias. As such, it is unclear why this 1. May demo was repressed after only one kilometer. The “black block” was not in front of the demo, it was not posing any particular problems. The official reason of not respecting the social distancing clearly is nothing more than an excuse.
What seems probable is that the police had planned an escalation for numerous reasons, but that it was then overwhelmed by its own strategy (the 100 wounded officers must have felt it first-hand). First, the construction site around the “Neukölln Arkaden” mall gave them an excellent chocking point for a sort of ambush. Second, the fences and barriers would give demonstrators opportunities to construct barricades and thus provide the police with a better reason to intervene; the proximity of the mall and of the Sonnenallee made the perspective of looting more probable. The police probably wanted the situation to escalate in Neukölln, a very migrantized and underprivileged district, rather than in Kreuzberg, which is more gentrified and which would have attracted more support from organized antifa-anarchist protesters there. Instead, the numerous proportion of immigrant youth in Neukölln would make for excellent violent, unpolitical, and “savage” looting and burning scenes.
As such, I cannot exclude that the police acted in a racist way— repressing the first migrant, PoC-organized 1. May demo in German history more intensely than any other worker’s day protest since the 80’s. By isolating the Black Block and seeking an escalation with immigrant youth, it probably wanted to split the movement, which is very critical of the police and the government. A newfound unity between anticapitalist and migrant protesters could be a dangerous precedent for all other demonstrations. But no matter the strategy, I witnessed that numerous police officers were intent on action. My photos show them cracking their fists in perspective of a fight, preparing to box protesters in a karate-like stance, sometimes even prancing with excitement; their eyes wide open due to the adrenaline rush. On the other hand, the demonstrators and press were mainly clueless and disoriented. Most of them panicked and left. Those who stayed mainly had no idea what to do, many demonstrators were walking around in groups wondering what was happening. For sure, hundreds of protesters were angry and attacked the police, yelled hateful slogans and made fun of officers. Many tried to stop the police from arresting others or from charging crowds. But there was no organized black block violence, no one had planned this turn of events. Furthermore, the organizers and numerous protesters acted with restraint. There was no looting, and relatively few burning objects. This contradicts most media articles and police communiqués I read later.
The media coverage was very unsatisfying, in my eyes. Basically, three arguments were used to criticize the demo. First, that the demonstrators were responsible for the violence. The mainstream media (Tagesspiegel, Morgenpost, RBB, etc.) mainly copy-pasted the police statements blaming the protesters for the violence and complaining about the 100 wounded police officers (who were clearly victims of their hierarchy’s strategy). Police spokespersons like Theo Calbitz were interviewed and given up to 1/3 of TV-time, but the organizers and demonstrators were not quoted or misquoted (spokesperson Aicha Jamal was often misspelled). While this is not surprising, I still wonder why these newspapers even sent journalists at all, since the German Press Agency (DPA) and the police spokesperson did all the work. But worse: even left media failed to account for what happened, to the exception of the Tageszeitung (Taz). Indeed, the second argument is that the Migrantifa demo was more like a “Karneval der Kulturen” than a revolutionary moment. Many commentators blamed the demo of not being revolutionary, of not leading a class struggle; yet they had high praise for the bicycle-demo in Grunewald, which attracted 10,000 mainly white protesters against gentrification in a very peaceful and hedonistic demo which looked more like a Sunday promenade. As if only peaceful, white people were “true class fighters”, and peaceful PoC protesters were all apolitical, violent looters. As such, nearly all media outlets reproduced racist narratives about violence. In fact, the “violent black block demonstrators” were diverse in colors, genders and political affiliations.
Third argument of the press, that the demo was antisemitic. I cannot answer precisely, since I did not spend much time with the Palestinian bloc. Nonetheless, I know that some antisemites were expulsed from the demo, and that Jewish leftists were protesting together with their Palestinian counterparts. The slogan “Free Palestine from the river to the sea” as well as numerous other Palestinian and anticolonial revendications are dubbed antisemitic in a German context –historically and understandably– very hostile to antizionism, but Israeli and Jewish leftists openly criticize this polarization. In Germany, a small but vocal part of the Left and especially of the cultural elites are dubbed “Anti-Deutsche”: their main goal is to seek and destroy antisemitic structures in the German society and state, which they (rightly) see as historically prone to structural antisemitism. But from this position, many defend Israeli and US foreign policy and regularly shut down decolonial, Palestinian and Israeli leftist critics. The frontier between antizionism and antisemitism is an open and burning wound in Germany, a very sensitive question, and it was expected that this demonstration would attract criticism by the Anti-Deutsche. In all cases, the police did not intervene because of antisemitic content, which it tolerates in numerous right-wing demonstrations.
To conclude, this demo has been a turning point for the Berlin left. First, it has proven that an alliance between PoC/migrantized workers and traditional leftist revolutionaries is a successful strategy in terms of participation and mobilization. The bitter taste of the Hanau terror attack, but also the memory of the attack on the Halle synagogue in 2019, of the series of aggressions of PoC by neonazis in Neukölln, and of the modern history of antisemitic and xenophobic attacks in the whole Bundesrepublik has led to an accrued politicization of migrantized youth and workers. This is a ground of fear for all big political parties and for the Berlin Senate, even if it is ruled by a green-socialist-communist coalition. The struggle for fair rents and for the socialization of big real estate companies has further amplified the mobilization, a few weeks after the rent-cap was overturned by the constitutional court. This revolutionary 1. May demo was the biggest since a decade, at least.
Last but not least, it has shown that the police will change its deescalation strategy to one of corps-à-corps confrontation if the so-called left Berlin Senate feels threatened. Alternatively, the police would be acting independently of the Senate, which is equally worrying. The treatment of PoC demonstrators could be a case of racism, and the Berlin police resembled the French CRS for a few hours– which has systemically been using colonial tactics of repression inspired from the Algerian war. A clear genealogy of tactics and chain of responsibility has to be analyzed consequently. Hostility from police towards press workers is also in the rise (already during the Meuterei demo in April, a colleague of mine was hit in the face with a baton, bleeding abundantly).