in the neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Prenzlauerberg. Attempts to thwart the inevitable chaos in the former neighborhood by having a day-long street festival continue into the evening hours came undone at around 8pm when a group of (punks? anarchists? opportunists? let’s just call them rock-throwers and car-smashers) rock-throwers and car-smashers started throwing rocks and smashing cars on Mariannenstrasse. By 8:30, with the police having moved in, the cars were on fire and any hope of continuing the official festivities was gone.
With a friend I moved closer to the action to see what was going on firsthand. From where we were it seemed as if the police were only trying to move people away from the burning cars, not engage in any direct confrontation. The standoff was punctuated by quick waves of panic that moved through the crowd when one or more people near the front would bolt a few steps back. Eventually we made our way to the park at Mariannenplatz where part of the street festival was taking place. When we got there bands were still playing, but it was only a few minutes before the organizers gave the order to strike the stages.
My studio at Künstlerhaus Bethanien is in a large building that sits in the middle of this park. Every year the park turns into confrontation zone and as a result it is quite easy to plan my work and riot-viewing schedules. It also means that I can duck into the studio building if the action gets a little too close for comfort. This year it didn’t take long for the battles to move the two blocks from where they started to the park in front of the building. As the stage crews hastily bundled everything they could into the entrance hall of the building we stood outside near the main doorway and watched as fires were lit and put out, police moved in groups one way and another, and various black-clad rock-throwers and car-smashers ran in all directions through the park and along the adjacent streets. We didn’t want to get caught in the action, but we didn’t want to be too far away from it either. Actually for a while we didn’t have much of a choice as police had surrounded the entire park before identifying the areas of densest activity. I couldn’t decide whether being an adrenaline-soaked violence voyeur was any worse than being any other kind of voyeur, but at that moment it didn’t much matter since the nervousness of the crowd and uncertainty of the whole situation was by itself quite addictive.
When things threatened to get a little too hot we went inside to try and join some people we had seen watching from the roof of the building. In the time that I’ve been at Bethanien I had never been up on the roof, but there was obviously a way. After searching around the upper floors for fifteen minutes we encountered a man I had not before seen in the building. A brief inquiry if he knew the way to the roof revealed that he was with the police and they were not too keen on having any unknown visitors up there with them. He didn’t say so, but it was pretty obvious that he had been looking for us as well. Suitably warned off, we went back downstairs and found that the center of the action had moved about a block away, and several burning cars could be seen at one intersection. (Note to the motorists of Kreuzberg: this happens in the same place on the same day at almost exactly the same time every year. Why do you still leave your cars parked here on May Day? Are you hoping for insurance money? Or do you move them only to have substitutes parked there by agents for Haliburton and Telekom? I don’t even want to think about that scenario.)
By 10pm it seemed that the situation had eased up a bit and we made our departure by an advised route around the back of the building. Even so, I was a little reluctant to leave, as I thought I had had just the slightest taste of the sensations that Bill Buford described from his experiences in the middle of English soccer riots:
“Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and… one of the most intense pleasures… I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical cliff, that I had literally become weightless… what was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness.”
By 11pm it was all over and by this morning everything was cleaned up, with only a few smashed windows and fire scars on the streets left to show for another May Day festival gone bad. The thrown rocks were busily being pounded back into the pavement from which they were dug up yesterday: the rebuilt ground a sea of ammunition being readied for next year. And there will be a next year. Stages full of miserable bands and an endless supply of bratwurst won’t do a thing to combat the urge for a handful of people to temporarily breach the social order to bring on the fleeting weightlessness of adrenaline and danger.
It’s no different than as a kid asking your parents to get you Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots. They wouldn’t want to because it was clear that the toy would break after about ten seconds of use. They were right, of course, but what they never understood was that it is a really great ten seconds. So every year, as long as there is a chance, a few people brave or foolhardy enough to do so will try to stretch that ten seconds into a few delirious hours no matter the consequences. And every year when people ask why this happens, there will be the always-inadequate answer: because it’s possible.