As published in Siegesauele, May 2015 edition.
May 1st is a time when the spirit of change grabs us. Across Europe, people used to celebrate the day by lighting bonfires to magnify the sun’s life force. From Beltane to Walpurgisnacht, modern versions of these same celebrations embody a pre-Christian tradition of burning out the old, bad energies of winter to make way for new ones in spring. As manmade systems slowly replaced nature as the governing force in our lives, these too were added to the list of things that people yearn to regenerate. Eventually, May 1st was even chosen as International Workers’ Day to symbolize the ongoing struggle for equality between the haves and the have-nots.
That may be why authorities tend to pour cold water on the May Day spirit: they’re afraid that they may get chucked on the fire to make way for something new. That seems to be what happened in Berlin on May 1, 1987 when police brutally clamped down on a peaceful street party in Kreuzberg. People who had gone out for a day of fun with friends and family found themselves fighting off the police side by side, instead. Together, they drove the police out of the area and blocked the streets with burning vehicles. The next day, the Man came back for what seemed to be a revenge attack, randomly arresting and injuring hundreds in the process. People from the Kreuzberg queer scene also got caught up in the action raging on Oranienstrasse, as gay bars sheltering radicals were targeted with tear gas. Like many that day, they were confronted with tangible evidence that the police and government could snuff out Kreuzberg’s laissez-faire lifestyle at anytime. It was a wake-up call.
The lines between all sectors of Kreuzberg’s society were broken down that day, but the ensuing chaos freed them up to react in a creative, unexpected way to the pressures they faced. As a result, the 1987 riots left Kreuzberg more feisty and fearless, setting the stage for an annual feud over who gets control of its streets. That feud still gets resurrected every May Day, yet the issue is far from being decided. Maybe that’s because the modern May Day celebrations tend to divide the community whereas in 1987, it united them.
Today, May Day is divided into two events: the Myfest street party and the Revolutionary May demo. The people who attend each event seem to feel that their choice best captures the spirit of the day; that it alone can give them the transformative experience that they seek. Yet both events share the same roots. Both existed in some form before 1987, but were only able to make drastic change happen after they had been combined, and combusted. They differ in their approaches to achieving change: Revolutionary May is black-clad, ideological and unafraid of confronting authority, whereas Myfest is creative, colourful and unafraid of having fun. Yet the same old yearning for change drives them both.
In 1987, the boundaries between revelers, revolutionaries and many other groups were burned down and rebuilt, clearing the way for a more integrated identity for Kreuzberg. There is little chance of that happening again while they are kept apart; it’s having a lit match and a pile of wood but never putting the two together.