Actually, we didn’t, but even if you aren’t rioting for real, the first of May in Berlin is something to put on your bucket list. Biking through the streets, I couldn’t help but wonder how this day was actually legal. I mean, people seemed to be doing exactly what they wanted, when they wanted.It has become tradition in Berlin for the first of May to be about workers’ rights demonstrations and punks rioting against the police. The chant that kept rising in my head involuntarily as yet another police van zoomed by, was, “Long live the proletariat!” What I couldn’t believe is that this day is actually a riot. Bottles are thrown. Police are geared up with grim looking shields and modern-day battle garb. Journalists wear helmets. But somehow, the conflict is woven into the spirit of freedom (yes, there it is again), an all-inclusive party. Those of us who are not die-hard anarchists are lucky enough to get swept along through streets littered with bratwurst ends and the overflowing remnants of kebabs to the sounds of professional and amateur DJs who have set up for free along every street corner. It is an apocalyptic utopia, an anarchist’s dream, if only for a day.
And while I would never take part in any bottle throwing, or rioting for that matter, I am fascinated by the complexity of this day, torn between an ethical belief in the need for common law and a gratefulness to the people who feel strongly enough to make rioting against an institution an annual event here in Berlin.
Please understand that these musings are all based on my own observations of the day. Real Berliners probably have a totally different view, and I am sure that if you talked to the police, or the punks, or the DJs, or the people just trying to make a buck, they would all give a different perspective of May Day in Berlin. But perhaps the most important thing, is that this day is striking enough that they would all have an opinion—and I’d wager, a fairly strong opinion at that.
May Day solidifies my belief that Berlin is a truly incredible and special city, one that creates an atmosphere like no other because of its unique history and the different kinds of people that this history has formed, left behind, and invited to stay or visit. The communists who miss the days of East Germany, the teenagers upselling beer out of crates strapped to their backs, the tourists who were just visiting Berlin and happened to get swept up in the madness. They all made the day what it was, with their clashing ideologies and one euro plastic beer cups in hand.
For our part, we let ourselves wander to wherever the party took us. We stopped for a long time to listen to the most amazing South American marching band that was playing in a children’s park. They enthralled the crowd against a backdrop of graffiti-ed walls and children’s swing sets. Tubas, saxophones, and trumpets helped to break even the most rigid of the Germans’ no-hip-swinging rules. They had us fist-bumping, clapping, and totally in love.
We wandered under bridges and along subway lines, always moving to the sound of someone’s music. We high-fived people hanging out street windows and danced our way through crowds. One girl took my hand and gave me three tiny henna dots on my finger. I appreciated the gesture and waved her goodbye. We stopped for a donor kebab and followed the tantalizing smell caramelized deliciousness wafting out through another window. We ended up with handfuls of Turkish delights and candied nuts.
Finally, we walked past a beautiful old redbrick church tucked back between apartment buildings. Although I had seen it before, I was always surprised to see it here. It seemed to belong on a hill somewhere in the country, maybe beside an old castle. Not here in the heart of Kreuzberg, and definitely not where a party seemed to spontaneously be forming just outside its wrought iron gate. The cause of the party was a DJ who was good. I mean real good. We tried to move on several times, but every time he dropped a beat we stayed for “just one more”. More and more people came streaming from the adjoining streets, joining the party until the street was so full that the few cars who came by were forced to drive through a victory tunnel of happy dancers and often suffered cheeky little phrases being written on their dirty back windows. We met old friends in the crowd and made new ones.
By the end of the day we were sunburned and tired, but we rode through the streets of people on our bikes, so happy to be alive and even happier to be alive and living in Berlin. If you can, join us for May Day next year, it will be a party you’ll never forget.