Thursday, 1 May 2008

German Word of the Day

Krawalltourist:  lit.  "riot tourist".  Person who goes to Kreuzberg in Berlin on April 30/May 1,  and specifically to the Oranienstra├če area of Kreuzberg,  in the hope of seeing clashes between hordes of riot police and a few kids throwing bottles,  stones etc.

Once upon a time,  about twenty to thirty years ago,  the "revolutionary" date of May 1  (which is internationally associated with the labour movement)  was cause for radical left-wing,  anti-capitalist protesters to take to the streets of Kreuzberg  (and other places in the world)  and demonstrate,  which would often lead them into conflict with the police.  The protests in Kreuzberg were always fairly lively,  since the area was a major centre of left-wing radicalism,  full of squatted houses.  In 1987,  in the wake of repressive police activities and against a background of angry protest against the conservative city government,  the May 1 protests escalated into an explosion of rioting and violence directed at the police and other symbols of the "capitalist establishment" - shops were looted, barricades were erected,  and in a large part of Kreuzberg 36 the rioters were a law unto themselves for several hours.

The few years that followed saw similar violence on May 1,  enough to establish something of a tradition;  however after the fall of the Berlin Wall,  a lot of squatters moved out of Kreuzberg to create new squats in the empty old buildings on the eastern side.  The reunification of the city also brought ideological challenges,  resulting in conflicts within the radical left which eventually saw a decline in the strength of the protests in the early 1990s.  The radicalism of Kreuzberg in general has declined since then,  with most squats being shut down by the city government.  In the last five years or so,  the protests have been little more than a few idiots provoking the police for their own amusement;  there is little or no organized political aspect to it.  Which is probably how it should be;  after all,  how radical can a protest be if it happens only once a year and on schedule??  (insert joke about Germans and punctuality.)  A "revolution" you can set your watch by?  I don't think so.

Nonetheless,  every year huge numbers of police descend on Berlin for the event - I strongly suspect Germany's police forces send their rookies for "hands-on" riot control training - and every year the number of Krawalltouristen has grown.  Apparently there were some right from the start in 1987,  with large numbers of people going to Kreuzberg to marvel at the chaos.  At least they had something to look at.  These days,  the number of "riot tourists" ludicrously outnumbers the actual rioters,  and the whole thing has an unmistakable aspect of farce.  You wander down Oranienstra├če today and the crowds will look exactly like those at a football match,  standing about drinking beer,  eating kebabs,  joking merrily to one another - except that down the side streets there are several hundred police in full riot armour,  batons and tear gas at the ready.  And inevitably someone will throw something,  the police will slowly move in behind a wall of perspex and a few canisters of tear gas will be fired,  causing the crowd to run giggling and shouting,  spilling their beer and kebab sauce,  out into the neighbouring streets.

I can't help feeling that the police should just stand there and do nothing.  Or better yet,  slowly move away,  forcing the provocateurs to follow them.  It would spoil the show marvellously.

And perhaps the day would regain some of its political dignity.