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RevolutionaryBerlin in Exberliner

Walk don’t burn: Revolutionary walking tours

by John Riceburg

A regular touristy walking tour through Berlin will take you to the Brandenburg Gate. An ‘alternative’ tour will include some former squats and street art. But what about the violence?

That’s where RevolutionaryBerlin, founded by a young American calling himself Bill, comes in. The group’s three-hour walking tours centre on the riots that broke out in Kreuzberg on May 1, 1987, when a supermarket near Görlitzer Park was burned to the ground. Ever since then, street battles between demonstrators and police have erupted every May Day.

While a visitor might recognize only senseless, nihilistic destruction, a walking tour can provide context and insight into the city’s complicated anarchist/left-wing activist scene. The guides (one German, one American, both serious lefties) tend to be a bit one-sided – “demonstrators good, police bad” is the tenor – but their mischievous fascination can be contagious. The stories are padded out with plenty of entertaining anecdotes about the 1968 student movement, the Berlin Wall and even the occasionally violent clashes between different left-wing groups.

For good measure, they provide tips for would-be demonstrators eager to participate in this ‘extreme sport’. They also offer tours on the November Revolution of 1918-19 and Berlin’s little-known past as a colonial power. This is a much-needed alternative to the bigger companies trying to make a buck off Berlin’s seedy image, and it’s run by people who know their way around the city’s myriad revolutionary groups.

Source: Exberliner, May 2013

RevolutionaryBerlin from dpa

Tracing the roots of Berlin’s May Day violence

By Helen Maguire

Berlin – Around 25 people loiter with cameras and backpacks on a grassy traffic roundabout under a subway flyover, in the heart of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district.

Every year, on May 1, this area transforms ‘into kind of a street festival, and kind of a war scene – you could call it a war festival,’ a bearded young man tells the tour group.

The man, in his late 20s, asks to be identified as Bill Haywood. Two years ago he began conducting walking tours of Berlin’s leftwing scene, describing the city’s radical revolutionary movements.

Over the course of 150 minutes Haywood, who left the United States a decade ago to study in Berlin, keeps stopping to correct himself.

‘I mean they, not we…’ he says, describing the city’s radical leftwing groups and the annual May Day rallies which invariably degenerate into police clashes.

The riots on Labour Day – introduced as a public holiday by the National Socialists in 1933 – are presented in the media like a weather phenomenon, Haywood says.

‘Sunny today, stones will fly tomorrow,’ he mocks, adding that his role is to explain ‘where the hatred comes from.’

His tours begin in Kreuzberg’s former District 36, a small enclave of West Berlin surrounded by the city’s dividing wall until 1989.

Haywood’s yellow sports jacket is easy to spot as he navigates past the neighbourhood mix of young punks and Muslim women in headscarves, a leftwing newspaper jutting out of his combat trouser pocket.

In this area, he explains, houses damaged during World War II were left to decay, and the low rents attracted two groups – poor Turkish labourers and young German military draft dodgers drawn by Berlin’s demilitarized status.

The mixture turned volatile once property developers sought to evict tenants, erect new buildings and push up rents. Berlin’s squatter movement was born, providing a rallying call for leftwing radicals.

The multitude of radical groups – from Maoists to autonomists – gathered pace in the student movements of the 1960s, jostled with trade unions in the conservative Germany of the 1970s and 1980s, and reached a turning point in 1987.

That year, leftwingers joined the popular opposition to Germany’s census, stoked by talk of a totalitarian surveillance state.

On the morning of that May 1, police raided the Berlin headquarters of the census opponents, fuelling tensions at the city’s annual May Day rallies.

According to Haywood’s version of events, riot police stormed a peaceful street party, triggering a wave of violence in which leftists wrecked 150 police cars, burned down a suburban train station and looted shops – ‘proletarian shopping,’ in Haywood’s words.

‘It was a hell of a riot,’ he says, the shadow of a smile creeping across his face.

The ensuing 23 years have been a recurrent battle between radicals and police, Haywood says, as city officials sought to prevent political rallies but never entirely eradicated the violence.

In recent years, the city has organized a popular street festival against violence – called MyFest – attracting tens of thousands in what Haywood describes as a police-funded attempt to depoliticise May Day and distract from revolutionary rallies.

Despite this, violence reached a record high in 2009, when leftwingers threw stones, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the police.

In total, 479 police officers were injured, and 289 rioters arrested. Officials estimated that 2,500 people at the rally were prone to violence.

Haywood stops to point out posters advertising the 2011 rally, which targets capitalism and the gentrification process which has driven up prices in city neighbourhoods as they become appealing to more affluent residents.

Another rallying cry has cropped up among this year’s socialist wall propaganda. Bright red posters bear white Arabic lettering, in solidarity with the popular uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East.

‘It says ‘Yalla’, meaning, Let’s go!’ the guide explains.

Recounting previous rioting, Haywood describes the palpable disappointment amongst demonstrators in years when police took a hands-off approach and were barely visible at rallies.

‘There is a lot of anger at Berlin’s police force,’ he says.

The police need not carry visible identification, but this is due to change after state legislators decided last year to make name badges compulsory.

Haywood’s tour this year includes people from Britain, Ireland and the US. Some are in Berlin for the weekend to experience May Day, while another says he is a lapsed leftwing extremist.

Before joining the May Day rallies, Haywood recommends that people study ‘survival kits’ that have been published online.

‘Like any extreme sport, you should always prepare for the worst,’ he says.

Source: dpa, May 1, 2011

Report about RevolutionaryBerlin on the radio station “RBB Inforadio” from April 29, 2011 (not currently online – in German)

Article about RevolutionaryBerlin in the daily newspaper “Neues Deutschland” from April 27, 2011 (in German)

Article about May Day that mentions RevolutionaryBerlin in the daily newspaper “Tagesspiegel” from May 2, 2010 (in German)

Top Ten List about May Day including RevolutionaryBerlin as number three on the web site “ZEITjUNG” from May 1, 2010 (in German)

Article about RevolutionaryBerlin on the web site of ABC from May 1, 2010 (a copy of the “Spiegel” article)

RevolutionaryBerlin on UPI

Odd News: Man offering May Day riot tours in Berlin

BERLIN, April 30 (UPI) — A U.S. anti-capitalist activist living in Germany is giving tours of locations related to Berlin’s annual May Day riots.

The man, who gave his name as Bill, said he gives English and German language tours of the Kreuzberg district with a focus on the protests that have taken place on May 1 since 1988, Der Spiegel reported Friday.

Bill, who came to Berlin as a student eight years ago and attended his first May Day protest seven years ago, said the reasons behind the riots include repression, exploitation and war, but it all centers on a distaste for capitalism.

“We’re against the system,” he said.

Bill said the $6.60 he charges per person for the tours is donated to a left-wing project.

Source: UPI, April 30, 2010

Article about RevolutionaryBerlin in the Lausitzer Rundschau from April 30, 2010 (in German)

RevolutionaryBerlin in “Der Spiegel”

May Day Tourism in Berlin

Anti-Capitalist Tour Guide Offers Riot Sightseeing

The May 1 riots in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district have become an annual ritual in the German capital. Now an American anti-capitalist activist has started giving tours of the neighborhood’s hot spots to foreign visitors.

He calls himself Bill, though it goes without saying that it’s not his real name. And he doesn’t want any photos taken of his face. He is, after all, a left-wing extremist.

We are standing next to Kottbusser Tor metro station in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, in a trash-strewn square in the shadow of an elevated section of the subway. If things go as Bill and the rest of the German capital expects, stones and bottles will be flying here in a few days’ time as part of the city’s annual May 1 protests.

Bill is wearing cargo pants and a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Die Yuppie Scum.” The T-shirt is the sign the tour group were told to look out for at the arranged meeting-point underneath the railway tracks. Two dozen people are waiting for him.

Bill says they’ll set off in a moment – after he’s collected their money.

The Highlight of Spring in Berlin

Bill is a left-wing extremist who came up with a money-making scheme. He offers tours of the sites of “the famous May Day riots”, sometimes in English, sometimes in German. Bill is American, so he finds the English tours easier to give. They also attract more people.

He hands out flyers advertising “revolutionary Berlin” and featuring a picture of Berlin’s iconic television tower and a communist red star. The tour even has its own website and Facebook page.

Today’s tour includes visitors from New Zealand, Ireland, Russia, and Italy. Their ages range from early 20s to early 30s. Many of them have recently moved to Berlin. They wear brightly-colored scarves and large sunglasses, but just for reasons of fashion, not to conceal their identity. None of them object to being photographed. The May 1 protests in Kreuzberg are simply another exciting aspect of their adopted home that they would like to find out more about.

It seems like the riots are the highlight of spring in Berlin. There are posters up everywhere, and the newspapers write about it on a daily basis. There are also quite a lot of Germans on the tour.

Bill says he usually charges €5 ($6.60) per person, but is willing to be flexible. He says he donates the money to a left-wing project, and that the tour itself is free of charge. After all, Bill is a Marxist, in other words an anti-capitalist.

Not as Radical as They Used to Be

Bill came to Berlin as a student eight years ago. He was in Kreuzberg for his first May Day protest seven years ago, and he’s been coming back ever since. The day after last year’s protest, his parents called. They said they’d seen a report about Kreuzberg on the news, and were worried about him. This is the anecdote Bill kicks off his tour with.

By the time we get to the Oranienplatz square, Bill has finished expounding about the background to the May 1 protests: squatters, the student movement, and student leader Rudi Dutschke, whose attempted assassination sparked riots in Berlin in 1968. Passing the offices of veteran Green Party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, who was one of the lawyers that defended Germany’s far-left Red Army Faction terrorists in court in the 1970s, Bills rails against him. Ströbele, he complains, is just like everyone else in Kreuzberg: not half as radical as he used to be.

Two young Turkish men pass by. “Hello, dear tourists!” they call out. Bill lights up a cigarette, and moves on to the events of May 1, 1987. He says it was just a peaceful street party until the police turned up with teargas. This triggered a spontaneous “Kiezaufstand,” says Bill, switching for a moment into German — a “neighborhood uprising.” Angry citizens looted and burned down a supermarket, he explains. “That’s the version I believe.” At any rate, there have been demonstrations every year since 1988.

“What exactly are they demonstrating about these days?” someone asks.

“That always kind of depends on the political context,” Bill replies. There are all sorts of grounds for revolutionary protest, he explains: repression, exploitation, war, etc. Or, to put it more bluntly: “It’s all about the fact that capitalism is bullshit, and we’re against the system.”

Everyone looks at him, but no-one says anything. It’s Marxism against capitalism, the people against the police. NATO and the Warsaw Pact may no longer be at loggerheads, but in every other way Germany seems to once again be a country in which the world can be reduced to the same simplistic dichotomy of a quarter-century ago: the battle between good and evil.

Political Project

Bill, together with his fellow students, came up with the idea for the tour when he took part in a business start-up competition run by the university. He participated in the contest in order to subvert it, he says. His critical stance was based on the fact that the university was cutting costs, yet still had enough money to turn students into entrepreneurs.

Bill sees the tours themselves primarily as a political project, a way of explaining and promoting the revolutionary Labor Day protests. Some left-wingers were thrilled about the idea, though others complained that it was stupid bringing even more rubberneckers to Kreuzberg, which attracts so-called “riot tourists” on May 1 every year.

Bill takes a more pragmatic point of view. Tourists are going to come to the neighborhood whether he likes it or not, so it’s better if they go around with him.

At Least Once in Your Life

The group reaches the far end of Mariannenplatz square as Bill reaches the end of his history of the May 1 protests. In his version, the pattern is basically the same, year after year: People demonstrate, the police attack the demonstrators, and violence breaks out. For the past few years, he says, the state has been staging large street festivals disguised as anti-violence demonstrations in an attempt to distract radical left-wingers from their political activism.

The tour group has seen the mosque that now stands where the supermarket was burnt down, as well as a left-wing café that was recently forced to close when the rent went up. The only question left is how this year’s May 1 will turn out. Bill invites everyone to come to the demonstration. His advice for when things liven up: Stay cool and use your head.

Two British au-pairs start planning right away. They live with middle-class families in southwestern Berlin, and they’re not certainly left wing. But as they put it, you need to have been to a May Day demonstration in Kreuzberg at least once in your life.

Source: Spiegel International from April 30, 2010 (a translation from the German-language magazine)

Article about RevolutionaryBerlin from the Lausitzer Rundschau from April 30, 2010 (in German)

RevolutionaryBerlin on German TV

A video report about RevolutionaryBerlin from the morning magazine of ARD, German state TV (in German – opens in a new window)

RevolutionaryBerlin in “Der Spiegel”

Article about RevolutionaryBerlin in Der Spiegel (Germany’s largest news magazine) from April 26, 2010 (in German)

RevolutionaryBerlin in the BZ

(“The university turns the May Day riots into a tourist attraction – tour to locations of the riots – politicians enrages”)

Article about Revolutionary Berlin in the BZ (Berlin’s largest tabloid newspaper) from April 22, 2010 (in German)

Article about May Day in the daily paper Berliner Zeitung from April 6, 2010, including a quote from RevolutionaryBerlin (in German)

Feature about May Day in the April issue of English-language magazine Exberliner, including a quote from RevolutionaryBerlin.

Article about RevolutionaryBerlin in the daily paper taz from June 8, 2009 (in German).

Interview with RevolutionaryBerlin in the daily paper junge Welt from June 3, 2009 (in German).

Article about RevolutionaryBerlin on the web site of FURIOS, the right-wing students’ magazine at the Free University (in German)


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