May Day in Kreuzberg: music trumps riots

Berlin’s Kreuzberg district has seen May Day riots for over 20 years, but Sarah Roberts reports on how the neighbourhood is hoping this year will be different.

May Day in Kreuzberg: music trumps riots
Myfest in 2006. Photo:DPA

Like any newcomer to Kreuzberg, Niko Dregori knows about his neighbourhood’s long history of May Day riots. But this year, the 23-year-old student from Dortmund is more excited than worried.

“You always hear news about the violence but the people round here say it’s not that bad,” said Dregori. “I’m looking forward to all the free live music right on my door step.”

Dregori’s bedroom window has a direct view of two music stages set up for a street festival that Kreuzberg officials hope will finally spell the end of over 20 years of May 1 riots in the district.

Kreuzberg is arguably the most un-German part of Germany. It’s large Turkish population and penchant for attracting people seeking out alternative lifestyles have created a distinct reputation known throughout Berlin and across the country. Here, old punkers mix easily with younger immigrant kids and new arrivals like Dregori.

What was once an isolated part of West Berlin on the frontline of the Cold War, has now become the heart of the reunified German capital. But the neighbourhood still retains a bohemian feel and its predominately left-wing denizens aren’t shy about protesting against the establishment.

The first major May Day riots in Kreuzberg took place in 1987 amid a heated atmosphere between West Berlin’s leftist scene and city officials. A police raid against a group opposed to a national census sparked violence that has plagued the neighbourhood ever since.

Some years have been worse and others better, but one development dismaying local residents has been that the riots have become less political and more just an excuse to throw cobblestones at police, smash shop windows and set cars alight.

That encouraged the district to start promoting Myfest, a street festival with music stages spread throughout Kreuzberg, in an attempt to dilute the anarchist tourists from all over Germany looking for a fight with the cops.

Former Kreuzberg house squatter and political activist, Silke Fischer has been organizing the festival for several years. In 2002 Fischer and a group of local residents got together to create a new focus for May Day. Working with social clubs and youth centres they put together the first Myfest in 2003 with the aim of harnessing the district’s political voice in a more positive and creative way.

“The stage is a place where the youth of Kreuzberg can express themselves and get their message across,” she explained. “When you throw a stone at someone they’re not going to listen.”

Myfest says it gives local musicians, artists and performers an open platform for both protest and productivity. There are fifteen different themed stages including rap group Beats Against Fascism, break dance outfit Kingz HipHop, and the Trinkteufel stage will host punk, hardcore and metal bands.

All aspects of the neighbourhood’s diverse culture will have a place at the festival, with special church services and an open-mic stage for budding young MCs. A family festival at Mariannenplatz starts at 3 pm.

“It will always be a day with strong political meaning. People have a right to a day off, a right to speak out and be heard,” said Fischer. “We support demonstrations but people should fight on the stage and not with their fists.”

On the corner of Naunyn and Adalbert Strasse, the Trinkteufel punker bar is something of a Kreuzberg institution. Behind the motley looking bar stands owner and veteran local punker named Hexe, who both supports Myfest and has strong opinions on the annual riots.

“Kreuzberg is a social flashpoint and May 1 has always been about music, demonstrations and fighting the state.” she explained. “These days people come by the bus load to Berlin just to cause trouble. I’m not against riots but not here in our neighbourhood.”

After twenty years of witnessing protests that turn to violence, locals are growing intolerant of pointless chaos, Hexe said.

“When things get smashed up it shouldn’t be here in a working class area but where the money is. Riots don’t happen in Potsdamer Platz or Charlottenburg but in Kreuzberg people seem to think it’s acceptable.”

A bakery used to stand across the street from the bar but was badly damaged during a year of rioting and the owners moved away, Hexe recalled. “They smashed in all the windows, the place was a mess,” she said. “They were working class people too so why did the rioters target them? It’s lost meaning.”

Trinkteufel will host a collection of punk and hardcore bands on its stage, who will blare out messages of anti-capitalism and class struggle, but Hexe hopes the actually May Day demonstration walks right on by so people can also enjoy the music.

The Myfest festival is financed by Berlin’s city government with €150,000 this year and Kreuzberg’s Arts and Culture Commission helped out with logistics and general organization of the event.

Kreuzberg Mayor, Frank Schulz, has been working together with Fischer and the Myfest team since January to ensure the smooth running of the festival on Thursday.

“It’s a real shame that trouble is connected with the day, but we have a very optimistic view that this year’s event will be a peaceful festival,” said Schulz. “I will be there on the day to see the bands and the demonstration. We have very good relations with all the locals involved including immigrant groups and hope the day will be a big success.”

Although the riots were less dramatic in recent years in part due to Myfest’s success, Berlin police still anticipate trouble and will patrol the streets in full force all day Thursday.

“We have hopes that the festival will pass without violence this year,” said Berlin police spokeswoman Heike Nagora. “However, the Berlin police will be reinforced with officers from neighbouring states.”

Despite indications this May Day could be a peaceful one, authorities aren’t taking any chances – around 5,000 officers and riot police will keep a close eye on left-wing demonstrations.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.