May Day Debrief

  • berlin
  • direct action
2018-05-02 07:43:44 +0000

After last year’s May Day adventures, and with comrades in tow this year, I had high hopes for the kind of fun we might get up to.

The morning was uneventful, spent mostly trying to fix a VPN issue in Qubes. Some comrades wanted to walk around the May Day party, but having done that enough times, I wasn’t interested. I needed to get some work done, and I wanted to be fresh for the presumed clashes with the cops.

We set a rally point a couple of blocks from Oranienplatz for 17:30 to give us enough time to walk over to the start of the march at 18:00. Somehow for a bunch of anarchists, everyone was punctual, and our wrecking squad of five set off through the crowd of partiers to join the main body.

I’d heard that at least some part of the revolutionary folk were heading to Grunewald for a demonstration of their own, but some of my comrades wanted to stay close to the center of town, some wanted to see the street fest, and some weren’t from Berlin. Maybe I should have kept a better finger on the pulse of the Berlin anarchist scene and convinced them to go out to the forest, but such is life.

This year’s protest was registered with a planned route whereas the previous year’s was not, and given that there was a demo at 14 in the outskirts, it made sense that the crowd was smaller and less radical. I’d been checking the #b0105 stream on Twitter, and it seemed the Grunewald protest was much larger and more interesting than I had guessed it would be.

As we approached O-Platz, we could see the flags rising above the crowd. Purple anti-patriarchy. Red communists. Yellow, red, and green for Rojava. But not so much black anarchist and antifa. The crowd itself felt less dense, less intense than it had before.

may-day-route

None of us bloc’d up because there was no bloc. There were a few people dressed in all black with sunglasses on who looked like they’d join a bloc if one formed. I gave everyone the rundown on the route and a recap of last year. We set rally points and codewords to shout out Marco-Polo style if we got separated. We chatted amongst ourselves and with comrades around us about police strategies used by different cities and countries.

Around 18:30, with just a few fireworks and a smoke flares (less than the year before), the march took off. Some people chanted, but less frequently and with less joining in than the year before. There was less police presence too. It felt a lot more like a casual march and the start of an anarchist riot. Maybe we should have gone to the forest with my other comrades.

Nothing of interest happened, and there was hardly any police presence aside from few unarmored officers in high-vis vests that simply stood on the corners to make sure the protest followed the planned route.

The protest was supposed to stop at Schlesisches Tor, but when it reached the round about, it doubled back down the other side of Skalitzer Straße and after maybe 20 meters was met with a police line. The bloc started running and splintering, and my group took off with them. The surge pushed into the crowd with people ducking off into groups of partiers and shops. We followed one finger that pushed its way into a bar and started de-blocing, which seemed off because so far as we could see no one had committed any crime yet.

What had been a coherent march seemed to now be scattered groups mixed in with the partiers. Was this intentional? Was the bloc hiding in the crowd and using them for cover?

It seemed not. It looked like the one surge around the police line was too short for the rest of the protest to follow. It looked like there was no one to push for a rally. My squad and I waited to see for where the action was. I and another had medkits and training and were looking for where we could be most useful. When a phalanx of riot cops took off down the street back towards Schlesisches Tor, we followed them, but at the station there was nothing. Other phalanxes of cops patrolled the streets and created soft barriers to watch for groups of the bloc who might escape down the side streets.

A group of riot cops was clearing a bar where presumably a protestor had ducked in to hide. A small group of cops stood in front to watch and keep the crowd back, but the expected response of many antifascists causing a commotion and providing cover for a counter-offensive or a mass for the arrested comrade to escape into wasn’t happening. A few stood around and watched, but there was almost no one yelling.

The cops dragged the comrade out and with silence they were abducted.

We’d been standing around for a good 20 minutes and had seen nothing that resembled a new bloc. Little clusters of protesters stood around, some with flags, but there was no cohesion. No one was trying to rally the rest, and no one had an idea where the action might be. Groups of cops snaked through the crowd, just watching and intimidating.

“Those are snatch squads,” one of the comrades noted.

Because the streets were closed for the May Day festivities, and since most of the protestors had their faces uncovered, no one was breaking the law, so there was no one to snatch.

The cops who were standing on the elevated U-Bahn tracks and filming the crowd had left, so we assumed there was interesting action elsewhere. Two phalanxes of cops started running off toward Görlitzer Park, and again we followed.

Yet again, there appeared to be minimal action, sometime a cop shoving someone, but really just a whole lot of nothing. Again, like the comrades getting arrested before, when a cop hit someone or shoved someone, the crowd hardly responded. It felt like there was less solidarity than other actions, but maybe we had just missed the main body and were here with the stragglers and inexperienced anarchists.

Skalitzer Straße

Photo credit Roehrensee

We were standing on the walkway underneath the U1 (pictured above) with the east and westward streets on our sides. Groups of protestors were standing against the pillars, in the street, and mixed in with the crowd. Most had their faces uncovered, and very few still had PKK flags and balloons.

Note: Displaying of PKK logos and flags is forbidden in Germany.

Because there was no “action” so to say, the protesters seemed to have let their guard down. My squad and I were carefully monitoring the police movements and making minor relocations to not get caught between two phalanxes, and were pointing and calling out police movements we thought the rest of us might have missed. The rest of the crowd didn’t seem to be doing this because those who were masked, who were obviously targets were getting picked off by the snatch squads.

Directly next to us a comrade with a mask on got put in a headlock from behind, with neither him nor his comrades aware of what happening. My squad started yelling to draw the crowd’s attention and positioned ourselves to make it harder for more cops to access the group that was under attack. Like before, there was nearly no response from the crowd.

This happened a few more times, and after it seemed like the splintered group of protesters has fully dissipated, we left.

Lessons?

I’m not in contact with the organizers, nor the main part of the Black Bloc, so I’m making assumptions about both what happened and what was intended. Take this with a grain of salt.

Move With Intention

When the head of the march, where it seemed the main contingent of the Black Bloc was made a U-turn slightly early to double back the way it came, the police were clearly going to react against it. Not posting this or making this public is fine OpSec in that we don’t want to give away any info to the cops when such a maneuver requires an element of surprise, but the execution was poor.

When a sudden move happens in the bloc, it needs to be large enough and move far enough to allow the part of the bloc directly behind the initiators of the surge to clear the police line. Surging just past line means that protests some 20 meters behind you will have nowhere to go and be caught directly against the police line. The move needs to be obvious so people behind you can figure out what’s happening and follow you easily.

When you move, scattering into a crowd may be a good means of protecting yourself if you’ve already done some crime, but if the goal is to continue the protest, you need to move with clarity so that the rest of the block behind you can guess what to do next.

This May Day, that quick surge was practically the highlight. After that, the bloc looked like it had been broken by a single phalanx of cops, and no one in our squad, some who were experienced protestors, could figure out what happened of what the next move was.

It is my feeling that this single move and dissipation of the bloc led to the lack of an obvious amount of rioting.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Once the march had broken up, and it seemed there was no imminent threat of violence, but when you’re dealing with the police, especially as a leftist, there is always a threat of violence. Covering your face at a protest is illegal in Germany, so even just being present at the edges of the recently broken bloc puts one at risk of arrest.

The protestors who were just standing around not paying attention were endangering themselves. One’s guard should be up from the time the leave for the protest until they get home.

No exceptions.

Pick Your Route Strategically

I can’t pretend to know why the route for the protest was selected by the organizers, and to some extent I can understand why it might have been chosen: to maximize visibility by going through a crowed area or to purposely use the partiers as cover (raising the possibility of the “drunk bloc” tactic).

However that route made it difficult to keep the bloc together because of people on the street. There was no “drunk bloc” either, and a few comrades reported that the crowd was actually fighting back against the bloc by throwing bottles or shoving protesters into lines of cops. The route also was directly along the U1 which provided an elevated platform for the cops to easily watch over and film the entire crowd. The route was quite short which meant it was going to reach its terminus while it was still bright daylight out.

The organizers might have intended that it wasn’t going to turn into a riot, but given the history of May Day in Kreuzberg, there was most certainly the possibility that the event would turn illegal, selecting that route endangered the people who were inevitably going to get wild.

I also think it would be wise to start the demo at 19:00 rather than 18:00. This would push the end of the protest closer to twilight which would give more cover for naughty things. Granted, there’s tradition and maybe the event always started at 18:00. I’m also not an organizer, so I can’t say how these decisions were made.

Keep it Tight and Push Back

The cops fear the block because they fear for their own physical well being. They are most aggressive when they feel they have an advantage, either in numbers or when the bloc is in retreat. This is an oversimplification and of course not always true, but the follwoing advice generally applies.

A tight bloc has more density of bodies which means more fists to counter the police batons. A tight bloc means more comrades to link arms with and more comrades to pull you back when the police get a hand on you. A bloc that moves as one and with cohesion is safer.

A tight bloc feels confident and can quickly move against police. If the cops grabs someone once and there is no blowback, they will try again and again. Make it dangerous for them to grab someone. Make it a risk for them to move against the bloc. Don’t graciously accept their boot; don’t let a comrade get abducted. If the whole bloc moves against the police and gives them hell every time they try to take someone, less people will get snatched.

Finally

Maybe my analysis of this is totally wrong. Maybe the Black Bloc made off without me and got up to some shit, and we just missed it. Maybe way more folk went out to Grunewald and it wasn’t clear who was going to be where and in what numbers, and we got left out of the loop.

Regardless.

Some rich folk had their property smashed, some PKK flags were flown in support of Rojava, and at the end of the day, every direct action is a chance to learn and to plan the next better.