Anarchy in a Cold War by Kurtis Sunday – Berlin at the beginning of the 80s

WEST BERLIN. Sun. Blue sky. As if spring’s already arrived. Saturday afternoon. People are gathering. Have been for an hour, crowding round the intersection of Mehringdamn, Yorck- and Gneisenaustraße, blocking the traffic flow on the broad avenues, impatient to move, for the signal from the loudspeaker van. Nothing worse than standing around waiting for a demo to kick off.

Long hair, short hair, Punks, black leather jackets, safety pins, lilac dungarees, Palestinian scarves, striped drainpipe trousers, blue jeans, parkas, yellow wind breakers, multicoloured jumpers, painted faces, clown noses, black ski masks. Women and men with babies Amerindian style on their backs or chests, SEW (hardcore Commies), Alternative Liste, Young Socialists, photographers, the Gewerkschaft für Wissenschaft und Erzeihung (trade union), cyclists, musicians, beards, woolly caps, Mohicans, the Marxistische Gruppe (fluffy Commies) distributing leaflets, a Jesus-lookalike in long white robes, hennaed hair, Helga Goetze with her multicoloured sandwich board advocating sexual liberation. Toddlers, a video camera crew, gym shoes, a juggler tossing rainbow balls, kebabs, anti-nuke badges, Dmitri and his bottle of Schultheiß, Turks with leaflets about their people on hunger strike in Munich, groups, loners, lovers, nearly everyone wearing some sort of symbolic and sometimes very practical scarf.

A lot of people, ten thousand perhaps. Maybe more. And others are sure to join along the route. Multiply the official figure the police will give afterwards by two: that might give some sort of idea of how many there really are.

And down the back streets and almost out of view: the Bullen. Paramilitary olive-green uniforms, perspex shields, white helmets, new-model green-white and old-model navy blue police transits parked in rows, young closely shaved faces under clipped-up plastic visors, black boots and black batons being played with casually. And here and there the peaked cap of authority.

Some Punks, bottles of Schultheiß in hand, have climbed onto the roof of the mobile Imbiß, which is doing a brisk trade in fried sausages soaked in curried Ketchup and salty pommes frites.

An incomprehensible crackly voice suddenly booms from the loudspeaker van. People turn to each other. Are they starting? No. Not yet. It’s something about having to hang around for another five minutes and would people please let the loudspeaker van through to the front.

one, two, three …

The chant starts somewhere and is immediately taken up:

free the prisoners!

That’s the signal. A cheer spreads through the crowd.
The voice on the loudspeaker takes up the chant.
The crowd roars louder.

free the prisoners!

Out of sight, the Bullen, the representatives of those for whom the chant is meant, silently begin their preparations.
The music starts: the familiar desperate beat of Fehlfarben.

history is being made
es geht voran!

The sound pulsates through the crowd. Bodies vibrate. Heads and feet beat it out. Some dance.

space labs are falling on islands
forgetfulness is spreading
es geht voran!

The vanguard starts pushing the loudspeaker van towards Yorckstraße.
People follow it. Faces light up.

mountains are exploding
the president is guilty

The Punks on top of the lmbiß cheer.
Dmitri takes a slug from his bottle of Schultheiß.

es geht voran!

Black flags, red flags, yellow flags, lilac flags flutter in the February wind. The banners rise. Banners with paintings on them, the red banners of the SEW with their yellow socialist-realist block lettering, and a banner the width of the street at the front announcing that that The Berlin Mob is on the move.

grey b-film heroes
are about to rule the world
es geht voran!
es geht voran!
history is being made
es geht voran!

The trees on both sides and in the middle of Yorckstraße are winter bare. A guy playing a full-sized Orange Order drum strapped across his beer belly dances through the crowd.
Two women, squatter and feminist symbols finger-painted onto their whitened cheeks, are holding up a banner: Wenn Bullen prügeln, kriegen Steine Flügel! Cobblestones with wings fly in and out of the Punky red and black lettering.
People hang from lamp-posts and perch on pedestrian barriers trying to get a better view. Cameras click, catching the colour and music in silent black and white. There are still people at the back who haven’t started moving yet.
The police transit leading the demonstration, a safe distance ahead of it, approaches the railway bridges that crisscross the avenue. Just before it passes under the first bridge the people pushing the loudspeaker van break into a trot, and start gaining on the transit. But after a warning to the driver from the helmeted Bulle riding shotgun at the open back doors, the transit accelerates and regains the gap lost in seconds.
Stage one accomplished.
The first row of demonstrators have stopped, are waiting for the gap between them and the loudspeaker van to widen again.
There’s a moment of silent tension – despite the music. Then suddenly there’s a roar and the demonstrators charge. Wild screams of joy echo and amplify into a barrage under the cast-iron bridges. The demonstrators catch up with the loudspeaker van and stop.
But behind them another gap has opened. And another human wave waits. Then it too roars and charges under the bridges.
This happens again and again, waves of demonstrators ritually throwing themselves forward, screaming, running, proclaiming animal joy. The street is theirs now.
The anti-socials attack the walls with spray cans:

be realistic, demand the impossible
power to the imagination
no power for nobody
legal – illegal – scheißegal
we are the people our parents warned us about
kein gott! kein staat! kein vaterland!

A theatre group who look conspicuous, pretending to look inconspicuous, in the beloved trench coats, trilbies and dark glasses of secret policemen everywhere, huddles together beside a traffic light. The women have painted marker-black moustaches on their upper lips. One has a camera, another a pair of binoculars. The other three leer through holes in the newspapers they are supposed to be reading. Cheers and fake jeers are hurled at them from the crowd. A comic-book ‘terrorist’, in black hat and black cape, suddenly appears and runs screaming at them. He has something in his hand. He throws it at them. But the black sponge-cum-cobblestone yoyos back to him on its string and he smiles and bows to the crowd for his applause.
The first of the squatted houses comes into sight. Banners hang from its balconies. The facade at street level has been given a quick coat of pink and blue paint and graffitied. At two upper-storey windows large speakers blare out the delicious sound of The Clash. London Calling. The squatters on the balconies make clenched-fist salutes and wave a large black flag.
“Golzstraße 30!” the loudspeaker van announces.
The crowd cheers.
Then suddenly, more angry electric guitars and raging drums. It’s Crass.

they’ve got a bomb, they’ve got a bomb
twenty odd years … waiting for the flash…

There are some new apartment blocks on the other side of the street. People watch from their balconies, like spectators at a circus.
… four minute warning …

The demo turns into Potsdamer Straße. The music is now Latin American. Last year Nicaragua was liberated. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile the fight goes on. The sound of the pan flutes is haunting. One can almost smell the pure air of the Andes and sense the spirit of the Incan panther.
Out of sight and out of mind the Bullen follow the parade, shrink-wrapped in their sense of duty and preparedness.
Here there are other spectators. A few prozis on day shift – this is their manor. Turkish men outside kebab takeaways and Turkish cafés, good humoured bewilderment on their Southern Gastarbeiter faces. People drop into the Turkish places to empty their bladders. There might be trouble if they went into German ones. In the side streets traffic police direct traffic away, alone and in white coats they enjoy non-combatant status.
The Sanis, the demonstrators’ Red Cross, are spread among the crowd. The red crosses, cumulating in clenched fists, on their helmets, bags and armbands are reminders of what can happen. But the buzz is too good to worry about that now. It’s more like a carnival than a demonstration. Even some of the people looking down from their windows along the route seem to be enjoying it. Every now and then individuals from the crowd shout up and ask them to come down and join in. Most remain stone-faced, bewildered and weary – but some wave. Now and again there are bangs and puffs of smoke. The remnants of New Year’s Eve fire-crackers. They leave an ominous whiff of gunpowder in the February air.
Some of the old hotels on Potsdamer Straße – upper-class brothels during the Kaiserzeit – have been turned into hostels for Third World asylum seekers. Lots of Tamils these days. They stand in groups at the windows of the four storey buildings, their brown faces smiling, some waving, some brandishing clenched fists.
The crowd takes up an old war cry.

long-live-inter-national-solid-arity!

And on it goes, the mass of colour moving to the music, winding its way through the streets, filling them, slogans and repetitive beats echoing up between the houses. A beer-sodden ur-mensch at a balcony shakes his fist and screams a primal scream down at the mob.
After they pass U-Bahn Kleistpark underground train station the stopping and charging starts off again.

es geht voran!

The demo passes a peepshow. A group of women, their scarves now suddenly masks, start digging up cobblestones from the pavement with keys. Seconds later – amid the clowns and painted faces and es-geht-voran – there’s the sudden clatter of the peepshow’s blacked-out front window being smashed. The crowd cheers. A white-coated traffic policeman opposite sees it. But his job is directing traffic. A brass band reaches the spot, stops and plays a tune amid the shards of broken glass.
Further back another van is being pushed along. On top of it, in a wooden cage, a building speculator in top hat and tails rages at the mob and bemused onlookers. The music plays on. The Clash again. The Guns of Brixton.
Elsewhere the ‘terrorist’ is at work again. He homes in on a respectable looking middle-aged couple on the pavement and runs raving at them, looking like a revolutionary ghoul straight from the pages of a Springer Press rag. He throws the cobblestone. They laugh when it turns into a sponge. Relieved.
Down Martin-Luther-Straße and onto John-F-Kennedy-Platz to Rathaus Schöneberg, the seat of the Senate, the city government, the destination. A pedestrian barrier has been erected in front of the nondescript town hall. A few Bullen in riot gear patrol behind it. A TV crew moves freely among them. But reinforcements are not far away. Rows of transits line the two narrow streets at the sides of the building.
From a top window of the Rathaus a figure points a tripod-mounted camera down into the crowded square. Another with binoculars sweeps the mass of faces. The watchers are not from the television. Orwell-lite.
As the square fills things quiet down. The music from the loudspeaker van is regularly interrupted to ask people to move to the other end and make room for those still arriving down Martin-Luther-Straße. There is a distinct feeling of what now?
A half-hearted attempt is made to move the barrier back but a group of Bullen casually steps forward and just moves it back into place again, meeting no more resistance than a long loud roar from the crowd. But, off to the side, some hardcores are being more resolute about moving the barriers. The large wooden fake medieval doors of the Rathaus open and two files of Bullen in full riot gear pour out and immediately take up positions all along the front of the building. More boos and catcalls. More people crowd onto the already crowded square.
The music is interrupted again. This time to ask people not to let themselves be provoked. It sounds more than a bit lame. The brass band plays on.
For a minute or two things cool down.
Then a hardcore lobs a Schultheiß bottle – an empty one. It hits one of the TV crew behind the barrier. Blood pours down his face. Two paramedics walk him to an ambulance.
The back doors of the police transits at the side of the building open in unison and more Bullen pour out. They line up into marching formation, helmet visors down, shields and batons at the ready, latter-day legionaries. Another barrage of boos and catcalls. The latter-day legionaries start to march forward towards the barrier.

left right! left right!

The crowd chants derisively, half-jeering, half-defiantly.

left right! left right!

Louder and louder.
The green and white column keeps moving.
It’s not clear what it intends to do.

left right! left right!

Unexpectedly two Bullen behind the barrier open it at a safe spot and let the marching column in to line up in front of the Rathaus. There’s maybe a hundred of them.
The tension dissipates.
The three paint bombs that fly over the heads of the crowd towards the police ranks are like an afterthought. Two of them bounce pointlessly on the asphalt, not even bursting. But the third splatters bright liquid yellow over one of the olive-green paramilitary uniforms.
The sun is low in the sky now and the February chill is creeping back. But when the Latin American music starts up again some of the previous carnival atmosphere returns. Two woman in a black leather jackets climb onto the roof of the loudspeaker van. Both have bundles of red leaflets stating the demands of the demonstration – an amnesty and an immediate stop to evictions. They begin scattering them over the heads of the crowd. The wind catches them and whips them upwards towards the sky. Up and up, fluttering over the ranks of the Bullen. They begin throwing more. Another woman climbs onto the van and more and more of the poppy-red sheets of paper float upwards, filling the air, up and up, swirling over the clock tower of the Rathaus. Their defiance of gravity is like an omen, an auspicious one. The crowd cheers their upward flight towards the gods. It is the last high moment of it all. Then the speeches begin.

Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a 'recovering musician', he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.

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