The Rambling American: I Suggest a Riot

Rioting: is it impassioned activism or groupthink-escalated violence? Locke McKenzie notices that Germans like to riot about, well, everything.

In Germany the 1st of May is an inflammatory holiday. At the turn of the 19th century, it became der Tag der Arbeit (Labor Day), to stand for and appreciate those working under the heavy yolk of manual labor. With Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, however, der Tag der Arbeit gained a new meaning. It became a day to bolster national pride, a day when the laborer should feel happy to serve his/her country. Therefore, the Nazis used it in 1934 to raid and close down the German labor unions (which, of course, were far too reactionary to be tolerated).

In modern Germany, der Tag der Arbeit is a day of polarization. On one side, it’s a lasting symbol of the Nazi party, used by Neo-Nazis as a demonstration day. On the other, the radical leftist groups of Germany celebrate it to commemorate communism, anarchy, and the fall of the bourgeoisie. Especially over the last twenty years, both extremist groups have remembered this day with massive demonstrations and, more importantly, riots. There are riots every year, especially in Berlin and Hamburg.

Unlike the cities in Southern and Western Germany, Hamburg and Berlin have active leftist scenes. With a collection of “squats” (empty buildings broken into and occupied) throughout Hamburg strongly tied to leftist organizations, these activists are incredibly well organized. They hold regular demonstrations against racism, police brutality, and the growing conservative leanings of the German population. When I heard that this year’s 1,500-person Neo-Nazi demonstration was set for Hamburg, I knew there would be problems.

The riots that ensued lasted over six hours. During that time, rioters burned at least sever cars, threw molotov cocktails, attacked cops with flying stones, and got plowed down by the police force’s massive water cannons. It was a demonstration to be remembered. It featured in all the papers, on the cover of the prominent magazines, and Die Zeit, a national newspaper with the political importance of The New York Times, gave the riots an entire section.

While it may seem untimely to speak about the 1st of May in the middle of September, it’s been on my mind recently. Riots broke out again in Hamburg last weekend. In fact, riots break out here on many weekends. During the the evening of September 9th, from 9:00 p.m. until 3:30 a.m., riots raged through the streets of the Schanzenviertel, a Hamburg neighborhood known for its ties to alternative groups and leftist political affiliations. The lefties burned cars and telephone booths, and fought with police.

These riots are destructive and chaotic, and every time I hear about one, I become secretly jealous. This has nothing to do with a desire to beat up police officers or set cars on fire. For me, riots are a symbol of activism and passion.

Here, rioters are willing to go into the streets and take action for their causes. This never happened during my time in America. In the States, we do things a little differently.

At the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, I went to a number of different protests. At one, I literally sat in a lecture hall, heard a couple of girls talk about how war was bad, and then listened to Bob Dylan’s Peace Train. When George Bush and his entourage came to my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, there was also a protest. During the two or so hours I was there, I stood in the cold, shivering while I listened to strung out hippies trying to lead unimpassioned chants of, “What do we want? PEACE! When do we want it? NOW!”

I doubt George Bush noticed.

After these experiences, I can’t help but admire the rioters. They’re in the streets, not shivering on the sidelines. The problem with these German protests, however, is that the leftist groups, particularly the youngest members, riot about everything. I didn’t even hear about the riots in my city last weekend until an American friend mentioned that he’d seen them on CNN. Since I have lived here (over a year) more riots have broken out than I could count on one hand, and nobody takes them seriously. They are completely contrived.

The protestors had no reason to riot during the Schanzenfest. It was a cultural party full of art and music. How can that possibly be so bad? Yes, they did string a banner across the middle of the street that stated, “Against the Green-Black Coalition,” (a coalition of the conservative political party and the Greens), but why did this necessitate rioting?

After the riots on May 1, I sat down at the dinner table with my German housemate and had a long conversation on the nature of rioting. We tried to relate what was happening in Germany to some of the major riots in the United States over the last 50 years, most notably the Detroit Race Riots, which we considered to be justified.

The riots in Detroit came about at the end of the ‘60s. They were a collective response to a problem that had been growing in Detroit for ten years. Black Americans were walled off from the white population (there was literally a wall built along 8 Mile at the time), they could not afford livable housing, the little housing they could afford was being torn down to make highways for suburban sprawl (read: for the white people), and, most importantly, they were being endlessly harassed by the bigoted Detroit Police Department. In some cases, black Americans were being stopped on the street without reason and, after being unable to produce identification, were beaten to death on the street. Distrust and militancy grew slowly in Detroit. It took years before the riots erupted.

The big difference my housemate and I found between the two types of rioting was that the Detroit riots were the result of something brewing for so long it could no longer be contained. It was collective. The people endured until they reached a breaking point and riots began popping up independently all over the city.

In comparison, the Hamburg riots on May 1 were the product of a small group that was hardly affected by another small group. The Neo-Nazis in Germany make up less than 1% of the political spectrum. More people showed up to protest the Neo-Nazi demonstration than there were demonstrators. There was no intolerable pressure that caused the protesters to snap, not in a way that couldn’t have been avoided with a little self control. Here in Hamburg, riots are a part of the protest instead of an act that ensues when the protests no longer work.

Though I’m aware of its artificial nature, I can’t shake my jealousy of these rioters. At least they’re impassioned. They are willing to fight for injustices, no matter how small.

I often find myself wondering what this means for the dispassionate United States, a place that steeps itself in the hot, lazy water of apathy like a weak tea. We saw a new awakening of political activity over that last six months with Barack Obama and his campaign of hope and change, but we see this somehow waning again as John McCain and his ultra-conservative, MILF vice-presidential candidate pull ahead in the polls. This election has exposed the problems of racism and conservatism still plaguing our country. For six months, we hoped that our country had moved past the issues of black and white, male and female, but this hope is quickly being tarnished by reality. I read articles each week in The New York Times about blue-collar workers without jobs and medical care who will not vote for Obama because of his race.

I will be interested to see of what kind of stuff America is made if Obama loses this election. With the hidden implications of racism and conservative agenda-setting, the Germans would riot. I wonder what we will do…

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Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.