Unwelcome O2 Debut Protesters Crash Berlin Arena's Opening Party

The German capital put on a big display Wednesday night to herald the opening of its new O2 Arena. But as celebrities gathered inside, protesters clashed with police outside, fearing not only rising rents but also a loss of identity.

By Rachel Nolan in Berlin

The latest round in the contest over who controls Berlin -- property developers or residents attached to their low rents -- has been decided. City administrators could not have picked a more sensitive place to approve the construction of a shiny new venue. But, it's now there, dominating an area that straddles the still punky but ever-gentrifying neighborhoods of Kreuzberg in the West and Friedrichshain in the former East Berlin.

After two years of construction, the enormous sports and entertainment complex christened the O2 Arena and built to hold 17,000 spectators opened Wednesday night on the banks of Berlin's Spree River. According to Berlin police, about as many protesters showed up for the party as people who attended the black-tie gala inside -- 1,000 on each side.

In a speech at the center, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit observed that the arena demonstrated the viability of large projects in the city and voiced his approval that a group led by foreign investors could undertake such a project “without expecting to draw on state support.”

The mayor was referring to the Anschutz Entertainment Group, the American investment consortium that spent €165 million ($231 million) building 02 World. In a city with €60 billion of debt, Wowereit’s point is well-taken.

Sink the Boat

Local fury is mostly reserved for Mediaspree, the municipal urban-renewal group responsible for approving and organizing various developments along the Spree River, including O2 World and the new headquarters of MTV Networks Germany and Universal Music Deutschland. Protests against Mediaspree have simmered all summer, with locals accusing the organization of an array of alleged offenses, including raising rents, promoting gentrification, allowing ugly buildings to be built and spoiling a historical area -- the new arena looks directly onto the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall.

“02 World is the core of the entire Spree River area,” Christian Meyer, director of the Mediaspree iniative, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He objects to the "emotional tenor" of the protesters, who call their group “Sink Mediaspree.”

The nautical metaphor fits with a number of the monikers that have been given to the new venue, such as “U-boat” and “spaceship," and many of the opponents of the bright-blue-roofed building also refer to themselves as "Spree pirates." The LED screen out front displays a continuous loop of advertisements for upcoming events -- Metallica, Coldplay, ice hockey games. Love it or hate it, there's no denying that the structure sticks out in what is still a largely undeveloped, post-industrial space.

An editorial in Die Tageszeitung, a left-leaning Berlin daily, called the building the "no name arena," saying it is strange that no architect will take responsibility for a such a landmark in a city obsessed with architecture. "The entertainment UFO has landed," is how Der Tagesspiegel, another Berlin daily, announced the opening.

Another issue is the complex's size. The O2 Arena is the second largest in Germany after the Lanxess Arena in Cologne, which also opened to loud protests in 1998. "The protesters call it too big and monstrous," said Meyer. "But the developments help create jobs, and we are leaving niches for riverside bars, for creative and cultural offerings."

Opposition to Mediaspree has not been toothless. On Sept. 7, for example, opponents won a local referendum that may help them block future projects. While only 35,000 out of a potential 187,500 voters turned up to cast their votes, a massive 87 percent of them were in favor of massively altering other planned riverside developments. They want the buildings to be built further back from the water and to be drastically smaller. The referendum is not legally binding, but "Sink Mediaspree" has found sympathetic ears among many Berlin politicians.

Diverse Protests

Protesters arrived at the O2 World opening Wendesday night in two waves. First came those donning high heels, gowns and tuxedos, which clashed with the beat-up bikes they arrived on. Organized by a group called "Hedonism Internationale," they were hoping to be admitted into the event by blending into the crowd. "Not chic enough," one muttered after being turned away.

Most demonstrators arrived later after gathering across the river in Kreuzberg and marching toward the arena. Some 600 policemen were there to meet them, cordoning off the road in front of the arena and keeping many away from the building. Riot police kept protesters who slipped through the roadblock at a 300-meter distance from the building.

Demonstrators made their point in writing, too, wielding signs saying "Keep the Spree banks open for everyone!" "Against yuppies and investors!" and "Down with capitalism!"

“I’m here because the building is hideous; I hate it,” said a protester who would only identify herself as Anna D. “My boyfriend is up there protesting because of gentrification, but I just think it’s ugly.”

Anna stood back from the ring of protesters around the front of O2 World, which the police periodically rushed, knocking down some demonstrators in the process. "Tear it down, tear it down," shouted the whistle-blowing protesters. At this distance, the only signs of life to be seen from inside the complex were event-goers who emerged onto the enormous balcony to smoke and point down at the protesters.

In the end, the protests only succeeded in delaying the opening by about 30 minutes, and the closing event -- an impressive fireworks display -- went off as planned.

Back at the police roadblock after the event, most of the protesters had dispersed, though some remained sitting on the grass drinking beer.

A handful of people took advantage of the opportunity to argue with policemen. “Just let me through, already” said a woman from Kreuzberg, hanging onto the crowd-control barriers. “I’m moving after a year, anyway.”

“That’s nice,” one policeman responded.

“What do you mean, nice?," the woman answered back. "I can’t afford my apartment, anymore."

“I don’t really understand why all these people, these demonstrators, are standing outside,” said Karl Heitz, a tourist from Nuremberg who had made his way through the roadblock to take photographs of celebrities arriving at the gala. Protesters had been busy all night dropping their pants to moon celebrities and cameramen.

“What can they do?" asked Heitz. "Take it down? It is already there.”

In a statement issued after the event, "Sink Mediaspree" representatives accused the police of "disproportionate exercise of violence." In its statement, the police said that 20 of the 600 officers in attendance were injured when a protester broke a bottle filled with acid.


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