It's a Berlin tradition that goes back two decades: the May Day riot. Down through the years disaffected youths and assorted spikey-haired revolutionaries have turned out on this "Workers Day," as well as the night before, to take on the state -- by throwing stones and bottles at police who in turn hit back with water canons and truncheons. However, in recent years, Berlin's revolutionary hordes seem to have mellowed somewhat.
For the second year in a row the "Witches Night" festival -- a kind of springtime Halloween on the eve of May Day, didnt descend into full-scale riots on Monday night. In the Friedrichshain district in eastern Berlin, there were some minor skirmishes after a punk concert. Although the police arrested 61 people, in general they said that things had passed off pretty peacefully. "Like last year, there was a welcome reduction in violence," a police spokeswoman announced on Tuesday.
The May Day riot tradition started in 1987 in the Kreuzberg district of the former West Berlin. The area nestled up against the wall, was home to a mixture of Turks, punks, musicians and squatters -- a kind of sub-culture ghetto. Back then up to 900 youths engaged in running battles with the police for 12 hours -- many shops were looted and cars were set alight. In the following years the police reaction on May Day was tough, and often the sheer presence of riot police and water canons was ample provocation for a bit more "revolutionary action."
The authorities in recent years seem to have learned their lesson: instead of heavy-handed tactics they now employ a more softly-softly approach, using anti-conflict teams to keep the peace, and imposing bans on glass bottles and cans at the street parties. The riot police are out in force, but their new approach involves targeting ringleaders and those throwing bottles or stones.
Meanwhile back in Kreuzberg, the "Myfest" street party has taken over from the previous rioting, and has evolved into more of a family affair. While some of the radicals of yesteryear may still have piercings and bleached hair, many have also tired of running around after the police and just want enjoy a nice day out with the kids instead.
Nevertheless, the authorities are taking few chances. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the original riots, and anarchist and other left-wing activists could well take the opportunity to have a dress rehearsal for planned protests against the upcoming G8 meeting in Heiligendamm in June. So the police are bracing themselves. Five-thousand officers are being deployed at the May Day festivities, with 1,000 having been drafted in from other parts of the country.