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Hacktreks in Germany

Riots On Sundays
Life as usual in Hamburg
Tom Fletcher

'Time for you to disappear, I thought, and cunningly ducked beneath a convenient bush by the theatre. They'll never see me here! '

Picture this. A well-fed, booze-faced bourgeois Australian 30 year-old male, his greasy hair plastered thinly on his great forehead, easing himself down-at about 11 p.m. on a Sunday night-onto his soft, receiving motherly bed. This bed (an ancient mattress, some spotty, holey sheets, a stolen pillow) sits in the corner of his small room facing the old black and white TV to which he sits glued each night, soaking in the odd German programmes. His room is neatly inserted on the fourth floor of a great wall of typically 19th century European apartment buildings. To the sides of it are his sweet, sweet flatmates, above quiet folk, below a screaming ancient male (Herr Langer-"Ich habe ein Pistol, dreckige Votze!"). my joint Yes, a fine setup. Our fat hero is enjoying the moments of his typical sacrosanct post-boozing weekend Sunday night. A great yellow cup of camomile tea is wedged between his fat fingers. He has showered, he is at one with himself in his most relaxed mode. Life is good. It is also April 31st, the eve of a day of import to the northern Europeans but meaningless to our Anglo-Saxon hero (victim?). So I described everything around me except outside the window? Well, this was Hamburg, a wonderful, rich European city built almost entirely between 1880 and 1900 (or at least my stomping ground, the inner city, was). A city of about a million on a great river delta, more bridges than Venice, the "Door to the World" as Bosche say. My area, Sternschanze (meaning: a star-shaped part of the city wall) was the hippest part of Germany's best city.

As with all 19th century Bourgeois city quarters, it had become slumlike between the wars and had only recently been heavily gentrified. My street, Schulterblatt ("shoulderblade") was the epicentre of this, and the view from my window was of the Rote Flora, or the "Red" Flora. This was (and is) a 19th century theatre, quite a beautiful building, needless to say, that had been inhabited by punks (a powerful Left-wing force in Germany) in the 70s or 80s and they, with their heroin-addicted friends (a shooting gallery is next door) inhabit it to this day. And amidst a rapidly gentrifying area in an ultra-fancy rich city (traditional thing to say-"Der Name sagt mir nichts"-meaning: "Your surname means nothing to me.") the theatre sits in the eyes of the city like a great festering pimple on the nose of a teenage girl at her debutante ball. The locals, however, protect it with the manic obsession of a man living a lie. The flag of Mao Tse-Tung proudly flies high above it- one symbol for another. Anyway, so it's a symbol of their anti-Fascism, somewhat questionable if you ask me.

Suddenly I hear a God-awful ruckus heading up Schulterblatt. I drag myself up out my soggy sheets, hearing drums, trumpets, slogans chanted -all that gay paraphernalia of "Anti-Fa" demonstrations- and I thought Bloody hell, hope this bunch of queer ponces head their merry way as I've got to be up at seven to get to my crap job. Sitting on my chilly windowsill in my undies and a tee shirt I could see this great wave of Balaclava-wearing 17-35 year-old "individuals" swell into what is really a square in front of the Rote Flora, perfectly framed by my window. And they stop. Oh crap, I think. Where were you fifty years ago, bunch of ponces? Why can't I get some kip? And then the crowd settles in. I guess there were thousands of them. And then, of course, with true German efficiency, they start setting the scene for a riot. Young men (teens, of which there were many) pulled things from God knows where and very soon (within minutes) they had both ends of the square barricaded. And then they set fire to these piles of timber (chairs, etc.). My God, I thought, this looks like the business!

It was with a mixture of anger at having lost my Sunday night and childish excited anticipation that I wriggled back into my weekend clothes. I took my keys, ten marks, no ID, and slipped down the stairwell. Everyone was awake with a sense of naked anticipation. Great fancy Bosch sods were strolling to their windows and balconies, glasses of wine and cigarettes elegantly held, their exquisite minimal apartments pouring out light behind them. And only yards below, the dense crowd churned, smoke billowing up and filling the square, industrious lads prying up the cobblestones. Quite a sight in a town like this. So out the door I went and into the crowd, needless to say. Most locals didn't do this but had the great sense to watch the fun from their windows, like a great TV re-enactment of some Civil War battle. But of course, yours truly couldn't resist. But the atmosphere was initially disappointing; apart from the spectacle of hooded youths standing around the fire, about the only fun to be had was leering at the teenage girls (there was of course a certain atmosphere-it was a bit like a sexed-up Eastern European village fair-the fire, the beer, the maidens, the freaksŠ).

So this is what all the fuss is about, I thought disappointedly. Also, standing there alone, my courage waned considerably and I could also view proceedings abstractly, and it all struck me as another pretentious German "We are so cool" fest. Everyone it seemed either had a camera and was living out their fantasies of being photojournalists in Baghdad (!), or were Che Guevara for the evening. Sod this, I thought. I hadn't even had a beer as I was hoping to salvage the remains of my pure Sunday night. That was to change, however. Being a simple soul, I decided that standing by the fire was the best option and did so for an hour or two. I tried to make conversation with the other simpleton losers around the fire to no avail. Although the village fair atmosphere continued, it slowly became clear that a waiting game was developing. The fire brigade had arrived and some old Hun in a funny hat had asked the louts very politely if he might extinguish the burning barricade, at which the yobbo louts laughed in his face (non-conformism in the fatherland only emerges in very ugly ways).

The old fellow then turned and marched away (the scant police and firemen were encamped out of striking range). He returned five minutes later with a very neat little timber signpost with painted stripes saying something like "Attention: Road Closed" and placed it in front of the fire. And of course, no sooner was he gone but the sign went on the fire. I actually saved it, charred, as a souvenir. I expect that it's still in the attic of my old apartment house. The stupid German authorities should have just quietly come up, half a dozen of them, staring down those teenage louts and put out the fire. I would have helped them. But of course their ways are different over there. So the fire burnt on. And the crowd got uglier.

The local police had charged us a couple of times-in formation, batons whacking very effectively-but the crowd was way too large and you could really see fear in their eyes. (I can picture one young policewoman's eyes wide with terror even now-quite fetching really.) There were rumours circulating that the main body of police assembled for the May Day disturbances was in Berlin, 150 miles distant, and that it was now high-tailing its way to us as Berlin was quiet. This gave us an hour or two. The crowd, as I mentioned, was certainly getting uglier. A café, accused of being Bourgeois, was completely destroyed. I remember the owner, a normal guy, pleading with the crowd from his apartment above the café and the nasty crowd sneering at him as they justified their little orgy of self-righteous anger. Separate crowds smashed up the supermarket (another Bourgeois institution, no doubt) and the bank (fair target!). The police were at a distance and the occasional foray that they made just angered them and the crowd more. You could see the young bucks on each side enjoying themselves tremendously and I felt both the police and the rioters wanted no immediate solution. We were there standing off from each other and enjoying it tremendously, and both sides knew that our side would ultimately get pummelled.

And then the police arrived from Berlin. Awesome, thinks I, let's see what this crowd can do. I was to be disappointed, yet again. As I was enjoying myself I thought I'd get a beer, so I walked down to the off-license. The main body of police were assembling just beyond it and by the time my grubby little fingers had pushed the pfennigs across the counter, the great snakelike column of police had started their march down Schulterblatt.

And what a sight! God bless the Germans! At the front of the column was a green Polizei bulldozer, followed by a nice green Polizei Armoured Personnel Carrier, followed by two immense double-decker water cannon trucks. And behind these cheery little wagons were simply hundreds of policemen in riot gear, thundering their great batons against their shields. Yes, it was quite a sight. But once I'd got my beer I was on the wrong (boring) side of this great legion of protectors, so I had to pick my way nimbly through them (very politely), "Excuse me, sir. Nice boots. That's a big gun. etc" until I got to the front and could run ahead to the fun. But although I was only a minute late, the fun was over. The immense crowd had somehow disappeared and all that was left was maybe half a dozen of those young Balaclava boys. God almighty, what a let down! I should have gone to bed afterall.

But, I thought, what the hell? There's probably a bit of fun to be had here. I thought that maybe if I could put on a show against the APC I could entice some of my Jerry friends out of the shadows to put on a decent fight against the police (and then skulk off myselfŠ). So as there was no shortage of bottles, I started scooping them up and throwing them wonderful arcs through the air to explode in a beautiful shower of glass over the APC. What fun. And would you believe I was the only person on that street, fires still burning around me and the smoke hanging thickly around the beautiful apartment buildings and ruined theatre. It was a sight. I could hear the crowd groan in fear from their hiding places and I could feel the great pent-up fury of the police ahead. This moment probably only lasted 15 seconds but it was an eternity at the time. The next thing I knew, the great searchlights of the water cannons were swivelling around onto me! Oh my, I thought. This looks bad. And then, BOOM! A fellow near me was completely knocked off his feet by the thin, hard jet of water. Time for you to disappear, I thought, and cunningly ducked beneath a convenient bush by the theatre. They'll never see me here! The next moment, the great searchlight flicked on and it was as if the bush became invisible and me the opposite. The water cannon then hit me, knocking me against the wall with the force of a medicine ball travelling at 50 miles an hour. Oh God, this is crazy, try and get into the Red Flora. So I rolled out from my "hiding spot," covered in muck and soaking, and started to run full pace away. Of course, Herr Kontroller in the water cannon wasn't letting me go that easily (especially after how I'd treated his darling APC) and the jet hit me full force in the back, pinning me like a fly against a steel railing. I was stuck there for a full minute as this maniac drove that needle of water into my back. And cheerily, the railing stabbed me in the side so by the time the cannon was shut off, all I could do was stagger off to the safety of the derelict theatre, clutching my bloody side. Bloody hell!

That was that. The cops had won. The only street fighting that occurred was between me and a tank with 300(?) police behind it. And I was stuck oozing blood in a theatre with a bunch of long-haired lefty Bosch pansies. What a crap Sunday night! Luckily I bumped into my friend Katrin and she, calm as anything, walked me through the police cordon, as if we were out for a Sunday evening stroll. Although I was soaked and bloody, in that light it wasn't obvious and I snuck through just before the sealed off the building. I then picked my way through the wreckage and slowly climbed my stairs, had a really nice hot shower, and sank back into the bed which I should never have left. The scene from my window was that of a war zone, smouldering heaps of wreckage and police everywhere. I sank into a crazy sleep to be reawakened at dawn as the police megaphoned their demands to all the militant hippies in the theatre and then violently stormed it, breaking arms and arresting erveryone. I barely noticed that, though, as I was in a haze. I finally awoke a few hours after that literally caked with blood. I couldn't walk without clutching my side in agony for weeks. And that was that.

© Tom Fletcher June 2003
Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP

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