05 May, 2016

May Day in Germany

Even though I've lived in Germany for more than three years, I still have a hard time remembering when all the national holidays are. For a start, Germany celebrates different holidays than the US, with some overlap like Christmas, Easter and New Year's, and there are also just more of them. Sunday, May 1st was one of those holidays. It is known as Tag der Arbeit in Germany and International Workers' Day in other countries, and is the German version of Labor Day.

Tag der Arbeit and Labor Day used to be the same holiday. American Labor Day started out on May 1st and was adopted over the years by many European countries, including Germany. Then, for some reason, Labor Day in the US was moved to the first Monday in September while the rest of the world (mostly) kept it on May 1st. Now May 1st, or May Day, is not an official holiday in the US, although it is still sporadically observed as a celebration of Spring.

In the US, Labor Day is basically just a day off from work, an excuse to hang around doing nothing or to watch a parade, and also an excuse to put off the start of school for another day (in some states). In Germany, however, Tag der Arbeit has taken on a very different meaning for some extreme political groups, and many use it, and the evening prior, as an excuse to host demonstrations and protests against the current social structure.

I don't have a completely clear understanding of German politics yet, but I'm pretty sure these groups that demonstrate against the status quo have very different ideologies than what is seen in the US. While the US's current political landscape is shifted heavily to the right with barely any representation on the left, European politics tends to have a broader representation across the spectrum with extremes at both ends, with the "far left" that (I think) the protestors represented being something that barely exists in the US. (Learning about German politics is something I need to do more of, but honestly politics just makes me so angry that I don't even want to bother.)

In order to keep the situation with protests and demonstrations under control, German police were deployed in force on the evening of April 30th in Hamburg, and this was true in basically every city in Germany. I was out in the city that day with Maxim and his friend Max, and we came across a demonstration with a huge police escort. I'd never seen nearly that many police officers in one place in my entire life. There were literally hundreds of police officers (and way more female police officers than I've ever seen in the US) and dozens of police vans. I wish I had gotten more pictures, but 1) I thought the officers wouldn't appreciate being photographed, although maybe that's just my American fear of cops kicking in, and 2) it was already getting dark by the time we started seeing most of them so the pictures wouldn't have been good anyway.

All the people wearing black with white helmets are police officers. This is just a small fraction of the police presence we saw that day. I wish I had gotten more pictures because the sheer volume of police was staggering.

It was hard for me to tell what the protesters being escorted by these police officers were actually protesting for/against. They seem to be frustrated with the entire political and social structure as it is and want something in the direction of anarchy. Based on the signs I saw during the demonstration, however, I had a hard time picking up a common thread to their demands or even a unifying message. It seemed like the demonstration wasn't really representative of a single movement but was an assortment of frustrated people with a variety of concerns and priorities.

In any case, it was very different than anything I had experienced before in the US. I've participated in several protests in Vermont and Massachusetts, but they were always single-issue protests, such as protesting the Iraq war in the early 2000s or calling for the closure of a coal power plant in Rhode Island in 2013. During those protests there was also a very minimal police presence, and the police who were there did not look like they were preparing for a riot. Seeing all these German police in intimidating outfits and helmets made me nervous, and all I could think about as we walked past is that if we were in the US and there were that many cops around, someone would eventually get shot. I had to try to calm myself down and dismiss my immediate thoughts of fear and violence.

My fears were ultimately unfounded. The situation in Hamburg that evening ended up being fairly uneventful with no major incidents, according to the reports that I heard. It was nice to see and hear about peaceful protests with police officers as allies and protectors, when in the US the police often violently break up peaceful protests and create more problems than they solve.

I could get carried away now comparing other holidays and/or police actions, but I will end this post here before it gets too long and off topic. If you have more observations about May Day, Labor Day or holidays in general in the US or Germany, let me know in the comments! 

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