On August 17th, 1987, the nazi officer Rudolf Heß committed suicide while imprisoned in Spandau, a suburb of Berlin, for crimes against humanity. The anniversary of his death is often accompanied by nazi marches, usually in Spandau but also other cities such as Roskilde, Denmark.
Like usual, the nazis had planned a march in Spandau for Saturday the 18th, and like usual the local antifascists were going to to do a counter demo.
Several days before the demo there were reports of registered demonstrations in the inner city that were likely made by the nazis raising the possibility of a split march or all of them piling on to one of the other marches.
The day before, we saw that the main route through the center of Berlin had been published, thus we had two possible routes to blockade.
I knew I was going to be working with the Berlin Riot Medics, and that Friday I met up with one to pick up some gear. We talked about what we thought the nazis were going to do, and our guess was that they were going to use the Spandau march as a decoy and push through to Mitte so they could walk through Friedrichshain, a district typically home to the radical left, unopposed.
This seemed like a smart move on their behalf. So far as we knew, they hadn’t tried this before and the Left typically hasn’t been fast to respond to a changing landscape and changing rules, often entrenched in generational knowledge of past antifascist actions. This would be a doubly smart move because something common in Germany is for the police to give priority to the Right on public transit before, during, and after demonstrations. This means that if a few nazis chose to hang out around the Spandau Bahnhof, they could effectively create a choke point that would prevent the Left from being able to get back to the center of the city. Further, we know that many of the attendees of anti-nazi events aren’t the highly motivated kind that are going to ship themselves across the city or leave a main demonstration to got to smaller, unplanned event, one without fanfare or the niceties of music.
On Saturday, I met the crew on an S-Bahn platform, and we arrived in Spandau at around 10:45. We walked through the crowd a bit and kept tabs on the Twitter hashtag
#b1808 to see if anything was happening.
It appeared not.
A very short distance into the march, after the inevitable delay from the cops blocking the march for no apparent reason, the car with the loudspeaker announced that a train full of nazis had passed Spandau Station and they were heading into the center of Berlin. We checked Twitter, and sure enough there were reports of nazis gathering in Mitte. We doubled back to head to the train station, and already the cops were blocking roads and forcing us to divert so we couldn’t get to the trains.
The squad marched with others through side streets and attempted to get around the blockades. Eventually we got back to the station, still having not seen a single fascist, and took the regional, quicker train to Hauptbahnhof then switched to the S-Bahn. Photos were coming in of nazis in white shirts with the flags of the Third Reich around Alexanderplatz. Our train was delayed arriving at Hackescher Markt, presumably because of delayed traffic from the cops making room for the nazis or clearing out counter protesters to let the fash out of station.
As we pulled in to Alexanderplatz station, we could see a column of nazis marching down Karl-Liebknecht-Straße toward Mollstraße. The other antifascists in the train were pressed against the window to size up the opposition. Twitter was giving us coordinates of the possible blockades; the first we heard of was the corner of Landsberger Alle and Petersburger Straße.
We hustled out of the train and worked our way across the main square to the corner of Otto-Braun-Straße. We appeared to the lead group of lefties from Spandau, and only a handful of antifas were around us. Our group was appeared to be the first and only group to make it down the street toward the Nazi route as a wall of five or six police vans closed off the street behind us.
In the distance, as we moved down side streets, we could see the main body of the procession, and we moved with caution should any fash hit squads be looking for lone lefties. We didn’t see any meaningful protest until we hit Platz der Vereinten Nationen, the scheduled start of the nazi march. Shortly before it, we cut up through Volkspark Friedrichshain to get around possible road closures. Reports said there was a sizeable blockade at the corner of Mattias Straße and Landsberger Allee. We cut over to find a blockade of roughly sixty blocking the northbound lane of traffic. The cops already had it surrounded.
We parked ourselves and waited.
Down the road, we could see another blockade at our original destination, and I kept an eye on it suspecting that there were no medics there and we might need to split our group or make a move to assist. I could barely see it that far away, but when I saw movement and flesh colored blobs moving across the asphalt, I called out that we needed to move that away. Before we even got halfway, it was already over, and cops were starting to pinch off the street and the footpath from the cemetery. We returned resumed waiting.
Because the street was clear in the southbound direction, the cops didn’t bother clearing it. As we saw the tips of the fascist flags coming up the rise towards the blockage, we pulled up bandanas to protect ourselves from doxing and waited for them to pass. A protester came up and alerted me that of our whole group, I was singled out by the cops to have my description run for warrants. When the nazis were past, we followed at a bit of distance.
At the corner of Landsberger Alle and Petersburger Straße, there was significant antifascist presence despite the failed blockade, and we took a minute to regroup. The day had been uneventful, mostly just a lot of marching in the heat.
When the nazis were fully past, the crowd started hopping fences to follow along side them and some started surging southeast down Petersburger Straße. We hustled a bit to not get pinched off, then decide to split to have one of the sub-teams run with the main body and one to hang back. Three of us took off to get to the front. We jogged trough parks and side streets, following trickles of protester as they hopped fences and dodged through gaps and along footpaths.
It was hot, and everyone was slogging along, but it was good to see the solidarity. Some comrades yelled to closed gaps as we moved to keep us together. Some squads had backpacks completely filled with water and were handing out bottles to people as the ran by.
Often the groups would look left to see if there was a route to get back to the main street to cut off the nazis, and most times there were already cops blocking the streets. A couple of times, the cops arrived to block the group just as the head arrived at the street and small scuffs broke out with phalanxes of riot cops chasing protesters down the street with batons out.
Eventually, we arrived uncontested where Weißenseer becomes Möllendorffstraße. The stream of protesters hit a critical mass where the were comfortable to take the street, most sitting on the southbound side and a few taking the northbound side. Down the street, we could see activity where Möllendorffstraße hit Storkower Straße, but we stayed where we were. One member of the crew went inside with all our water bottles and topped them off while we waited.
Cops started surrounding the groups and setting up human barriers to stop our movements. Another medic group was on the north side of the tram tracks, so we took a break to eat. I was dehydrated and trying to cram down a dry energy bar with out water. In the couple minutes we were sitting, more and more protesters were arriving and many dozens of riot cops were coming in from the north. To the south, we could see light, black smoke rising eventually followed by just visible flames. I stuffed down the rest of my food.
This might be where it kicked off from reactive, unstrategic sprinting to the showdown that forces the nazis to turn around. I could feel the first twitches of adrenaline.
But also, it was too early. It was too light out for fire and flames to be the right tool to cause the police to redirect the nazis, or at least that small amount of fire wasn’t enough. There need to be much, much more.
The cops started cleaning out the north blockade, and to protect ourselves, we donned our helmets and goggles. When the cops were done, they didn’t clean out the second. They started snatching people from the sides and causing mild pandemonium. This caused the people around the edges of the blockade to stand up and encircle the cops. However, not one was bloc’d, the cops had cameras, and they had pepper spray aimed at them. There was no chance to dearrest the comrades, and instead they made the blockade smaller. When this happened enough times, the cops were able to break up the blockade.
This appeared to be a very intentional tactic from the cops, and it worked.
When everyone had been cleaned out, the only injured comrades were the one who’d been arrested, we took off once again with the mass of antifascists and made our way to Frankfurter Allee. As we ran down narrow streets, police vans came flying by, presumably to head us off, so protesters started dragging things into the road to impede their passage. We’d headed off the nazis again, but we were too few to make blockades.
We marched down the street to see police tying gates shut with zip ties, causing fire hazards for residents.
At this point I decided we’d been defeated in as much as the goal of blocking the nazis had not been achieved. We’d made a stink and we out numbered them. They knew they couldn’t operate without the State protecting them, but the nazis and the cops had out smarted and out maneuvered us today.
We walked to the beginning of Lichtenberger Brücke, the furthest point we could reach and waited for the nazis to pass us. There was nothing more to do, and we went home.
The fash will in the future attempt to divide or mislead by registering multiple demonstrations. This is more likely with smaller groups (the honest-to-god, unrepentant nazis) than with larger groups like the AfD which rely on popular support to draw their numbers.
One counter tactic is to send pairs out to the far reaches of town to watch for nazis on trains. Overly full trains in the morning or uniforms can be give aways. It only takes maybe 20 people to watch all the major stations on the edges of town to report back on fascist movement.
However, any one antifa group can’t pull this off, and there would need to be broader coordination.
Another strategy is to split the radical left, which again requires coordination. Without coordination, you don’t have the numbers to make a blockade. It’s ineffective to take your squad of ten and sit down in the street.
To be fair, this may have happened more than I realized, but it seemed like entirely too few people were able to make any blockades happens, and based off what I saw on Twitter after, my squad was at the largest of the blockades. Maybe too much of the left was still in Spandau or caught out from reaching the blockades in time. Maybe the ones left in Spandau were the more moderate left who wouldn’t join a blockade any way.
Another thing is if you’re part of blockade, you have exactly one thing to do: sit.
Just sit. Don’t do anyting else. Maybe chant, maybe talk, maybe eat and drink. Do not get up until the blockade serves no more purpose. Sit close to comrades so you can hold them when the cops come to clear you out, and for the love of god, don’t get up to investigate police actions. If they’re not touching you, it doesn’t matter what they’re doing.
Finally, the Left is almost always outgunned and can’t match on strength. It can’t match on coordination because of its decentralized, autonomous nature. The cops will win on coordination on the day of because of radios. Twitter, word of mouth, and overlapping circles of trust can do quite a lot, but what the Left’s strength really is, is speed and numbers. Cops have cars, but they don’t have perfect information. So many times the left nearly makes an escape or a break through a police line, but gets pinched just seconds before. This was more true than usual yesterday.
You should be able to run for 30 minutes in street clothes with your bag. This is asking a lot, I know, and I know not all antifas are capable either because of disability or lack of time to practice jogging, but so many of us have the potential to be fast and nimble, to have the endurance to run all day and outflank the cops, and yet we don’t.
Can we do better? Of course. We just need to think more strategically and proactively.