COIN Lessons from Berlin Kreuzberg

May 1 is a cataclysmic event in Berlin. May 1 is Labor Day in Europe. And May 1 is the day that extreme leftists, joined by non-political troublemakers, advance through the streets of Berlin and ordain it with civil unrest and property destruction. Kreuzberg, a district of Berlin, is the epicenter of these seismic events. Known for its alternative, non-conformist, leftist (to the extreme) lifestyle, it was always the center of leftist political activism. The Labor Day demonstrations started peacefully. However, May 1, 1987, was the date the dam broke and activism turned into violence.

Berlin, after the riots 1987 (photo credit: Wikimedia user Roehrensee, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Galvanized by the current political events of the day, the opposition to the conservative-led Berlin Senate, and provoked by prior police action against the leftist scene, the traditional Labor Day Straßenfest* turned into a demonstration turned into violence. The result: burnt cars, broken windows, extreme property destruction, injured people, plundered shops. Hours later, the police could get back control of the situation due to the exhaustion and drunken state of rioters (plundering the liquor aisles of supermarkets, many had reached a state of inebriation beyond good and bad). Berlin and the world were in shock.

The city government reacted like any government agency would: a new crisis reaction, intervention, and riot control unit (ebLT – Einheit für besondere Lagen und einsatzbezogenes Training, unit for special situations and mission-specific training) was founded and promptly criticized for inappropriate violence. In the following years, the overly authoritarian and violent actions of the ebLT and other police units did not help take back control and pacify the situation. In fact, it got worse. So in 1989, the city government tried something new: let’s just keep a low profile, not provoke the activists with the presence of police officers, and see what happens. The results were not much better: violence, fear, plundering, destruction. And it kept mounting with every year. Having become a world-wide event, the Labor Day protests in Berlin attracted trouble-makers and violence tourists from all over Germany, Europe, and the world.

Anchoring the Enemy

Enter May 1, 2003. The Berlin Police had come up with a new idea to prevent the mounting violence. It was called the Aha-Concept (AHA – Aufmerksamkeit, Hilfe, Appell – Awareness, Help, Plea). First, total transparency. Politicians, the media, and the people were to be fully informed about the work the police was doing before, during, and after the Labor Day protests. Second, civic measures for violence prevention were to be supported. Third, Anti-Konflikt Teams (anti-conflict teams, AKT) made up of civil servants and policemen were to be employed. The mission of AKTs was (and still is) to enable dialogue between the police force, protest participants, other citizens, the media, etc. in order to prevent and deescalate conflict. AKT members are all volunteers, do not wear protective gear, and go through specialized training.

AKT on duty (photo credit: Wikimedia user John-Paul Bader, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

As part of the Aha-Concept, the city of Berlin took extreme ownership and support of the Myfest, a Straßenfest taking place on May 1 (first in 2003) at the epicenter of the Labor Day protests. It is mainly geared towards children, teenagers, and families. It offers a wide variety of culinary and cultural events, several stages where local artists can perform, and tasty food from all over the world. Each year, the Myfest draws a huge crowd of locals and visitors. Protests are allowed in the vicinity of the Myfest as long as they don’t get in the way of the Myfest celebrations. Not knowing how to react to this event, the leftist block split into two. There are those who think the Myfest is a good idea, accept it as a peaceful venue for their protest, and participate. And then there is the hardcore anti-capitalist block that sees the Myfest as an attack on their righteous fight. Though the protests still draw big crowds as well, violence related to Labor Day has been declining ever since.


Myfest 2015 (photo credit: Wikimedia user Alumni.aserbaidschan, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)


Lessons Learned

A few lessons learned by Berlin’s handling of the Labor Day violent protests:

  • Law and order does not work here: there are a place and time for law and order tactics and military demeanor, but it is not here. Security forces have to do the utmost to de-escalate the situation and prevent violence. This is not a fight for who has is it “more right,” the goal is to prevent property damage, damage to uninvolved civilians, and the outbreak of uncontrollable violence. The state will not be shaken to its core because some troublemakers start being unpleasant. Security forces have to keep their calm.
  • Give them space: These dissatisfied people exist. It is not a question if their dissatisfaction is real or imagined, true or false. They are here. They will not go away by having their heads beaten with batons. We have to give them some space to express themselves in the public sphere. They have to have some room to protest peacefully, otherwise, they will express themselves in more unpleasant ways. The challenge here is how to do that while still preventing the spread of extremist ideas.
  • Focus on the people: This has turned into a much-repeated truism: the people are the center of gravity. However, the Myfest shows how this statement is still true and how it can be utilized in an (unconventional) manner that works. Get the people involved, they are also sick and tired of their cars burning and their windows breaking.
  • Divide and conquer: Where are the shatterpoints or the delineation lines of the enemy? How can we divide them? Which groups could align with us, or at least get out of the way? How do we get that done?
  • Anchor the enemy: The Myfest is an attack on the center of gravity of the violent protestors, geographically and ideologically. The enemy is anchored in place, he cannot move. First, he literally cannot move through his traditional area of operations, as that is occupied by the Myfest and the people who’d much rather prefer having a good time rather than burning tires. Second, the trouble-makers cannot move about violently as that would immediately flip public opinion and give the state legitimacy to pursue them with full force without the opposition of the public (as in the G20 Riots in 2017 in Hamburg).

These are just a few thoughts on COIN and a case-study of how certain principles worked in a very specific context. What are your thoughts on it? Have you seen anything that runs counter to the above? Share your opinion in the comments!

*a Straßenfest is a typical German event taking place in cities throughout the year. The word means something like “street party” or “street celebration.” It looks much like a farmer’s market in the US, with different people and organizations having booths where they sell food, jewelry, and more., give away flyers, present their organization or club, etc. There are also attractions and the like. A Straßenfest is an affair for the whole family.

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