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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements


My first night in Hamburg, I took the advice of an Italian punk from Köpi and made my way to the St. Pauli neighborhood and its bevy of sex shops, bars, and falafel huts, all plastered with the skull-and-crossbones stickers of the local soccer team with the famous anti-fascist fan club. At the epicenter of peeling layers of graffiti and wheatpasted posters, the bulk of them punk and antifascist, stood Hafenstraße, where I was told to look for a place to stay.  Initially, led astray by the Italian’s accent, I was searching fruitlessly for “Affenstraße,” Monkey Street, which sadly does not exist. In half an hour at a punk bar surrounded by former squats I scored myself a room, for the remainder of the week no less, with some cheery Polish anarchists and their endearingly swine-like dog.  That Monday morning was my first shower since I’d left Berlin 840 km earlier.  Delicious.

Kapitalismus Abschaffen

“Eliminate Capitalism! Organize militant resistance.”

I really wish that before I had come I had read the section in Georgy Katsiaficas’ The Subversion of Politics about the battle for Hafenstraße in the 80s.  The city’s mayor had declared war on the squatters and announced the eviction of the Hafenstraße squats.  There were major street battles which the police were unable to win, and arson attacks against commercial centers. The city gave up on its plans for eviction, and announced the legalization of the squats. If I had known this history I might have seen Hafenstraße through different eyes. Instead, I only saw that they hung out a lot at the bar and that we didn’t have much in common, so it was all I could do not to dismiss them as lazy punks, since after all they were nice people and they were open and hospitable enough to let a stranger with a different aesthetic stay in their house. From the US, I was used to a different way of doing things, in distinct activist groups that have scheduled activities and meetings that are open to newcomers. Whereas they didn’t seem that interested in me, politically, if I met a travelling anarchist in the US I would welcome them and look for common projects even if they didn’t dress like I did, and if they were from another country I would keep them up all night with questions. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the anarchist movement in a city could be so large that people could work exclusively on lines of affinity and ignore everyone else who seemed to do things a different way, or that travelling anarchists from other countries might be so common you actually get a bit tired of them. It may be a bit similar in New York or San Francisco, but certainly not in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In some ways I was the country mouse, come to the city.

It was a bit easier for me once I found Rote Flora, Hamburg’s main autonomist social center. Aesthetically it was the same as Köpi or Ungdomshuset: graffiti-covered walls plastered with posters and stickers announcing punk shows and occasional protests.  A few beautiful pieces of spray-painted art, a few skulls-and-crossbones and other intimidating representations, a few broken bicycles, closed iron doors.  But once I finally found out when they were open and how to actually get in—and this was no simple task—I found that, as a social center, they operated in a way I could pretty much understand, and moreover, it was a friendly place.

In the evening there was a bicycle workshop around back. Everyone was trading tools and parts, taking bikes to pieces and putting them back together. I couldn’t tell who was running the workshop and who was there to be helped: rather everyone was united by a love of bikes or a practical obsession with fixing them. The bike my brother had given me was quality. No sooner had I arrived then several of the workshoppers gathered around it, which made it easy for me to find someone to help me fix my brakes. I think he was glad just to be able to take apart such nice brakes and see them from the inside.

Up on the deck someone called out that food was ready, yes it was another vokü. I went upstairs to eat but the other people in the workshop only had eyes for their bikes. A tight crowd was gathered around the vegan meal, old people and young people, talking, laughing, drinking, and even asking strangers like me where they were from. Some folks seemed to know each other from way back, and others were there for the first or second time. Someone who worked with the social center told me a little about what they did: hosting art workshops, debates, discussions on the local social movements. They also put out a monthly magazine.

I was only at the beginning of my trip, but it already felt like such a long time since I had seen my friends and devoted my time to familiar political activities. Being there among friends, even if they weren’t my friends, warmed me all over, I didn’t want to leave. So after the vokü I stayed to clean the dishes and sweep the floor.  Alas, not one of the apparent insiders asked my name or started a conversation with me.  They were wrapped up in what seemed to be an interpersonal drama.  Nostalgia: it felt just like a Food Not Bombs back home.