Berlin at a turning point: can it forestall polarization?
West Berlin — The first death of an antiestablishment demonstrator in 14 years here has left West Berlin groping for a way to rebuild community cooperation. At best it could shock Berliners into bridging the current generation gap between young protestors and city leaders.
At worst it could polarized Berlin's vigorous counterculture and the conservative government into yet more violent clashes and a breakdown of community.
For the moment all-out polarization has been avoided. But there is precious little indication of longer term reconciliation in what the militants are calling "civil war."
West Berlin's Christian Democratic government is now jawboning intensively with different groups. It has pledged a moratorium on the squatter evictions that have so angered the counterculture -- to last at least as long as the talks continue.
It has offered 10 additional buildings (owned by the city or semipublic renovation corporations) for squatter occupancy. The aim is "to do away with the social scandal of dwellings standing empty," as construction Senator (minister) Ulrich Rastemborski put it. It will be investing 500 million marks to reconstruct or build more than 20,000 apartments over the next three years. It has also set ambitious new targets for financial assistance for do-it-yourself renovation.
On the other side of the barricades, the often pro-squatter Young Socialists explicitly kept their followers away from the violent demonstration planned by militants to protest teen-ager Klaus-Jurgen Rattay's death. And the totally pro-squatter Alternative List party implicity kept its followers away.
As a result of this restraint -- and of the thundershower that kept both protesters and police huddled under shop awnings Sept. 28 -- the would-be violent demonstration fizzled.
But deep and bitter divisions persists. One sidewalk display in the neighborhood where Rattay was killed spells out the word "revenge" in paving stones. Graffiti brand Deputy Mayor and Interior Senator Heinrich Lummer a murderer.
Moreover, the only visible link between organized politics and the counterculture, the nine-seat Alternative List party, is boycotting Mayor Richard von Weizsacker's "dialogue." It says it will continue to do so unless Lummer resigns. But Lummer, the leader of the harder-line wing of the government, not only shows no sign of stepping down, but seems to revel in confrontation.
Disagreements now extend to the circumstances of Rattay's death (and their importance), the root causes of the conflict, and the uses of violence.
Both sides do agree that some 2,000 squatters have occupied some 148 of the city's 1,100 empty old buildings. Weizsacker's policy has been to order evictions only when renovation work is to be begun immediately.
The Sept. 22 evacuation of eight buildings was the first police eviction in almost four months. An angry crowd of squatters and supporters gathered outside the police cordon sealing off one of these buildings on Bulow Street.
Violence broke out (the sides differ as to who started it), and the police used sticks and water cannons to force the protesters off the Buelow Street onto the heavily trafficked intersection with Potsdam Street. Rattay was forced by the turnmoil into the path of a speeding bus (initial official versions said he jumped up on the bus to smash its window) and was killed.
The official version -- which government spokesman Meinhard Ade says was testified to by some of the four-dozen eyewitnesses who provided depositions -- is that stones were first thrown at police by demonstrators, and only then did the police drive the protestors onto Postdam Street.
The counterculture's version is that the police action was unprovoked and preceded the stone throwing -- and the radicals' version is that it was even a deliberate attempt to kill or injure protestors by forcing them onto the heavily trafficked street.
The facts cannot be verified independently without checking all of the contradictory testimony. Two eyewitnesses who talked to this reporter supported the counterculture version more than the official version, however.
The first, an observer for the independent International League for Human Rights, was standing at the policemen's end of the scene. He did not see any violence by demonstrators before the police drove the protestors onto Postdam Street, though one policeman did tell him at the time that protesters had thrown things at the police prior to the clearing of the street.
The second eyewitness, a resident of the area, Manfred Behrendt, saw the bus hit Rattay. According to him, the demonstrators did not stone the bus until after the bus had struck Rattay and dragged him down the street without stopping.
In looking at the root cause of the conflict, the government sees the early 1960s baby boom -- and the tendency of teenagers to leave home at an ever-earlier age -- as putting an impossible temporary pressure on the housing market. Dr. Ade referred also to an "intellectual crisis between generations" and pointed out that it's not just housing, but any antiestablishment cause (such as protesting US Secretary of State Alexander Haig's visit) that is embraced by the counterculture.
To the counterculture, however, the whole policy of letting 10,000 old apartments stand empy for 8, 10, or 12 years -- while 80,000 people are searching for apartments -- justifies taking the law into one's own hands and squatting.
Robert Kather, a lightly bearded young man carrying a rubber ground mat at the vigil at the site of Rattay's death, expressed this view when he said, "I couldn't do it [violence] myself, but I can understand it. . . . There's a time when stones are necessary."