From the October 2003 Idaho Observer:

Protect the people or serve the state?

Security at the Oktoberfest in Munich shows how police behave when public safety is the purpose of their presence

The first thing an American notices when driving in Austria, Switzerland and Italy is the absence of police presence on the roads. Regarding the police in those countries, when one sees them they are polite and helpful -- like they used to be in America. When Munich native Gabi Dischner called to tell us her observations at Oktoberfest it was immediately apparent how important her story was to the American experience. Americans have gotten used to the idea that police must be everywhere we are to give us tickets for breaking the millions of rules our representatives in government have passed into law -- allegedly to protect us from ourselves. Though we don't like how police have a tendency to treat us like criminals (even if we call them for help); though our hearts begin to beat faster when we see them following us in the rear view mirror, we have been conditioned to accept our fear and loathing of police as part of the American dream here in the land of the free. This is how one perceives the police when they are serving the interests of the state over the peace and safety of citizens. For Americans over 40, the article below should help you to recall how you used to feel about police; to those under the age of 40, this is how you should be able to trust and appreciate the police as keepers of the public peace -- not the extorters of people's money for state revenues.

By Gabi Dischner

Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, is the world's largest public festival with about 6,000,000 visitors in only 16 days of partying that ends the first Sunday in October. Crowded beer tents can hold about 10,000 drinking and celebrating guests each.

The bomb attack at Oktoberfest September 26, 1980, caused festival organizers to be faced with the challenge of providing an appropriate level of security. Since the 9/11 attacks in New York, security measures have been heightened and tightened. However, the purpose of police and private security personnel is to make sure that everyone is able to have a good time -- not to harass merrymakers and treat them with cold suspicion.

The very first Oktoberfest was held October 12, 1810, to celebrate the wedding between Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony Hildburghausen. Horse races in the presence of the Royal Family marked the close of the event that was celebrated as a festival for the whole of Bavaria. The decision to repeat the horse races the following year gave rise to the tradition of the Oktoberfest. In 1811 an added feature to the horse races was the first Agricultural Show, designed to boost Bavarian agriculture. The horse races, which were the oldest and, at one time, the most popular event of the festival, are no longer held today. But the Agricultural Show is still held every third year during the Oktoberfest on the southern part of the festival grounds.

In the first few decades the choice of amusements were few. The first carousel and two swings were setup in 1818. Visitors were able to quench their thirst at small beer stands which grew rapidly in number. In 1896 the beer stands were replaced by the first beer tents and halls set up by enterprising landlords with the backing of the breweries.

I grew up in Munich and the Oktoberfest has always been a constant season in my years. In the last 40 years there have been lots of changes: More people, more foreign tourists, more drinking, more fun songs instead of the original traditional music, high-tech merry-go-rounds and roller coasters.

But this year I noticed something "new": Security-forces in high numbers in every tent, with policemen controlling the outside area and along the whole way to bus and subway stations.

The security personnel could be identified by their uniforms, but were not armed. The police were also in uniform and carried nightsticks, pepper spray and a handgun.

"So what," you will say, "that's the way things are all over the world since 9/11." Actually I am not astonished about the massive presence of security. What is astonishing is the way security handled the crowds. In a friendly and helpful manner, they patrolled the tents, stopping at tables to greet some of the longtime local guests, showed foreigners their way to restrooms or tried to give first aid to people who felt sick. Whether a merrymaker became sick or lost due to the heat and chaos or to the extreme amount of beer he had consumed did not seem to prejudice how they were treated by security.

While the hours pass, the majority is all but sober and at least 50 percent of the people dance on the banks and tables while singing the well-known songs. At one point I saw several uniformed security people rush by like arrows through the crowded corridors and jump on some troublemakers involved in a personal fight. The fight was already over before I had any idea it was happening just three meters from our table. Thanks to the speedy intervention of those guys, the fight was broken up, the fighters separated and calmed down. No one was arrested and the partying continued as if nothing had happened. In other instances where angry people refused to calm down, they were simply escorted out of the tent and told to go home and sleep it off.

While making my way to the subway station to go home, police and security were seen stopping traffic to let crowds of inebriated people safely cross the streets. They were also patrolling the subway platform making sure people did not stagger to the rail and get hit by an incoming train.

In my 40 years at the Oktoberfest I've witnessed lots of fighting between some drunken troublemakers. It is kind of unavoidable where so many people meet and drink "til they fall over." But this year I really felt safe and protected: not because I am particularly afraid of a terrorist attack -- then I wouldn't even go out to the Oktoberfest -- but in other years it was quite easy to be innocently involved in a personal fight between two or more drunken opponents.

In Germany they say "Die Polizei, Dein Freund und Helfer" which could be translated to "The police, your friend and aid." At the Oktoberfest this year it was my impression that this slogan was still true.

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