Welcome to the ‘Danger Zone’

Ein, zwei, Polizei…

For those who need a little orientation, I’ve been resident in Berlin for 3 years. In February 2013 without so much as looking at a picture of where I would be living, I moved in to the apartment of the friend of a friend who was away travelling, and took the place over when he eventually moved out. To this day I consider myself very lucky, because I loved my neighbourhood, and have never considered to move to a different part of town. Lucky as I consider myself, since Autumn 2015, this area of Berlin has been declared ‘Gefahrengebiet’ or a danger zone. Such places are deemed by the authorities to be hotbeds of dangerous criminal activity, as are subject to special police powers and surveillance. To wit, officers have the power to detain anyone in this area and take their identity papers, search and take their belongings, all this without providing any particular justification beyond being in this ‘danger area’.

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I like to joke that everywhere I’ve lived I’ve felt like a weirdo, until I came here to this corner of Friedrichshain, in which I feel quite normal, even boring. Here around Rigaerstr (Riga Street), in former communist DDR, one might be forgiven for thinking they’d stepped into some kind of time warp into a bizarro world of late 70s rebel youth culture. On an everyday stroll down the street, it’s impossible not to notice that a high frequency of the residents here are somewhat ‘colourful’, or ‘alternative’, studded jackets, combat boots, dyed-and-shaved hair are very much in evidence. These aren’t kids going through their rebellious phase, nor are they grizzled dinosaurs from a bygone era, fighting a war that ended long ago, like a lost Japanese soldier on a remote pacific island that never knewthe outcome of WW2. It’s both, or more accurately, neither. In fact the alternative scene of Rigaerstr boasts young and old-timers, and a diverse mix of gender and ethnicity. It’s international, cross-cultural and cross-generational. On any given day I’m likely to spot my punk neighbours out with their kids as well as the ubiquitous dogs. Graffiti along the facades of the altbauen ranges from simple tags, slogans and in-jokes to amusing and thought-provoking art pieces. The walls around the punk hangouts are plastered with posters and news of community events. Political meetings, film screenings, pay-what-you-want dinners, workshops, cafes, discos, concerts of everything from crust punk to reggae to grindcore to acid jazz. In the Stressfaktor, a directory and agenda listing for the Berlin squat scene, the array of activities is overwhelming. Every day, practically every district. Want to learn languages? Coding? Take yoga or kickboxing lessons? Arts and crafts? The projects offer all of that and more, in many cases for free or with the expectation of a spende (donation price). In one of Europe’s economic blackspots, where the once-thriving creative class and the colourful, artistic use of space is being squeezed out through a program of gentrification and standardisation, this counts for a lot.

example of an event at one of the ‘rebellious structures’

‘NO SEXISM/RACISM/NAZIS/HOMOPHOBIA’is commonly featured in event flyers and on interior walls. Yes, these places are political. Beer and punk shows are great, but it’s not just about having fun. Left-wing and anti-fascist propaganda abounds in the projects. There are frequent scheduled political discussions on the refugee crisis, government surveillance, and other international issues. Once I even had the privilege of attending a meeting where 2 guest activists from Catalunya (where I previously resided before coming to Germany) make their case for independence from Spain, fielding intelligent and well informed questions from their international audience in Spanish and German. I’m not partisan in that particular debate, but I think it’s good that the participants over here cared enough to inform themselves and engage with the guests on a respectful and critical level. To some these attitudes may seem naive, politically correct or right on, conjuring up that particular bogeyman of the internet, the Social Justice Warrior. I’ve seen enough injustice and discrimination in European society to be genuinely grateful that these locales put themselves forward as safe spaces for those who feel oppressed because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation. Even as bars and party places, social responsibility and respect for the vulnerable comes before profiteering, and I respect that. As a foreigner residing in Berlin, their openness and prompting to community involvement has been important in my sense of belonging to this local community.

These urban tribes of punks, left-wing activists, squatters, anarchists, party animals, human and animal rights campaigners antifa etc, are referred to as the ‘left scene’ or ‘autonomous scene’. In fact this is a broad church, and not strictly defined. Not everyone you meet at this place wears a leather jacket, is a vegan, or street warrior or squatter. Myself and many others who might be frequently spotted at Fischladen, XB-Leibig, Abstand or Kopi are tenants and workers with one foot inside the system and another in progressive politics or alternative lifestyle in one way or another. You don’t have to be a radical to participate in this scene or benefit from its presence in your community.

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But radicals exist. Around March last year, the power in the neighbourhood was cut, and rioters barricaded Rigaerstr and attacked a Lidl supermarket as well as a bank office. While no one was in those buildings, police officers on the scene were assaulted, and for the first time in Berlin I heard the helicopters over my house. It wouldn’t be the last time. Smashed glass, some stolen cigarettes and frozen pizzas led to a skirmish on the streets. Still, for about 6 months, after this incident, life in the area carried on as normal, with nary a peep of any kerfuffle to be seen. I’ll come right out and say that my political views are, to say the least, left-of-centre. But I’m not the enemy of the police. The timely arrival of police officers have saved my life at least once, so I’m grateful to police for doing their job, serving and protecting the citizenry. But I can’t in any way support what is going on in my neighbourhood now.

Enter the Gefahrengebiet. 3 years I’ve been living next to the Rigaerstr and going about my errands in the neighbourhood. Shopping, meeting friends, going to bars. Never once have I feared for my safety. Now, since October, the neighbourhood swarms with patrols and police trucks most days and nights. Now, I have something to be afraid of. Being made to feel like a trespasser in my own home, unwelcome in my own street. Being profiled as a criminal because of my appearance or political views. Needing official ID to enter or leave my own home for groceries. Being out at a bar with friends and never knowing if we are going to get rounded up and searched tonight, or if a riot is going to break out just outside. The police have not come to remove the danger, they brought it. By treating everyone as a potential criminal because of the actions of a tiny minority, they have escalated the situation, provoking existing resentment against the authoritarian tendencies of the state.

On 28 November another riot. On the 13th January, a police officer on patrol was assaulted and knocked down. The response, 8 hours later, was a blockading of the street and the invasion of the house project Riga 94 with a small army of 500 officers, with SEK (think SWAT) support and helicopters. The house was ransacked, property was damaged and residents reported rough treatment and blows from the invading police officers. No one was apprehended for the crime that had been a pretext for the raid. However, the police confiscated coal, crowbars, chickenwire, fuel and stones. Crucially, the house was deprived of its heating in the middle of winter. Following this incident, there have been further searches of houses along the same street and detaining of residents in the surrounding areas. A friend of mine resident in a regular apartment in the street has more than once had to show her ID and proof of residence, submit to inspection and be escorted by officers to her own apartment. I suspect that some factors about her appearance (non-ethnic German, coloured hair and alternative clothing), might have something to do with it. I’ve seen this happen to many people now, even in the middle of the day.

As mentioned before, I’m not an enemy of the police per se, as much as I resent and protest their role in making life here more difficult. Before any rebel hearts raise their hands in aggression, I would offer more than the caution that the police officers are human, and just an instrument of systemic control, but also the fact that every officer knocked down could potentially bring hundreds more in another heavily armed reprisal and give them an excuse to make things worse. The romance of violent revolution is heady and intoxicating, but the only weapons that will work here are hearts and minds, not sticks and stones. If I could reach the police themselves, I would remind them that they are public servants, not gangsters, and that such overblown reprisals ‘to teach them a lesson about messing with us’ should be beneath them.

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Beyond the simplistic narrative of punks vs police, which we’ve seen in hundreds of tv shows, comics, movies etc. There are high stakes here that could permanently change the city, particularly for those who cherish Berlin’s renowned liberal, artistic spirit. The network of houses and venues curated by this scene do a lot of good work in the community, and fill social needs that the state is unwilling to. They are part of Berlin’s heritage and its heart, a product of post cold-war idealism and hope for a kind of freedom and way of life that would break past patterns of oppression and conformity. This rebel punk ‘Disneyland’ isn’t going to take over Germany, or even Berlin, but it is part of its history and the spirit of the city, and does a lot of good. Nordkiez in Friedrichshain is under pressure to submit to gentrification, conformity and rising rents, just like other arty, trendy areas of the city. Developers are slavering like wolves over the wounded deer of the squats, just waiting until the police find an excuse to shut down the projects and evict the residents so that they may sell the property to hipsters with more money and moustache wax than sense, who may then wonder why this so-called colourful neighbourhood that they were sold on feels just like every other city street they’ve ever lived in. Even if one doesn’t care for the alternative lifestyle or left-wing politics, as a citizen of a European democracy it is an insult to our commonly held ideals that an entire district can be treated as suspects, without warning and over many months with no end in sight. The fact that Rigaerstr commands so much police attention, while nearby Warschauerstr, just a 20 minute walk away and notorious for theft and assault, seems to merit so little, speaks to the political dimension behind the Gefahrengebiet.

poli3

Towards the end of January, there have been encouraging signs that the Left and autonomous scene is reaching out to the other residents of the area to protest this state of affairs. Messages are posted around the streets encouraging people to visit the house projects and talk to the residents and other concerned neighbours. Over coffee a long term resident notes that tensions between government and the left scene flare up every few years, and praises the tenacity of the house projects in organising for their survival. At these meetings one can enjoy the fun products of the scene- food, drink, alternative music concerts and a relaxed place to hang out and socialise. But there is a more serious dimension, and various leaflets advise on how to behave if stopped by police (these aren’t combat techniques, but more practical advice along the lines of knowing your rights, taking the information of the officers and their supervisors, etc). More cheekily, there are little decoys of flour and kitchen herbs intended to poke fun at drug controls and waste police time. This kind of tongue in cheek resistance has been effective at making statements in the past. In a similar situation in Hamburg, the toilet brush became a symbol of defiance after it was identified as a dangerous implement by police. In Berlin, creative protesters have turned up to the police station with carts containing a lump of coal, a few rocks, etc. to ‘turn in their weapons’ over to the authorities. The battle of hearts and minds is under way, and its opening salvoes are the mockery of a pompous authority.

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History has shown us how difficult it is to get authority to relinquish the extra powers it bestows upon itself through a ‘state of emergency’ or ‘special circumstances’. If the house projects are pressured to close, the space will likely be closed to similar creative movements forever, barring some kind of traumatic social upheaval. In the Deutsches Historisches Museums exhibit, the violent eviction of the squats on Mainzerstr is highlighted as an event of historical importance for Berlin in the context of the social and cultural movements that occured the wake of German re-unification. But the post cold-war vision of an end of history has turned sour, and in spaces like Rigaerstr an alternative thought and way of life that is engaged with modern social issues and hope for the future can breathe and thrive. Don’t let them put it in a museum.

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This Saturday 6th February, there will be a demonstation in protest of the Gefahrengebiet and in solidarity with the ‘Rebellische Strukturen’. I would encourage every Berliner who believes in the rights of the citizen guaranteed by law to join this. In particular, I’ve written this in English to reach out to the many auslanders who came to Berlin to be warmed by the flame of its free-thinking, liberal, artistic spirit. Many of us came to follow a dream of a different way of life, free from perceived oppression or authoritarianism in our homelands. Some of us are writers, musicians, performers, artists. Others game developers, graphic designers, artisans, or just trying to get by in whatever we can and breathe the air of freedom and possibility of this city. Some of us have had more material success than others but we all owe something to the surge of liberal feeling that sprung from this shattered city, made whole again after being a focal point of the great ideological divides of the 20th century. These ‘rebellious structures’ came from this spirit and helped to make us welcome and we should pay them back with our solidarity.

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~ by theserpentscircle on February 4, 2016.

4 Responses to “Welcome to the ‘Danger Zone’”

  1. great, thanks!

  2. Really enjoyed this article here, and wonder if you would consider writing a guest post for http://www.tellhistory.com about your experiences about how Berlin’s neighborhoods have changed over time. If so, drop a line at alex@tellhistory.com to discuss further. Thanks and all best. -Alex

  3. […] For more background and a bit of history: check this post of a local blogger from last february: https://theserpentscircle.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/welcome-to-the-danger-zone/ Though the actual zone is a few blocks away, the “overflow” is very notable in our part […]

  4. […] just how broken the current situation is here. Some readers might remember my reporting on the Gefahrengebiet, or ‘Danger Zone’ situation in my Berlin neighbourhood earlier this year. The February demonstration which I urged […]

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