WTF Is Up in Rigaer Strasse?!

Berlin's Thought Police in action

You might have seen the footage on the news in the last few weeks of flack-jacketed cops milling around outside of one of Friedrichshain's playfully patchworked 'squats' (which aren't actually squats, anymore, although they once were). You might have read a snippet of text or two, telling you about an attack on a passer-by in the street, and a raid on a house.  The chances are very good, though, that you didn't get the whole story of what actually happened in Rigaer Strasse.  I know I didn't.  So in this post, I'm going to share what I've learned about it so far. 

According to the press, on January 13th, a police officer was attacked in  in Rigaer Strasse in North FriedrichshainDer Spiegel wrote that the injured officer in question "was overthrown, beaten and kicked to the ground" by four people who were "suspected" left wingers. "According to police, the 52-year-old officer was wearing no protective clothing and was injured by the attack." Der Spiegel wrote"The four attackers then fled into the house in Rigaer Strasse."  

Later that same day, 550 police officers stormed the house.  There, they claimed to have found "missiles and so-called "crow's feet", which can be used to damage car tires.”  The "missiles" turned out to be nothing more than paving stones which were being used for construction.  

It later transpired that the police didn't even have a search warrant when they entered the house, and that they had no reason to assume the attackers were still on site.  So why the OTT raid, then?  No answers are forthcoming, yet.  But one gets the impression that the police and their bosses  seem to have assumed that no one would even think of asking that question. Turns out that they were wrong. Yesterday, a meeting by the Committee on Internal Affairs was tasked with investigating the heavy handed response to the attack in Rigaer Strasse.  Interior Minister Henkel, who claimed full responsibility for ordering the raid, only said that he "prefers to use a few more officials now rather than later losing control."  Translated, this means that he favours busting people who haven't actually committed any crimes.  

But the events of January 13th aren't where the story actually begins. Rigaer Strasse 94, a left-wing collective based in the area, wrote on their website in November that residents were "being made to show their ID cards and were being searched, while others were dragged into vans and let out somewhere different. People were not accused of anything concrete, but their style of dress was cited as a reason for a dismissal from the zones around the street."  Here, "styles of dress" seems to mean that the victims looked a bit punk and left-wing.  If you thought Kater Blau's fashion police were bad, well, in Rigaer Strasse the police have moved the dresscode from the club door to people's front doorsteps.  Only in this case, it's getting out of the building that's a problem, not getting in. 

The residents of Rigaer Strasse have been subject to police harassment since October 2015, when Interior Minister Henkel stated that the residents of Rigaer Street were "terrorists" and vowed that he would crack down on them, following a rash of attacks against police in the area the previous year.  In 2015, police were attacked 9 times in Rigaer Strasse.  In most of these attacks, objects were thrown at them from the roofs.  It's worth noting that the attacks mostly happen during events like "The Long Night of Rigaer Strasse", a street festival that sees the squats open their doors to the general public, so it's questionable how responsible the permanent residents of Rigaer Strasse are for the attacks Henkel is referring to.  Also, most attacks like this happen in the summer which is tourist season in Friedrichshain (yes, even in the left-wing scene), so the chances of the same assailants still being in the area in the winter are slim.  But maybe the real point of attacking the area in winter is more cold-blooded and strategic, than legal: the population is smaller now, and it's easier to wrest control away from the left wing scene.  But why?  More on that below.  

But first, let's get back to the raid on January 13th.  Sending 550 police officers into a house without a warrant when there weren't even any suspects in it was already pretty over the top, but Henkel went even further still, by sending in members of Berlin's Special Task Force (SEK), too.

According to Wikipedia, the main missions of SEK units are to "to deal with barricaded suspects. Hostage sieges, kidnappings and raids.They don't say that the SEK is normally used to raid left-wing, vegan cooperatives full of unarmed non-suspects but I suspect that's not standard procedureDoes Mr. Henkel know that?  

Apparently, "The basic gear for every SEK officer is a standard sidearm and a submachine gun. SEK's other weaponry includes rifles, sniper rifles, and even machine guns." 

So that's definitely going over the top, then.   

As an interesting aside, Wikipedia states that “the SEK units partially consist of officers who were members of East Germany's GSG 9 counterpart, a unit called Diensteinheit IX."  I assume that means that quite a few members of the unit were trained to operate within a totalitarian socialist context instead of this totalitarian capitalist one.  Boy, does that explain a lot.

Proud to be the 'terror' of the neighbourhood: a 'squat' house in Rigaer Strasse
Totalitarian or not, the police response to Rigaer Strasse suggests that the City's intention here was not to take out a defined threat, but to eradicate even the tendency to defy authority, in Rigaer Strasse.  Perhaps they find it easier to do that with armed police than by addressing the sorts of problems that make people become defiant in the first place.  

One of those problems is the stress that gentrification is putting upon the neighbourhood around Rigaer Strasse.  The area north of Frankfurter Allee is truly a neighbourhood, one of the last bastions of long-term renters living in a borough that's been almost entirely given over to holiday-makers, living in overpriced sublets close to the club hubs of Revaler Strasse and Simon Dach Strasse.  

In the right wing media, the defiance of neighbourhoods like Rigaer Strasse is usually portrayed as some sort of adolescent rebellion.  But take a walk around north and south Friedrichshain in the summer and you'll see that what the north is aiming for isn't some sort of unattainable utopia, after all - it's just the bare minimum state of permanence that's needed to stay on in a neighbourhood from one year to the next.  But as the surrounding properties get bought up by image-conscious developpers, residents are facing pressure to move on and make way for wave after wave of short-term residents.

One begins to suspect that the City's decision to harass the residents of Rigaer Strasse has more to do with its cozy relationship to the kinds of property investors who would love to fill North Friedrichshain with shorter-term tenants, providing them with constant opportunities to raise their rents.  (Note: in Berlin, a landlord can only raise the rent after a tenant moves out).

Berlin's city government has a long history of courting such property investors by unethical means.  In the 1990s the city of Berlin was even bankrupted by its CDU government because it went so overboard in its attempts to please local real estate developpers.  At the time, Berlin was a majority shareholder in the BGB bank and local officials handed out 600 million Euros credit to friends working in the real estate sector.  They illegally waived any credit checks because they were overconfident that they would get all that money back with interest, once wealthy people started flooding into Berlin and renting out the newly refurbished flats at inflated prices.  Their gamble didn't pay off though and BGB went bankrupt due to its mismanagement.   

At the time, Berlin was a sort of Wild West ghost town, filled with empty houses.  I imagine that the city councillors felt like they'd won the Lottery, coming into a city full of attractive empty properties, and it made them a bit careless: a gold-rush mentality.   But what the City failed to consider was just how it was going to let out all those newly refurbished flats to wealthy emigres when the unemployment rate in Berlin is so high and there is a glaring lack of stable industry to attract wealth 
The CDU has never answered that questionInstead, it seems content to go on making rash, unsustainable choices - basically, gambling on the hope that they will get a miraculous payout from the rental market using a combination of muscle, money and corruption.   But as long as they fail to address the city's underlying problems, this amounts to wishful thinking.    

Part of the problem now is that the City is desperate to pay off the huge debt that it helped to create in the 1990s with its mismanagement - and the SPD was implicated in that mismanagement as well, so it shares that desperation with the CDUSo whenever the prospect of easy cash presents itself, the City throws all caution to the wind, and the people of Berlin usually end up paying the price; the City passed off much of its bad debt to Berliners in the form of higher taxation and cuts to social services and now it wants to take their homes as well But seriously... who's fault is it that the debt is there in the first place

The City's government behaves less like a government than a gambling addict who keeps putting more money into a losing slot machine, the property market, in the hopes of saving face.  A big win is the only thing that might make its stupidity seem suddenly clever, againIn the meantime it doesn't seem to care who it displaces, raids, arrests or slanders as it pursues this losing strategy... even if it means calling in the SEK.  

Judging by the positive tone of comments made about Rigaer Strasse in Berlin's cultural media, most people seem to enjoy spending time in the "terrorist" 'hood" (or gefahrengebiet, as it's known in German) Maybe Rigaer Strasse is still a popular area because it's still vibrant and cheap, and full of exciting venues and peopleMaybe Berliners like it because, when they're there, they don't get that sense of an encroaching gentrification creeping along behind them, preparing to put up territorial fences behind them when they leave. 

Clearly the bigger problem is that Berlin isn't the sort of city where the government can just sit back and collect the profits... which is often all that it seems prepared to doAs a city, it is too young and historically complex, and too beset by unique economic and social problems, for the standard model of "gentrification" to work.  What it needs is an administration that's prepared to take a proactive approach and build a stable community, complete with jobs, social services and free resources that bring people together.  The left wing scene is trying very hard to provide those last two options with its limited resources because the government doesn't leave them much choice.  It simply isn't doing enough to pick up the slack.

So maybe, instead of evicting the residents of Rigaer Strasse, the city of Berlin would be better off taking suggestions from them instead.

If you agree, then be sure to check out the solidarity demo on Feburary 6th.  It starts at 16:00 at Rummelplatz, the wagon village on Guertelstrasse (nearest station Ostkreuz).


Popular Posts