Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The S Word And The Hoodies

You can always tell when the CDU (the Christian Democratic Union, currently, if barely, the ruling party, who might also be called "the conservatives") are getting their butts beaten. They haul out the S word: Sicherheit. It means "security" or "safety."

We've got a mayoralty race happening at the moment -- elections are a little later this month -- and our current mayor, SPD's Klaus Wowereit, is heavily favored to win. "Wowi," as he's known in the City Which Always Nicknames, is handsome, gay, and doing a pretty good job. (Possibly the only thing Berlin and Paris have in common is having a gay mayor). The CDU, therefore, has to scare up some votes. And I do mean scare.

Walking down to collect my as-yet-unrepaired computer from the trolls at OmniLab today, I passed two huge billboards showing the CDU's desperation. One shows their mayoral candidate, a prissy-looking fellow, in his official campaign photo, on half the billboard, while the other half shows a sepia photo of two old folks sitting in a park while a woman coos at her baby in a baby-carriage next to them. SICHERHEIT FUR BERLIN it says. The other is worse: an old lady, in shadow, but backlit by a more powerful streetlight than exists in real life, the better so we can see her thick glasses, white hair, and shopping bag, is walking along, while two guys in hoodies*, faces unseen, follow her. ROT-ROT SCHAU WEG, it screams: "Red-Red turns a blind eye." (The reference is to the SPD/PDS coalition ruling the city council, the PDS being the reformed communists, sort of).

This reminded me instantly of the election which brought Gerhard Schröder (SPD) to power, but which Helmut Kohl (CDU) clearly felt he had heaven's mandate to win. An impossibly handsome male model in a policeman's uniform had his hand on an old lady's shoulder, his gaze adoringly on her frail form, while she looked accusingly into the camera. SICHERHEIT! SICHERHEIT! SICHERHEIT! was the caption, courtesy of the CDU. I made some inquiries, and sure enough, the polls had turned.

The hoodies poster particularly annoyed me because of an unrelated -- well, maybe unrelated -- ad campaign I've seen of late, this one by Philip Morris GmbH, the German division of the American tobacco company. It shows a guy in a fur-lined hooded jacket offering Marlboros from inside his jacket. Red letters scream, "Billig, weil geschmuggelt? NEIN! Billig, weil gefälscht!" ("Cheap because they're smuggled? NO! Cheap because they're counterfeited!")

Now, in a way, this is something which needs to be brought to the attention of a nation which smokes like the proverbial chimney, because, as the pamphlet I picked up at the shop across the street points out, these cigarettes are made from substandard tobaccos, and aren't regulated for the amount of tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, lead, cadmium, and arsenic in them. It warns against buying cigarettes from street-sellers, at flea and street markets, on the internet, and around border areas (since a lot of counterfeits are made in Russia and sent through Poland).

But there's something disquieting about the cover shot, the guy with the hood. His moustache, for one. You can't see his eyes, but he looks...vaguely Vietnamese. Or South Asian, anyway. But this isn't our pal, funny old Chinky the Chinaman. This is the face of Organized Crime.

There was a time when Vietnamese street-smugglers selling cigarettes were all over Berlin. You'd see a guy standing around, staring at a pack of cigarettes in his hand as if he were wondering what in the world it was. But if you approached him, he could sell you a pack or a carton or two of counterfeits. A friend who bought a pack once while I was with him lit up and immediately made an awful noise and tossed the freshly-lit cigarette to the ground. "Learned my lesson," he said. The box, though, was impeccably made.

Enforcement was downright weird. I once answered my doorbell to find a gigantic woman there holding up a laminated card. "Do you have any cigarettes?" she asked. As a matter of fact, I did. "Please show them to me." I did. She pointed at the tax stamp pasted over the top. "Always look for the Bundesadler," she said, pointing at the stylized eagle which is Germany's symbol. "Good day." I've often wondered what she would have done if I'd had counterfeits. Deported me?

My second encounter with enforcement was even stranger and much worse. There was a mob of Vietnamese which operated by the exit to the U-Bahn at Friedrichstr. station by the Tränenpalast. There was a lawn by the exit (which lasted until the begging punks and their huge dogs took it over, turning it to desert), and two thick bushes grew there. One Vietnamese guy would be hanging out, and he was pretty obviously the guy to talk to. If he got an order, he'd bark something in Vietnamese and a woman, hiding behind the bushes, would haul out a plastic bag, find what the customer had ordered, and run it over to the man. Money would change hands, and that would be that.

One day, I was walking by, and all of a sudden a bunch of guys boiled out of the underground entrance, surrounded the Vietnamese guy, and started beating the crap out of him. A woman yelled "What are you doing?" and one guy showed her a police ID. "We're arresting a criminal," he said. "But do you have to use so much violence?" she yelled at him. At which point he knocked her to the ground. At that point I decided to get as far away from this scene as possible, since I had no ID at all on me, which is against the law.

Not long thereafter 35,000 Vietnamese were repatriated from Berlin after a gun-battle in a dormitory used by cigarette dealers in the Marzahn district. This was described as a crime-abatement program, since the Russian Mob was alleged to have been involved in the cigarette business, using the Vietnamese as front-persons. The Vietnamese had been here since DDR days, brought in as "guest workers" from "friendly socialist nations," the same as the Angolans and the Cubans, and, like them, scapegoated by unemployed East Germans the moment unification happened.

The Philip Morris leaflet shows a picture of the right way to buy cigarettes: a nice white guy pointing to a wall of cigarettes in what looks like a gas station shop, while the nice white lady reaches for his brand. Given that I haven't seen a Vietnamese selling cigarettes in at least five years, even in the darkest east, I'm just a bit disturbed by this leaflet's insinuations. I support the campaign, obviously, given my friend's experience. But I can deplore the method, just as I do with the CDU.

*(Interesting historical note: while hooded sweatshirts are called "hoodies," for obvious reasons, in America, here they're called Kapuziner, Capuchins, after the hooded monastic order)


daggi said...

If you want to see Vietnamese men standing about 2 metres from a packet of cigarettes, who have some bigger multipacks hidden behind a bin around the corner, just go to S-Bhf Greifswalder Str.

Michael Scott Moore said...

... Or S-Bhf Prenzlauer Allee. A guy there stands just inside the door, not quite in the way of crowds flowing in and out.

BiB said...

Gosh, I didn't know there'd been a mass deportation. They used to even be in sleepy Pankow, at Vinetastr. U-Bahn and just hanging round supermarkets. I always thought they would be the easiest possible criminals to round up. I suppose word got round that they were being dealt with harshly, finally, as your Friedrichstr. story shows.

When I visted Berlin in 2000, and had a budget of about 1 Pfennig a month, I used to frequent them, and feel awfully brave. Then it was Ukrainian cigarettes, I think. Anyway, lacking the nerve to break the law, I started buying some cheapo Wests - 3 Marks a pack - and tried to convert everyone in Germany to them. Without success.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: I had no ID at all on me, which is against the law

That's a common misapprehension; the law doesn't require anyone (whether German or foreigner) to carry ID with them at all times (there might be an exception for asylum seekers though). You do need to be in possession of valid identity documents and if required you must be able to identify yourself to the police - if you don't have any ID on you that might involve a trip to the police station if the circumstances require; but you're not going to be fined or arrested for not having ID on you.

(Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, this is all AFAIK).

The couple of times I've had to identify myself, things like credit cards or the Krankenkasse card have been enough. One time I got stopped by the Bavarian (!) police on the way to an anti-Nazi demo, they found a knife (the disposable cutter sort) I forgot was in my rucksack; of course they then wanted my passport, which was safe in Berlin with an expired Aufenthaltserlaubnis, and all I had was a bank savings card. They telephoned with wherever to check no-one with the name on the card was a wanted criminal or otherwise suspiscious, didn't turn up anything and as I had a convincing story about the knife they let me on my way (sans knife though).