Tension follows violence at leftist residence in Berlin | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.07.2016
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Tension follows violence at leftist residence in Berlin

There is still a fractious atmosphere between the occupants of the leftist housing project Rigaer 94 and the police and Berlin's "law and order" interior minister. Both sides accuse the other of breaking the law.

Berlin's government is not in the mood for reconciliation after the long-simmering situation at Rigaer Strasse 94 boiled over last Saturday night. Between 2,000 and 4,000 demonstrators clashed with police near the left-wing housing project in the Friedrichshain district, resulting in (according to the police) 123 injured officers and 86 arrests.

Mayor Michael Müller, who had previously called for talks, revised his position on Monday, saying that "this was not the time for roundtables." Interior Minister Frank Henkel offered an even more dismissive comment when speaking to reporters after a meeting with Müller: "I wouldn't know what we would talk about."

In an interview with the Berlin TV station RBB, Henkel defended his previous "double strategy" for dealing with left-wing radicals: discussions with "those who want to talk" and the "full consequences of the law" for violent people and criminals.

But, after the weekend's "left-wing orgy of violence," he said, it is clear that "there's no one here who wants to talk." "People who throw stones at policemen, throw bottles at policemen, throw firecrackers at policemen, who set fire to cars and attack buildings - they don't want to talk," he said. "They want to practice violence."

Berlin Krawalle Linksautonome

Poluice say they arrested 86 people on Saturday

'We live here'

That was immediately contradicted on Tuesday in a press conference held outside the building, where representatives said many inhabitants still had rental contracts and that they would still like to discuss their position with authorities. "Rigaer 94 is not an occupied building," they said.

Other occupants were less keen to talk. Last weekend's violence came in response to the partial clearance of the building on June 22, when some 300 police officers plus a private security firm protected construction workers as they cleared out a workshop and a small bar. According to one of the inhabitants, who wanted to be named only as Lukas, this was illegal (a court case over the rights of the occupants is ongoing), but construction work in the space has begun.

"We live here - we can't move out," Lukas told DW. "So we don't know what there is to negotiate. Plus what Mr. Henkel is doing here is breaking several laws - such as evicting us without notice." Lukas said that by negotiating with the interior minister, "we'd be sitting down with a criminal - that's why we won't."

More than 50 cars have been set alight in the area in recent weeks and months, while properties associated with the building's management have been damaged. Some of the attacks have had a tit-for-tat quality: after security personnel hired by the house management kicked in the door to the attic at Rigaer 94 in order to clear it last year, the building management firm found its own office door broken down later.

Müller und Henkel 11.12.2014 Berlin

Henkel (left) and Müller are about to face off in the mayoral election

Lukas denied that the occupants were responsible, not least because of the persistent presence of the law outside the building. "Me and my roommates are under constant police surveillance," he said. "It couldn't have been us, because as soon as we get 300 meters (1,000 feet) from the building, we get watched by undercover police units."

Police have only made one arrest in connection with the clandestine property damage: a local man known as Marcel G, a former left-wing activist who has been photographed supporting far-right demos and has worked as a police informant.

Campaign pawns?

The escalation of violence has accelerated since June 22, with people living in the house and neighboring buildings repeatedly complaining about the continuous overpolicing, a complaint that was repeated on Tuesday - and not just by Lukas.

"They are carrying out pointless operations here 24 hours a day that they themselves can't explain," a spokeswoman for the inhabitants said in a press conference outside the building. "We want clarity about the extent and length of the police measures and transparent information policy."

According to German media, Rigaer 94 has become a symbol for left-wing radicalism and alternative culture across Europe, and many of the demonstrators had traveled long distances specifically to attack the police last Saturday.

After briefly threatening to ban all demos, Henkel set up hotlines for locals as an extra means of communication and removed some of the police barriers outside the building. But, illustrating the level of distrust on each side, the Rigaer 94 group then tweeted: "Great spectacle with the removed barriers, but journalists and politicians not let into the house, even as invited guests"

In his RBB interview, Henkel said the owner of the building had cleared out part of it to house refugees. "If they're interested in finding living quarters for refugees, there are tens of thousands of apartments in Berlin that are empty for reasons of [real estate] speculation," the Berlin-based left-wing journalist Wladek Flakin told DW. "Take any of them. Why are they going after apartments that already have inhabitants?"

For Flakin, there is also a wider political context to Henkel's refusal to talk - not least because the interior minister is the mayoral candidate for the Christian Democratic Union in September's Berlin election. "On the one hand ... he wants to be seen as the 'law and order' guy. He's worried about losing votes to the SPD and even more to the AfD," Flakin said. "On the other hand, the whole government is trying to evict poor people and alternative culture from the inner city. They need space to put up their luxury condos, which are going up all around the neighborhood."

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