“Dealers Ennobled”
by Thorsten Schmitz

original title: Dealer, gedealt
appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 18, 2017

• Görlitzer Park in Berlin is nationally known as a drug trading point.

• Now there is an exhibition about the dealers.

• The curator of the event’s uncritical statements caused a fuss.

It is drizzling, it is pitch black, and it is cold. There are more pleasant places to make a living, but Jo, the young man from Gambia says, “Give me another job, and I’m out of here.” Jo rubs his clammy hands together and scans the park entrances for customers and police. It is Thursday evening. Thursday is a good day — it is the day people start going out, and the tourists in Berlin like to go out stoned.

Jo is wearing an olive-green winter jacket; the hood has a light faux-fur lining. In his jeans he carries small plastic bags with measured amounts of marijuana, never more than 15 grams. He drinks beer from a bottle. Jo has scraped leftovers from plates in the kitchen of a Turkish restaurant and mixed cement at a construction site, but never has he made as much money as he does now. Sometimes 150 euros per day. Jo is 24. He sends money to his family once a month. He lets them believe it is dishwashing money. His residence status is unclear, and as long as the offices check, Jo cannot work. Jo says: “I did not imagine Germany this way.” He speaks english, pretty good english. German, he says, he will never get the hang of. He knows a few words, mostly numbers. Many customers like to bargain.

Jo is one of about 200 young men from west African countries who sell pot, speed, cocaine, and heroin in the 14 hectare Görlitzer Park in the heart of Kreuzberg. For years the green space has been known nationwide as a drug purchasing center for dealers and tourists. In Berlin applies - again - Laissez-faire: since April the red-red-green senate has allowed the possession of up to 15 grams of hash; the zero-tolerance strategy of the previous administration had shown no success. Jo, who now is no longer interested in talking, but rather in making sales, calls the new selling freedom “super for us.”

Blurry color photos are pinned on to 12 cardboard figures

A very nervous customer of about 20 stands in front of him. “Do you have speed?” Jo does not have speed. He sends the young man a few meters further, to compatriots from Gambia.

The Kreuzberg district administration is now actually ennobling people like Jo in Görlitzer and Hasenheide Parks with an exhibition that will open on Tuesday. The exhibition, “Other Homelands”, curated by American artist Scott Holmquist traces the migration routes and shows the places of origin of African drug dealers on brown cardboard in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum on Kottbusser Tor. For headlines long before the opening, the exhibition put forth a strange, uncritical sentence. One that, in part, leaves no room for misunderstanding. In a press message Holmquist wrote: Despite all obstacles “drug dealers work fearlessly and bravely in public space.”

Fearless? Brave?

The Berlin CDU was appalled. It is “an expression of complete depravity to describe drug dealers, who make our children dependent on drugs, as fearless and brave workers.” Berlin local papers’ headlines claimed that it would be a misuse of tax money to glorify drug dealers. (Actually, clarifies the museum on demand, Holmquist billed 821 euros for the cardboard.)

A pre-viewing of the exhibition on treesy, brought on hurriedly by the headlines, did not bring much clarity however. Blurry color photos of African cities are pinned onto 12 cardboard silhouettes with text in African dialects, the german translations of which lie on the floor. One can rip a translation from the block of papers and take it home. In the texts dealers talk about the states and villages they come from, how hot it gets in summer, which trees grow there, and how wide the streets are. On the subject of how and why they came to Germany and now sell drugs there is not even a single word. Why? “That is their private business, why the dealers deal”, says artist Holmquist. “You wouldn’t ask a supermarket vendor why she works at Netto.”

In the past year he requested the building of a memorial for African drug dealers in a petition for the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. Such a memorial “would be a meaningful recognition of this risky job.” Asked about that today, he squirms and says: “I do not want to comment on that.”

“We blacks are the scum of the earth”

On treesy morning the sun is shining in Berlin, Görlitzer park is crowded with people. Kindergarten groups, young women taking dogs for walks, dads with children’s carriages, joggers, bikers, and at every fork in the paths and on every third park bench sit young African men who hiss when you pass them by. Jo is nowhere to be seen. For that, Diallo is ready to talk. He asks for cigarette paper — he wants to roll a joint. It is 9:30 am. He came to Germany from Gambia by way of Italy, but Germany has disappointed him. “When you’re from Syria or Palestine you get an apartment and job. We blacks are the scum of the earth.”

In the afternoons he studies German, in the mornings he sells drugs. He offers Speed at a “special price”. Has he heard of the exhibition? He asks about it 3 times. He cannot believe that there is an exhibition about people like him. Diallo asks, “and what do I get out of that?”, gives a high-five, puts on his headphones and heads off.

The crime levels have lowered, according to a new statistic. Since the senate revoked the Zero-Tolerance-Strategy, fewer robberies, violent offenses, and less drug handling have been reported in Görlitzer Park. That is surely thanks to Cengiz Demirci, the park manager, who patrolled the green area with park-rangers and made a deal with the 200 drug dealers that they could not talk to children, harass women, or line invasively on the roads. The dealers would only disappear, says Demirci, “if they saw an alternative”.

When one doesn’t reveal oneself as a journalist to the Kreuzberg district police who patrol the area, one gets resigned commentary. “We are the fools of the service”, says one officer. It’s a cat and mouse game: “We make arrests, we seize drugs, collect personal data, and half an hour later they are back in the park selling their dirt.”

So what does he think of the fact that the drug dealers are presented in an exhibition? For that the officer has a short sentence. “Are you crazy?”

Original in GERMAN