Since the firecracker riots sparked the dispute over youth violence and migration, one person has been under particular observation: Martin Hikel, the mayor of the disreputable Neukölln. FOCUS accompanied the young local politician for a day.
On this gray January day, five men are sitting in a Berlin sports bar and are discussing the topic that is moving the whole republic: the riots on New Year’s Eve, the attacks on rescue workers and the police with fireworks and blank pistols in the Neukölln High Deck housing estate. The guests of the restaurant are visibly upset, because that’s where they live.
“Everyone only talks about our settlement,” complains one of them. They assert that most of the perpetrators were not from here at all, but had traveled there on New Year’s Eve. Luckily there is a man at the table that day who could put things right: Martin Hikel, 36 years old and mayor of the notorious district. Star alarm or rather: little alarm about a slightly deranged local hero of a very deranged part of town.
The photo of the burning coach, which for days was a symbol of the riots at the turn of the year, was taken nearby, on Sonnenallee. Three days after New Year’s Eve, the police published these figures: 145 arrests, two thirds of them without German citizenship. And even if the authorities corrected the information a little later to 44 people arrested because of firecracker attacks on emergency services – the country had long been arguing about Berlin as a chaos juggernaut and Neukölln as a horror district and migration as society’s greatest challenge.
On New Year’s Eve, Martin Hikel, a fairly unknown local politician, became the problem bearer – or solver – of the ailing SPD mayor Franziska Giffey. It’s an election campaign in the capital. Again, because you can’t even manage to vote accident-free on the Spree. And there is tension in the red-green-red state government. The CDU leads by some distance, the SPD and the Greens are tied. You don’t want to be together anymore, so you post posters against each other.
If Franziska Giffey loses the majority on February 12, her dream of power has finally burst. A dream that began for her in 2010. Here in Neukölln, as district councilor for education between Sonnenallee and the High Deck settlement, with exactly the same problems that the government is now, 13 years later, catching up with again. Actually, she had thought that she had long since detached herself from focal points and clan discussions. Berlin is so much more, cosmopolitan city, Berlinale, Fashion Week, tourists, but then…
… the bus in Neukölln is on fire, and suddenly Franziska Giffey has to hope that this lanky Hikel, her successor in the problem district, will keep what she promises the city in the coming weeks: solutions instead of problems.Order instead of orcus. A regular election instead of wrong dates and missing ballot papers. The appointments didn’t work out with the election notifications.
“Everyone is now giving clever advice, but that doesn’t help us locally,” says Martin Hikel this afternoon in Neukölln. He says he works there 60 to 80 hours a week. 150 nations, 330,000 inhabitants, larger than Karlsruhe or Mannheim – hardly a quarter in Germany is more confusing than this. On average, the police are deployed every seven minutes, 12.9 percent of Neukölln residents are unemployed, two-thirds of the municipal budget goes to social services, before the pandemic 10.9 percent of school leavers had no qualifications – today it should be even more .
When Martin Hikel found out about the riots on New Year’s Day, he knew immediately what was in store for him: appease people nationwide, defuse the debate. He tried it first with one: “I think it’s right that we also talk about the importance of firecrackers for us socially and whether sales should be restricted.” Declaring the sale of fireworks as the cause of the riots was a little diversion from the more painful questions.
Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU) called the riots “typical Berlin”, the police simply had too little backing there. “Bavaria hates Berlin anyway,” Hikel replies. CDU leader Friedrich Merz declared that Berlin could not cope with the situation, “the chaotic people, many of them with a migration background, are challenging the state with their riots, which they despise” – and a few days later he described Arab children as “Paschas”.
The Berlin CDU even went so far as to ask for the first names of suspects with German nationality. Giffey replied angrily, “I can’t accept that the name decides whether I classify someone as a good person or a bad person. That can’t be true!” Criticism of the criminalization of all Fatimas and Mohammeds also arose in the Union.
In the midst of this heated debate, 330,000 people in Neukölln now have to serve as a deterrent example of integration policy that has failed for decades. This is another reason why Martin Hikel is a guest in the sports bar on this day. He hopes for dialogue and suggestions for new political measures. Of course, the men in the Neukölln bar concede that a few boys from the neighborhood would always cause trouble, but a whole neighborhood of unintegrated young rioters? “It’s not fair,” says one. Hikel asks for solutions. More sports, they say. Hikel nods. Doesn’t sound new, but doable.
Out in the cold again, Hikel says, “Not all here are angels. The truth is somewhere in the middle.” It seems as if he doesn’t quite believe in the firecracker tourists. His next destination is about 200 meters away, on the corner of Neuköllnische Allee: the youth center TheCorner. Camera-ready example of social commitment in the neighborhood. The small container building is painted blue. Sofas are distributed throughout the room, a billiard table, a table football game. On the wall are pictures with slogans such as “Cool people are considerate” and “We don’t accept violence”.
Martin Hikel and the facility’s coordinator, Heike Hirth, first have a cup of coffee. It’s quiet this afternoon. Calm and warm and cozy. She says there is room for around 40 people, but more staff are needed to allow TheCorner to open on weekends. “Someone from outside did the thing with the torched bus,” she says. And: “A lot of positive things are happening here in the settlement, but nobody talks about it.” The young people hardly get any chances. They felt harassed by the police. marginalized from mainstream society. Hikel nods. Doesn’t sound new and quite unsolvable.
Outside, you walk past shisha bars, Arabic supermarkets, Turkish grill houses – shops that are so typical for Neukölln. It is said that Germany’s problems – gentrification, educational misery, integration problems – are particularly evident in this district. Rents have multiplied in recent years, the schools are mostly poorly equipped, and the proportion of residents with a migration background is 47 percent.
The dubious reputation as the republic’s burning glass is also the reason why the mayors of Neukölln are the only local governors who are also known in Villingen. Giffey became famous for clear words masked by the oddly sugary sound of her voice. And to this day we also know Heinz Buschkowsky, her teacher, the SPD Bollerkopp, who liked to bang on the table and attract attention with pithy sayings. One stuck: “Multikulti has failed!”
Martin Hikel, who became mayor because another – Education City Councilor Christopher Rämer – was caught drinking and driving, adopts a softer tone, but continues the line of his predecessors. “I’m not the lanky Buschkowsky, nor the manly Giffey,” he says. “I’m a different guy, but we have similar ideas.” On the one hand, these ideas are about making it clear to young people that becoming a criminal is not attractive, he explains.
Hikel himself taught math and politics at a school in the tranquil Berlin-Zehlendorf district before taking up office in Neukölln. They would rather invest more in schools, day-care centers and educators instead of increasing child benefits, he says. “Education is the top priority, that was also one of the great Buschkowsky mantras.”
Another focus that he shares with his predecessors is the fight against organized crime. “Whoever gives a damn about the rule of law is dealing with the rule of law,” says Hikel. That’s partly true, the judiciary in Berlin is considered mercilessly overloaded. But in order to give his embassy a face, Hikel regularly goes on “patrols”, as they call them, with the police, public order office and other authorities. The bars and shops searched often belong to members of so-called clans, i.e. family structures with an Arab, Kurdish or Turkish migration history.
Names like Al-Zein, Chahrour, Miri, Abou-Chaker or Remmo are primarily associated with human and drug trafficking, extortion, theft or fraud. Some clans are estimated to have a few hundred members, others up to a thousand. The families usually operate nationwide or across national borders.
Critics from the left describe Hikel’s patrols as “raids” and accuse him of racism. “75 to 80 percent of the shops in Neukölln are migrants,” he says and shrugs his shoulders. Critics from the right complain that the power of the clans continues to grow rampant and that the state has also lost control because of blind multicultural romance.
“It’s important to keep a cool head,” says Hikel. But that’s not easy in a city that fails not only because of airport construction, but also because of the simplest administrative process. When the Constitutional Court announced on November 16 that the Berlin parliamentary elections and the election of the twelve Berlin district councils had to be repeated, that meant foreign shame for non-Berliners – and a lot of work for the Berlin authorities.
So that the election does not descend into chaos again, civil servants must now switch to the electoral office. And since New Year’s Eve at the latest, Martin Hikel has had to work harder. Because the polls look bad and his party is worried that the mood will continue to change.
In the meantime, Heinz Buschkowsky, who has actually been retired for a long time, is also opposing his comrades. He recently made his only campaign appearance at Stefanie Bung’s citizens’ consultation hour. She is a CDU member of the House of Representatives and is a candidate in the bourgeois constituency of Schmargendorf-Wilmersdorf Süd. At the beginning of the event, the 44-year-old said there was no match between Buschkowsky and her.
About 30 people sit tightly packed in her office. Buschkowsky uses the opportunity to rail against the SPD and Giffey. His party has changed a lot in recent years – for the worse. Dealing with the election glitch – impossible! “It lacks every spark of insight. You have to show more size!” exclaims Buschkowsky.
Giffey also had to take responsibility for the riots on New Year’s Eve. Instead, she only talks about the fact that you have to take a better look in the future. “Dear Governing Mayor, don’t you realize that you’re talking about yourself?” asks Buschkowsky. He doesn’t think more space for youngsters would improve anything. “They don’t do it out of boredom or for fun and frolics. They do it because they feel satisfied. It’s part of their culture.”
Meanwhile, the mayor tries to counteract this every day. In the Red Town Hall she invited to a “summit against youth violence”. Almost a third of those arrested on New Year’s Eve were under 25. Giffey announces more millions for social work. She speaks of more intensive work with parents’ homes, stronger extracurricular youth welfare and consistent criminal prosecution.
She says: “The young people we are mostly talking about here are Berlin children”. But the day before she was grilled on the talk show by Sandra Maischberger and finally said, audibly annoyed: “Yes, the perpetrators were a very, very large proportion with a migration background, you have to say that very clearly.”
On this gray January day, Martin Hikel tried a lot to refute prejudices. After the sports bar and the youth club, he drove back to the town hall. A telephone appointment with a journalist is pending. Again he has to comment on the riots. Even if it turned out a few days after New Year’s Eve that of the 44 attacks against emergency services, only four were attributable to Neukölln and the others took place somewhere else in the 3.7 million metropolis, a political consequence is already clear today : Should Franziska Giffey lose the election, the beginning and end of her career will have a single name: Neukölln.
Poverty, violence, neglect – Neukölln is just the beginning