My article about Irmela Mensah-Schramm, a Berlin woman who's spent the past thirty years altering and removing rightwing graffiti in Germany, came out in the Financial Times today. Although I wrote in the article about the challenges that Irmela faces in the course of her missions, I didn't have the opportunity to describe the encounters that I personally witnessed during the afternoon I spent with her, and how she responded to altercations with irate bystanders and with the police (spoiler alert: she responded with nothing short of sheer badassery).
I met Irmela in Zehlendorf, an upper-class former-West neighborhood, all villas and apartment blocks hastily erected in the 1950s to accommodate the American military members living near the airbase there. She's a short woman with white bobbed hair, glasses, and a canvas tote bag on which she's written "Gegen Nazis" (against Nazis) in Sharpie. She immediately brought me and my husband Nate (the photographer) to a scrawled marker pen message on a column in a walkway next to the subway station: "Islamismus muss raus." (Islamism must go). Smiling and chatting, Irmela brandished her own pen and changed the graffiti to say "Islamophobia must go." To tackle another "Islamismus muss raus" on a nearby street sign, she clambered up on a cement wall. "Not bad for a seventy-year-old, eh?" she said, grinning.While Irmela was removing and altering these Sharpied messages, I noticed she was attracting dirty looks from several of the people passing through the walkway. She ignored them, for the most part, rolling her eyes at me when she received one particularly foul grimace.
Once she'd finished with the anti-Islam graffiti, Irmela asked us to take the bus with her to another part of Zehlendorf, where she'd heard someone had spray painted "Merkel muss weg" (Merkel must go, a rightwing slogan) on a cement wall. En route, she showed us a stack of photographs of all the graffiti she'd found lately, as well as pictures of her cats and pictures of her favorite flowers she'd seen that spring.
We hopped off the bus on the side of a road running parallel to the highway leading out of Berlin. The road cut through one of the birch and red-pine forests on the city's western edge, with high-rise apartment buildings along one side. On the far side of the highway, we could see the now-decommissioned checkpoint that had divided West Berlin from East Germany in the days of the wall.
Irmela pulled out her pink spray can and bent to work. She explained that she was changing "Merkel muss weg" to "Merke! Hass muss weg!" (Remember! Hate must go!) But while she worked, a middle-aged man in a black jacket appeared from the park around the high-rise apartment building. "What are you doing?" he asked her. He threatened to call the police. He aggressively asked me who I was, why I was taking notes, why Nate was taking pictures. He threatened her.
And she did not care.
She told him to call the police. "They know who I am," she proclaimed. She waved him off, kept spraying. Another woman pulled off the highway to scream at us and take pictures, presumably for evidence. Unfazed, Irmela finished what she was doing and led us into a pedestrian tunnel under the highway off-ramp. As we walked through, she noticed another, "Merkel muss weg" on the cement wall. She pulled out her spray can.
Then the police officer showed up.
He asked what we were doing, why we were vandalizing the tunnel. He took all of our identification cards (Irmela threw hers on the ground at his feet instead of handing it to him). He escorted us out of the tunnel. He told me that it angered him personally that Irmela had defaced the tunnel, since it's very expensive to clean off graffiti. "Then where were you when this said 'Merkel muss weg?'" Irmela shouted at him.
The officer called for back-up, two younger officers in a car. Nate texted four of our friends: "We are about to be arrested. Call us in an hour to make sure we're not in jail." After some confusion, some frenzied radioed conversations, the older officer left, leaving his two colleagues to deal with us.
And over the course of the next ten minutes, I watched Irmela completely and utterly charm them.
She showed them her photographs of the graffiti she had defaced. She pushed them, kindly but firmly, into saying what they thought of each of the defacements. "Should I have vandalized this slogan?" she asked. "How about this swastika? What do you think? Come on, you agree with me, don't you?" I watched the officers' body language relax into sympathy and identification. "All right, personally, I agree with you," one of them finally conceded. "I just have to do my job."
They eventually let all of us go, but told Irmela they would have to send her a fine in the mail. We climbed on the bus to the next subway station, Irmela excited but unfazed. She grabbed both our hands and squeezed tight before we caught the train back to East Berlin and home.
Over the course of the summer, Irmela and I stayed in touch as I finished the article; she told me about the other graffiti she's found, the "Fuck Asyl" (fuck asylum seekers), the new "Merkel must go," the swastikas and the 88, which is a neo-Nazi symbol for the Heil Hitler salute.
Germany is, for obvious reasons, a country that understands the dangers of the creeping and insidious power of fascist and xenophobic discourse. "Citizens! Do not allow the intellectual and soulful climate of our country to once again become poisoned by right-wing nationalist ideology!" read a sign outside an art school in Dresden that I saw earlier that spring. Germany also understands the power of stickers, stamps and other ephemera to influence public opinion and political discourse; I learned about Irmela in the first place at an exhibit at the German History Museum about that very subject. Irmela is an example of someone who understands all of this and who long ago decided that she cared more about shaping this discourse than about following the law or even her own personal safety. She refuses to take the safe road, to defer to any authority other than her own system of graffiti removal and alteration that she designed thirty years ago. She started seeing these symbols, and now, she can't stop.