Black Lives Matter activist David Hailey. Photo by Karolina Spolniewski
Disillusioned by the politics in their home country, more and more expats from the US are voicing their dissidence here in Berlin. We spoke with two different generations to see how they were coping.
“In America, we have this weird superiority complex. We’re in a country built by genocide and slavery – that’s not just some black militant screaming in Times Square; this is literally how we were built. And we think we’re superior.”
The words sound eerily grave coming from 32-year-old David Hailey, a good-natured comedian and start-up employee with a billowing Afro who was cracking jokes and grinning just moments ago while sitting on the banks of Kreuzberg’s Landwehrkanal. He is usually upbeat and buoyant, but the California-born Black Lives Matter activist gets serious when anyone brings up American politics.
He’s unabashed when it comes to reciting the failings of his home country: an idolisation of consumer culture, economic disparities and, most important of all, a violent tradition of gaping racial inequalities. The political dissonance he feels has become the main reason Hailey, who came to Europe at age 19 for college, has decided to make a life abroad.
As an African-American, Hailey has spent a lot of time thinking about America’s troublesome relationship with race, and that’s only intensified since coming here. He admits that European countries have their own issues with race, but he still feels the approach is more progressive – especially in Berlin. “In your day-to-day, you don’t feel different as a black person here. And it’s a luxury as a black person living in the West to feel like you can be you – in the US, you’re not seen as an individual,” he explains. He also adds that police aggression doesn’t exist in Berlin the way it does in America: “I feel safer here. The cops aren’t going to shoot me in Germany,” he says.
Though he’s been settled in Berlin since 2013, when he took a job at recruiting start-up Webcrowd, he always keeps close tabs on what’s happening back home. He began paying special attention around 2013, when reports of police brutality began reverberating in news cycles. Hailey observed quietly at first, thinking that violence against African-Americans was “nothing new” in the United States. Still, in 2014, after a jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown, Hailey remembers feeling outraged. On Facebook, he noticed a few friends were organising a Black Lives Matter protest outside Berlin’s US embassy. He arrived excitedly, only to find a meek crew of about five people gathered awkwardly. One woman held a small picture of Michael Brown. Someone lit a candle, then blew it out. It felt pathetic. But at least he’d made an effort.
The urge to increase those efforts grew more intense as the names of dead black people piled up in headlines from the US: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling. Hailey started emailing friends, angrier each time, and organising Black Lives Matter rallies in Berlin. He helped corral more than 200 people for a protest on Hermannplatz on July 10, where he was moved to find that supporters weren’t just American; many were from Germany and other parts of Europe. The Black Lives Matter message seems to resonate in Berlin especially, and he says that it helps raise the profile of the movement. Here, he can wear his disillusionment on his sleeve and engage anyone he meets in conversation about the pitfalls of the United States.
And he’s not the only one. In an era of growing poverty, police brutality, and wars abroad, combined with Obama disillusionment and less-than-ideal candidates on both sides of the two-party electoral spectrum, many Americans living in Berlin feel ill at ease with their country. Some, like Hailey, organise demonstrations. Others, like Richard and Ellen Rosen, turn to a quieter but no less effective form of resistance.
Both Jewish and in their seventies, the Rosens lived and worked in Boston before their progressive politics brought them to Berlin in 2009. They had wanted to retire in a more “socialist-leaning country”, and Richard wanted to be closer to the continent because he was curious about how the European Union was evolving. He also wanted to examine how Germany’s attitudes toward the Jewish community had changed since WWII. After considering language barriers in Europe, the Rosens felt that Berlin had a mix of history and culture they could settle comfortably into and purchased a home in Prenzlauer Berg’s Husemannstraße.
Don’t let the beautiful, massive flat fool you: “We’ve been radical through and through,” Richard jokes. The couple met at Camp Webatuck, a left-leaning retreat founded to promote liberal values in kids. Before working as a professor of sociology at Massachusetts’ Nichols College, Ellen was an activist who marched on Washington in 1963 and joined women’s conciousness groups. Richard was a member of the civil rights group SNCP as a student at MIT and dedicated his career to energy policy.
But their optimism began waning in the 1980s under Reagan, and they’ve only grown more frustrated with America since then. “When we were younger, we were hopeful things would change, but it seems like things are neglected,” Ellen says. “The US is an empire that’s reached its limit. It’s gone down and keeps going slowly downward. The army is much too big, and more money just keeps being spent on it.”
The couple reads the International New York Times every morning, and they find themselves disappointed with what they see. They question President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and ability to work with Republicans. Ellen blames political gridlock, but Richard is far more critical: “When he first came in office, he said he would try to work with Republicans and get more moderate things through. He was completely unrealistic... he was naïve,” he says. And with the upcoming election, the pair, who supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign, has gotten increasingly disillusioned. “In Massachusetts, if you vote for Trump or Hillary, it’s not much of a difference,” Ellen says. They talk about Trump being an embarrassment, but they’re not happy with Clinton either. Whether with Iraq, Libya or Syria, and in her approach to the Ukraine crisis, “she just seems to be gung-ho on war – she’s too confrontational,” Richard says, pointing out that both he and Ellen were active in the anti-war movement in their student days. “We’ve been on the left since we were born, certainly since the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.”
Their radical ways have mellowed with age, but not their convictions: “Now we have more money and less energy,” Richard says. Although they do make it out to the occasional demo (like the one against the EU-US TTIP trade deal in September), they mostly try to provoke change directly from their sunny Prenzlauer Berg apartment. Their approach is to lend both financial and volunteer support to organisations that align with their beliefs, like climate change research, worker’s rights and social equality. Ellen has been an active member of the Massachusetts Bail Fund, designed to help post bail for people who can’t afford it themselves, and is working on a biography about Frances Perkins, the US Secretary of Labor who established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers and was an initiating force behind Social Security. Richard, meanwhile, continues to lecture on energy policy. Berlin is an especially good place to be, he says. “German culture seems far more interested in energy alternatives.”
The couple has also found community here. They are involved with American Voices Abroad, a group of Berlin expats who came together during the Iraq War to “promote peace, oppose wars of aggression by the United States, and take action toward these ends in relation to US policy.” These days, their demographic skews older, and they function primarily as a discussion group. They’re currently making efforts to attract the attention of younger Americans living in Berlin.
The Rosens return home to Boston frequently, but Richard says it hasn’t made their views on the US any less critical. In fact, his forecast is bleak – but that’s nothing new. “Our opposition has spanned over 50 years, so Trump and this election is just another little wrinkle,” he says. “To me, being pessimistic about the United States is being realistic.”