The anti-addicts

In the shadow of Berlin’s reputation as a drug-fuelled party mecca stands a sizeable community of substance-free, straight edgers. Don't be fooled by mainstream juice fasters or trendy vegans – these punks have a political agenda.

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Photo by Francesca Torricelli

In the shadow of Berlin’s reputation as a drug-fuelled party mecca stands a sizeable community of substance-free, straight edgers – and yes, they’re “still doing that”.

Spiky punk blares through the dimly lit basement of Rigaer Straße 94, a longtime Friedrichshain squat with a history of being stormed by the police. The red walls are plastered with typical lefty paraphernalia: anti-Nazi stickers, the anarcho-punk A, posters for animal rights demonstrations. The crowd – mostly tattooed twenty- and thirty-somethings – huddles at the bar. What are they drinking? Fritz-Kola.

Welcome to one of this city’s straight edge meetups, a monthly gathering of Berliners aligned with a label that has its roots in the American punk and hardcore scene of the 1980s, when bands like Minor Threat and Government Issue preached an ascetic lifestyle as the ultimate rebellion. Straight edgers in Berlin tend to be vegan, and they’re also tightly knit with anti-fascist and animal-rights groups – all par for the course here. It’s their hard line on substances – no drugs, no tobacco, no alcohol – that makes them stand out in Germany’s famously beer-swilling, pill-popping, cigarette-rolling capital.

The power of the label

Evey Lin, 32, estimates the Rigaer Straße meetup draws about 30 people each month. “In Berlin, it can be hard to find a place that’s smoke-free,” she says. Lin has been straight edge for 10 years. In her early twenties, she booked hardcore bands at a bar in her hometown in Austria, an experience that exposed her to the straight edge community – and tested her patience with drunken hordes. She’d never been a heavy drinker, but didn’t like relying on alcohol to reduce her inhibitions. “And since I come from the punk movement,” she adds, “where everybody is so shocked when you say you don’t drink, it feels super punk not to drink.”

Hagen Freyheit, 28, likewise found his way to straight edge through punk and hardcore, but he also flirted with the kind of short-term puritan experimentation popular today, spending a month here and there as a vegan teetotaler. It took a while to embrace the “straight edge” stamp. But for Freyheit – wearing a denim vest emblazoned with a Hello Kitty patch and a button reading “I’m a feminist and I riot” – the label became a way to quickly and clearly communicate his beliefs. Foregoing alcohol and drugs isn’t just a way to keep his mind clear, but to protest those industries. Being vegan isn’t about having clear skin or a healthy gut, but a statement against animal cruelty. Hardcore and punk provide an important bedrock – and Berlin has a handful of straight-edge bands, chief among them X Walk Away X and La Linea Negra – but it goes beyond music for Freyheit. “For me, it’s all connected,” he says. “It wouldn’t be straight edge if it’s not vegan or not political. It has to be more meaningful.”

Lin and Freyheit admit living in a substance-free bubble makes it easy to forget about the druggier, sloppier sides of the city. “I don’t go out much,” Lin says. “Living in Friedrichshain, it’s crazy on the weekends, but I hardly ever see it. My Berlin is full of parks and lectures and other things that end at eight o’clock at night.”

The musician in the middle

Not all straight edgers are isolated from the party scene. Nico Webers (photo), a musician and DJ who grew up in Berlin, has little choice but to be around it: Berlin has no devoted straight edge venues, so he wouldn’t be able to book gigs otherwise. He’s also one of the sole straight edgers in his social circle. But Webers, who’s been straight edge since age 17 – he spent his mid-teens stealing Jack Daniels from the supermarket and was thrown out of school at age 15 for punching a teacher he says espoused Nazi views – says it doesn’t feel incongruous to be straight edge in Berlin, and that the drugs and alcohol are neither bothersome nor tempting. (Though he could do without the smoky clubs, particularly when singing.) “That’s just part of it,” says Webers, a slim 36-year-old with an orange octopus tattoo creeping up his neck. “I love going to Berghain, where the drug use is extreme, but it doesn’t matter to me. You’re autonomous, you’re anonymous. Anarchy rules, and everyone can do what they want.”

Having been straight edge for 20 years, Webers has seen societal perceptions evolve. Fifteen years ago, people asked if it was a sect. Now it’s a socially acceptable term – even if people sometimes get a little laugh out of it, or if American bands express surprise that he’s “still doing that”.

Radical cupcakes

London transplant Caro Berry runs Minor Treat, a “hardcore vegan baking unit”. For the past year, Berry has been churning out chocolate-orange brownies, coconut-lemon cupcakes and peanut butter blondies on a pop-up basis – at hardcore concerts, for example, or at a “queer fat femme” clothing swap in February.

Although Berry’s website proudly proclaims Minor Treat is “anarchist, feminist, queer and straight edge”, Berry, 32 – who identifies as genderqueer and pansexual, and asked that gendered pronouns not be used – is “gravitating away” from the straight edge label. “I used it initially to make clear to others what I do or don’t participate in, as well as what people can expect from Minor Treat, but I’ve since discovered many problems with it.”

Chief among them, according to Berry, are tendencies in the straight edge scene toward misogyny, homophobia, queerphobia and transphobia. Slurs, Berry says, are common. Berry sings in the straight-edge band La Linea Negra and recalls being approached by a man after a concert at the Köpi squat in Mitte: “He said, ‘Great show, good music, but leave the talking to the boys.’”

Berry also isn’t interested in riding on the coattails of the new strain of puritanism hitting Berlin – the juice fasters and trendy vegans. Lin agrees, tsk-ing at the buzz that builds each time a new vegan joint opens in Kreuzberg. “This hype feels like it’s about being healthy, not about being political,” she says. “Straight edge is an alternative to the mainstream, and these are still very mainstream people. They’re totally missing the subculture connection.”

Originally published in issue #138, May 2015.