“My aim to come to Europe was to further my education. Not to be selling or be in this scene,” Patrick says, waving off the benches of Senegalese and Gambians weed dealers lounging around Görlitzer Park.
“I’m getting older every day of my life. If I continue to be in this park, as time goes on, either I end up in prison or I go back home. I can’t help nobody else,” he explains of his prospects in Berlin where immigrants have alarming difficulty integrating into society or attaining higher education.
“If they would give us opportunities to work or to study, I don’t think nobody would be here selling drugs.”
He wears a white tank top, beads with an Africa pendant, sunglasses and crisp white sneakers. He’s 26. He’s from Gambia, a small West African country where almost a third of the population live below the international poverty line, earning below $1.25 a day. He smiles big, then blanches when I suggest we use his real first name. No, let’s call him “Patrick.”
Patrick moved to Berlin two years ago on an Italian residence visa, but was unable to find work, so he started selling weed in the park.
“I want to pick up the phone and call my family and say ‘I’m studying. I’m making a better future now. I’m working really normal job.’ Something clean, so they know that I’m safe, I’m cool,” he says. “That’s what I want my family to hear. You can’t tell them that you’re selling drugs. You can’t do that; they don’t know how Europe is. Some of the people in Africa, they believe that money grows on trees.”
Görlitzer Park sprawls six blocks in Berlin’s popular Kreuzberg neighborhood, bracketed by the elevated U1 line of the U-Bahn, and the canal. Görli’s recent history mirrors the city’s. Built in the 1860’s, the Görlitzer Bahnhof train hub was damaged in WWII, resurrected, abandoned, replaced with the Wall in 1961, then occupied by an anarchist art commune after being relegated to storage for several decades.
The area has experienced a rebirth since the early ‘90s, and is now populated by a wide variety of recovering club kids, punks, day drinkers, drifters, families and children. Its grounds include an indoor swimming pool, soccer field, popular bar/music hall, a children’s petting zoo and, on any given day, hundreds of roving weed dealers.
“I would not even come here with my family because I know what kind of life is going on here,” Patrick remarks, surveying the benches. “It’s not nice to come to a park where people are selling drugs. And a lot of drugs.”
Mothers push strollers, kids push bikes. On the meadow, hundreds of 20-somethings spread out blankets, barbecue and drink beer. At the gated entrances, and in the surrounding woods, Senegalese and Gambian immigrants mingle, call out to passersby, bikers and joggers, then discretely disappear into the trees with their clientele.
The park appears relatively safe, although a French woman was stabbed to death by a Senegalese man she attempted to buy speed from in 2011, and there have been increasing reports of violence between the dealers. A barista in a local coffee shop tells me he saw a dealer get his ear hacked off with a machete a few months back.
“It’s safe, if you’re a tourist. They might give you some shit weed, but to get robbed or people take stuff from you, no,” Patrick claims. “They [the weed dealers] don’t want to get trouble.”
According to Patrick, the park maintains its own order. There are no gang leaders. The dealers are essentially self-employed, avoiding the routine presence of police and servicing customers in strict alternating order, though he admits that at times violence does occur.
“I’m in a cue. You sell, then I sell, then the other guy sell. Then I say, ‘No, that’s my friend, I know him. He call me. Why he don’t call you?’” Patrick says, illustrating a typical dispute. “This discussion gets longer, then your heart get explode, then people start fighting. Some of them come with knives, some with pepper spray, some of them with their bottles. They smoke too much and then they drink alcohol, then they get aggressive and do some other stuff, like undone stuff, you know?”
Although Patrick bemoans the scarcity of work and impossibility of education, which have forced him into the park, selling weed can be admittedly lucrative.
“Some people take a packet and sell it little by little, it depensd on the kind of customer you meet,” he explains. “Sometime you meet a customer who don’t know about this thing and you can just sell him something worth 50€ for 100€. It depends on your luck. Sometimes you can get 100€ or 200€, on the best day. You don’t have to break off someone, that’s yours.”
I spoke with several other dealers in the park — Abdullah, Holiday (“everyday”), Marcos — attempting to understand how things work, what rules they govern themselves by. They shied away, responded vaguely, preferred only to discuss how much weed I would like to buy. One of them offered to rent me his apartment.
Patrick was introduced to me by a close friend of his girlfriend’s, a German girl whom he met after being arrested in the park for selling weed.
They have since moved in together, and he no longer sells in the park. He’s learning German, and hopes ultimately to enter a school and study international business. I never get a clear answer as to how he pays his bills.
“I used to be here before, almost everybody here knows me. I used to make business with people here. I realized that, no, this is not the right place for me,” he says, of his departure from the park. “I don’t want to do this thing. My aim is to study. I’m still young and I have the possibility to make a better future. To make a normal life like people living.”
He speaks with a smooth, British lilt, detached, describing his arrest, inability to find “clean work” and subsequent depression as if they took place in a previous life.
“Sometimes I think I have to give up or I want to go home, or sometimes some strange things come to your mind. You get frustrated and depressed selling in this park,” he says.
“This selling of weed is like prostitution. At the end of the day you don’t get pride in what you get. You lose pride in yourself. You don’t get respect, all you get is a lot of problems. It’s the last thing somebody needs to do. It’s really the last thing.”
It’s dusk, and a lot of the dealers are heading out.
A Gambian in a soccer jersey whistles by on a bike. Patrick gives several people pounds, cracks jokes. They’re fond of him. He clearly hasn’t been around.
I ask him why the Berlin government doesn’t offer an alternative to drug offenders, some kind of work program to keep people from selling in the park.
“That’s the question I’m asking myself every day. The Government could give possibility to people to work,” he says.
“You put him in prison, that doesn’t help. He’s going to do it again. Why not put give him a job possibility whereby in the end of the month he will get something better? He’s here because he don’t get any possibility for a life, for a living. What else can he do? Some people even attempt to do murder for a living because there’s no other way they can do it.”
Hands slap. People gather around mini speakers, kick it to passing girls. It feels like it could be anywhere. Patrick’s friends appear to be in good spirits, despite the fact that a police van looms at the entrance of the park, looking like a neon mausoleum.
“Every day of life the police have to come here and chase people away,” he says with a sigh, explaining that the park’s dealers face arrest or deportation, yet they still deal in the open. “The boys run because they have weed on them. With that weed they have to make a living. They cannot just see the police and throw it away, they run with it or they hide it somewhere. If you are unlucky, when you hide it somewhere people steal it.”
I ask Patrick what he thinks about rappers from the U.S., people who glorify dealing drugs. He says he identifies with the messages, even if he thinks selling drugs should be a last resort. “There are some moments whereby you need money, and you want to work for it, but you don’t have the possibility to work for it. The only thing to do is to sell drugs. There are some situations, you work, all hopes are gone. What you should do is to Get Rich or Die Trying, innit?”
Despite his response, his practices more closely resemble the initiatives of ’50s later career.
“I send money from here to Africa. Even though I don’t get possibility to go to school here, I do that,” he explains. “I do that because my circumstances make me. If I can help people, then I help.”
It’s fully dark now. Our friends have left us on the benches. My intention was to learn how the dealers in the park were organized, but our conversation took a turn.
I ask Patrick about his ideal day.
“The happiest day in life is like… I feel happy when I wake up in the morning. I say goodbye to my girlfriend. I’m going to school. I’m learning, you know? She knows that I’m going to school, and then I sit in the classroom, and learn something. I feel happy to wake up in the morning and do something positive. Not to wake up and do something illegal or crazy, not to have to worry.”