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In Berlin, "Civil Disobedience For A Better Europe"

The Peng Collective of artist activists has been raising awareness and "filing down the teeth of civil society" by tackling pollution, data protection, denuclearization and now refugee politics.

A Peng Collective ad in Berlin
A Peng Collective ad in Berlin

BERLIN — The show begins at 10 a.m. Ruben, a Peng Collective activist, is standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate wearing a black suit in the brutal heat. A TV reporter is interviewing him, and photographers are scurrying around them like ants. Behind Ruben is a dais with an EU flag and a photo of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whom Ruben notes is "sadly not present today." But, he goes on to say, "Today we present the European decoration for services to those who have helped refugees escape, as they committed a necessary and important act of civil disobedience to create a better Europe."

The group of Berlin activists is calling for people to drive refugees across European borders when vacationing abroad with a car. For civil disobedience "beginners," they say, this need not exceed the Schengen Area of open borders, but they would also welcome help for all who want to enter Europe. The collective calls that "help to escape," or Fluchthilfe in German.

But German law has another term for what Peng is calling on people to do, namely "alien smuggling." Those caught smuggling people without legal residence permits more than once or those caught smuggling more than one person across the German border in exchange for money must either serve jail time or pay a fine. Other European countries have harsher laws and punishments. So Peng's initiative teeters on the edge of legality.

"It would be nice if everyone could work together as part of a civil society to create a better world, rather than always building new walls that need to be overcome," says Lou, a Peng member.

Among Peng Collective's co-founders is Jean, who has more or less been the face of the artist activist group since it launched in December 2013, when he managed to infiltrate Shell's "Science Slam" event in Berlin and douse the stage in oil.

He has typically led these and other protests, but in keeping with the group's collective spirit, Ruben has taken charge of the refugee-smuggling campaign. A journalist, he has already accompanied independent relief transports into Turkey and was even arrested when he tried to report on the Kurdish protests.

The collective's posters and campaign videos are kept positive. The group's stylish website even offers concrete tips about how to organize Fluchthilfe. It has decided on a crowdfunding campaign, and any donations over 4,000 euros will be funneled into a special fund to provide legal aid to refugees. Donors will receive posters, stickers and jute bags in return for contributions. But Peng doesn't want to mediate directly between refugees and those who want to try to help them cross the border because that would be illegal.

The media love Peng

A few days after this meeting, another one is being held. Phones are constantly ringing in the background and the activists' excitement is palpable. Their refugee initiative is online, and radio stations and newspapers are taking note, embedding the video on their websites. An anonymous donor gives 10,000 euros on the very first day of the crowdfunding campaign.

The activists use pseudonyms when answering the phones to avoid prosecution should the wrong wording be chosen. Even though Peng's website clearly states that the organization and its members cover their tracks and keep their identities secret, journalists don't seem to find this interesting enough to report.

In fact, no journalist seems to be critical of the Peng Collective. Applause from the media greets their campaign. The only ones to post hateful comments are members of the anti-Islamisation group PEGIDA because they say Peng's campaign would cause "excessive foreign control." But even that, viewed in the right light, could be counted as applause. Where does all this support come from, though? Does the topic of refugees really tug that much on our heartstrings? Is the campaign that clever? Or are we all, deep down inside, just admirers of political art?

Political art

You don't even have to leave Berlin to find answers to these questions. Professor Karlheinz Lüdeking, a lecturer on aesthetics at the Berlin University of the Arts, leads seminars on such topics as Jay-Z's song "Picasso Baby." He brings along one of his students, 27-year-old Nils Fischer, to meet us because Lüdeking believes that "when it comes to topics such as these, it's not just the opinions of professors that are of interest."

While eating fruit salad, he muses that Peng's political art is reminiscent of the 1960s protest generation. But the art itself is different, much more constructive. "In the past, the aim was to topple the current system," he says. "Nowadays, the aim is to improve the system in place. A highly capitalistic thought, when you think about it. And in keeping with that, they often use advertisement aesthetics to convey their thoughts."

Fischer adds that "political art is gaining strength just because the system isn't working any longer. If you are searching for a place to feel secure, you have to create that place yourself. And that space can take the shape of a collective, for example."

Collective members are "part artist and part pop star," Lüdeking says. "That kind of art is also quite self-referential. These crises are only of interest to us because the borders that are being crossed are, all of a sudden, a lot closer than was previously the case."

In Fischer's opinion, "It's a good thing when collectives are highlighting these structures of thought and that they encourage us to take them down together. These were ideals that were long lost, after all."

But Lüdeking isn't so sure. He speculates that many people may feel societal pressure not to speak out against collectives such as Peng because they fear saying publicly "that it's all just a lot of rubbish."

People are responding

Already, 18 people have contacted Peng about helping refugees cross borders, and as of this writing, eight have already done so. That's why they are receiving the symbolic honor for service at the Brandenburg Gate. Only a handful of tourists look on as a huge gaggle of journalists records the event. A Peng activist is giving a laudatory speech, honoring a Greek woman named Dora who spontaneously decided to take two men, two women — one of whom was pregnant — and several infants across the island of Lesbos to the nearest police station so that they could register themselves.

If Dora hadn't driven them, they would have had to walk 65 kilometers to reach the police station. Even though she didn't cross any borders, she was jailed overnight for her actions.

Dora steps forward on the dais to receive her decoration. The cameras click away as the journalists take pictures of her, and those present can't help but get goose bumps.

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