Ausgabe 19/2006

Robin Hood or Robbery? Lefty Activists Plunder Gourmet Shop

German left-wing activists dressed up as superheroes have been plundering gourmet stores and posh restaurants in Hamburg. They say they're defending the poor like a modern day Robin Hood would. The police have few leads.

By in Hamburg

Activists disguised as superheroes plunder a gourmet store in Hamburg on Apr. 28, 2006.

Activists disguised as superheroes plunder a gourmet store in Hamburg on Apr. 28, 2006.

The Goedeken food shop on Hamburg's Grosse Elb street is considered a mecca for the city's wealthy gourmets. It draws professional caterers, Tim Malzer -- Germany's equivalent of English TV chef Jamie Oliver -- and plenty of well-heeled hobby cooks decked out in full yuppie regalia.

But two weeks ago, some unusual guests showed up. A horde of young people, dressed up as strange comic book heroes, stormed the store and dragged away cartloads of delicacies -- without paying, that is. Instead of money, the baffled cashier was handled a bouquet of flowers. Then the unwanted visitors posed for a picture and rushed off. The police sent 14 patrol cars and a helicopter, but the culprits were long gone.

It wasn't the first time such a raid has taken place in the northern German city. For years, these kinds of activities, intended as protests against the unequal distribution of wealth, have been taking place in Hamburg, which is one of Germany's wealthier places. The lefty activists believe growing social inequality is reason enough to justify their actions. "They feel like Robin Hood," speculates Hamburg police official Bodo Franz. But just like Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, Franz hasn't been able to find out much more about the mysterious group.

Up to 30 people are involved in the heists, but they operate in a highly clandestine manner, enabling them to escape capture so far. This time they picked the luxury supermarket on the banks of the Elbe River, located in a part of the city that recent years have transformed from a drab commercial zone to a hip and expensive neighborhood. Fish markets, sailors' homes and watering holes have given way to swank restaurants and luxurious lofts.

The activists also do their homework. They knew exactly which products were best and the most costly at the shop. "They already had full shopping carts and baskets waiting to be picked up," says store manager Carsten Sievers. Their booty included venison, gourmet chocolate, Kobe beef filets and bottles of champagne priced €99,53 ($126.30) each.

Kobe beef from Japan is a connoisseur specialty. Presumably, many of the epicurean activists envy the cows for the life they lead before being slaughtered. Kobe calves are nourished with beer and massaged for between one and two hours a day -- thereby ensuring that the meat becomes especially tender. The price for two pounds of Kobe beef can be as high as a monthly welfare check.

Spider Mum fights the Man

The "superhero" activists, who sign their communiqués with names like "Spider Mum" or "Santa Guevara," claim to be acting in solidarity with welfare recipients and others on the down-and-out side of society. They claim their activities are carried out with an eye to those working under "precarious" conditions, and that they are fighting to improve the situation of the "networked perennial intern," the "homeless cleaning woman" and those "who get workfare instead of job training." The note the activists left in the plundered Hamburg gourmet paradise said that "surviving in the city of millionaires requires superhuman abilities."

German authorities consider the activists part of a loosely organized group calling itself "Hamburg For Free." In past years, members of the group attracted public attention by distributing flyers with tips for avoiding subway fares or sneaking into cinemas with counterfeit tickets. They come "from student backgrounds and from the fringe of the leftist movement," police investigator Franz suspects. "They want to have their fun, but with a political twist."

"Die fetten Jahren sind vorbei" (The Fat Years Are Over) was the smug slogan on a banner the activists displayed in a restaurant in Hamburg's posh Blankenese neighborhood a year ago -- a nod to the same-named 2005 German film (released as The Edukators in English-speaking countries). The restaurant's piqued guests looked on as the activists cleared the buffet, holding up oversized cardboard cutlery as they did so. In the movie, young, idealistic people undertook similar fun-guerilla missions that toyed with the bourgeois parts of society.

An experienced investigator can't help chuckling when he hears about such activities. "They're willing to take risks," he says respectfully. Criticism of the activism tends rather to come from within the left-wing scene. In one Internet forum a leftist accuses the activists of not behaving in an even remotely anti-capitalist manner: "They're just begging for regulated exploitation under standard employment conditions."

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