A German grandmother is fighting hate with nail-polish remover, a scraper and spray paint.
Irmela Schramm, 70, spray-paints hearts over neo-Nazi and racist graffiti in Berlin. Schramm, who describes herself as “polit-putze” or a “political cleaner,” has been doing this for 30 years.
“I have a strong appreciation for human dignity,” Schramm told The New York Times. “When I see someone’s dignity being hurt, I feel it myself.”
She got the inspiration for her mission decades ago, when she spotted a flyer supporting Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess in a local bus stop. When she saw that it remained on her way home from work, she got out her keys and scratched it off. It made her feel better.
Since then, Schramm has spent about 17 hours a week searching train stations, supermarket parking lots and playgrounds across Germany and six other countries, on the hunt for hate graffiti. She carries her supplies in a canvas bag that boasts the handwritten message: “Against Nazis.” When she finds something objectionable, she’s armed and ready.
When caught by law enforcement, she usually is let off with a gentle warning. In October, though, police threatened her with a $1,875 fine for defacing public property if she continues her crusade.
She said she’s been assaulted three or four times. But she’s also been hugged by strangers.
She estimates that she has removed or painted over more than 130,000 signs and stickers — and she has the receipts to back up the claim.
Stickers are the biggest form of expression for bigots. Schramm told CNN stickers are easy to slap on a street sign without anyone seeing or knowing who put it there.
When Schramm spots an offensive sticker, she takes a photograph and scrapes it off. Sometimes, she marks the discovery in a notebook. Over the years, she has compiled an extensive collection of Germany’s radical-right graffiti. The German Historical Museum exhibited 80 binders of her collected material.
This hate has targeted many different groups. But since Germany accepted more than 890,000 asylum seekers in 2015, Schramm said the hate propaganda has shifted toward Syrian refugees and migrants.
“The threshold on the misuse of freedom of speech has deteriorated over the last few years,” Schramm told CNN. “I think it has now reached rock-bottom. People tell me I am intolerant, that I don’t respect the far-right’s freedom of speech. But I say: Freedom of speech has limits. It ends where hatred and contempt for humanity begins.”