No VWs for this gang: Bicycling arsonists in Berlin target Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches

A gang of about 50 masked left-wing extremists on bicycles torched or trashed nearly 50 luxury cars over the weekend in attacks to protest gentrification of the once-low-rent districts near the center of the German capital.

The attacks just after midnight on Saturday and Sunday mornings caused an estimated $1.1 million in damage and left behind the smoldering remains of 48 Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches. Some of the masked attackers smashed the windows of the cars; others threw plastic containers with flammable materials through the broken windows.

“We're not going to let this left-wing mob take over our streets,” said Berlin's Interior Minister, Frank Henkel, who vowed the city would do everything in its power to stop the “street terror” before the arsonists struck again. “The horrifying images show that these left-wing anarchists are bent on destruction and have no respect for private property.”

There have been isolated cases in the past of expensive cars being set on fire in Berlin, a city with a thriving counterculture where rents were once extremely low. They have been rising steadily in recent years, and the attacks on cars — about 250 are set on fire each year — are seen as political statements against gentrification.

A peak was reached in 2011, when more than 400 luxury cars were set on fire. But never before had there been such a coordinated and massive attack as this weekend.

This weekend's attacks came in areas where rents have soared and property prices have skyrocketed more than five-fold in recent years to as much as $615 per square foot. Many squatters live in areas near the attacks. Last month, 500 police raided one of the largest buildings occupied by squatters after some of the residents had attacked and injured riot police. The illegal occupants are still there.

A left-wing group calling itself the Social Democratic People’s Bicycle Commando claimed responsibility for the arson attacks. “We wanted to remove the windows from the luxury cars and scrap them the warm way,” the group said in its statement.

Many left-wingers in Berlin, where squatting has a long and vibrant tradition, feel they are entitled to defend their way of living and that burning the luxury cars will scare away yuppies and wealthy investors.

The vandalism recalled an arson attack on four car dealerships in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley in 2003. A Caltech graduate student was convicted of arson in the attacks, which damaged about 125 vehicles valued at nearly $5 million. He said he was protesting the auto industry’s contribution to pollution.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent

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