Black Germans Say It’s Time to Look Inward

BERLIN — In June, when Jelisa Delfeld joined a Telegram channel to help organize a silent demonstration against racism in Stuttgart, Germany, she was one of fewer than two dozen members. The next day, that number grew to 100, and the following, about 1,000 people had joined the channel where the protest was being planned.

“When the video of George Floyd being killed came out, it was also shocking in Germany,” said Ms. Delfeld, 24. “Even though it happened in the U.S., it’s a Black man, and we’re Black. If there’s pain in our community, you can feel that pain everywhere.”

Over five days of Zoom meetings, calls and texts, this group of young strangers, most of whom had little experience in activism, organized a demonstration that brought between 7,000 and 10,000 people into the streets of Stuttgart, a city of roughly 620,000, on June 6.

The same day, thousands more people across Germany protested against racism and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, with police estimates of crowds reaching as high as 15,000 in Berlin, 25,000 in Munich and 14,000 in Hamburg. The numbers reflected an international galvanizing of protesters after the death of George Floyd.

Despite the overwhelming public show of solidarity in June and July, many activists in Germany said that Germans seemed more eager to support Americans than to look inward.

In the last few years, Germany has been criticized by the United Nations and the European Union for racial profiling and police violence. And while the country is known worldwide for its “culture of remembrance” around the Holocaust, German textbooks and mainstream history narratives largely ignore its colonial history. Many Black people in Germany say that they do not feel a sense of belonging, and that their presence here has been rendered practically invisible.

“The assumption is that if you’re Black, you are not, nor will you ever be, German,” said Angelo Camufingo, 28, one of the organizers of the group Black Lives Matter Berlin.

Part of it, many Black Germans say, has to do with a culture of denial around racial discrimination. “There was solidarity with the protesters,” said Julia Wissert, 36, the artistic director of the Dortmund Theater in western Germany, who, with a lawyer, developed an anti-racism clause for theater contracts in 2018. “At the same time, there is the imagined idea of racism being an American problem because America always had issues with racism due to slavery.”

Ms. Wissert described racism in Germany as a mist. “You can’t really see it if you stand in it, but you experience it if you stand in it because it makes you hyper-visible and invisible at the same time,” she said.

‘We Are Here’

Though Germany doesn’t maintain data on racial demographics because of the atrocities of the Nazi era, it does document where migrants arrive from. By that count, about one million of the country’s residents have roots in Africa, though the actual number is likely higher. Organizations that research Germany’s colonial history have traced the presence of people from the African continent as far back as the early 1700s.

“Black communities in Germany are so diverse,” said Siraad Wiedenroth, 33, who sits on the board of the Initiative for Black People in Germany, in a phone interview. “There are Black people here in the second, third and fourth generations. There are people who arrived 10 years ago via guest worker visas or to study, Black people here who sought refuge.”

Artists have worked to bring visibility to Germany’s nonwhite populations. Last year, working together with local youth, Ms. Wissert created a play in Bochum called “2069: The End of Others.” Experiences with racism came up repeatedly through stories her teenage collaborators told about their lives. “They know something is wrong, that they’re being treated differently,” she said.

Rhea Ramjohn, 36, one of the founders of Black Brown Berlin, a digital platform that connects Black and brown people, said: “The history of Black people in Europe and Germany is often a narrative that they were never here. We were never here. We just arrived here. We are all refugees.”

The platform showcases Black-owned businesses and produces anti-discrimination events. One of its projects is a series of portraits of Black and brown people along with their interpretation of the phrase “We Are Here.”

This summer, cultural institutions reached out to Black artists to commission work in response to the global unrest. Black Brown Berlin was approached in July by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a prominent museum in the capital, to produce a piece for a digital series on racism during the pandemic.

The result was a short film that pairs a spoken-word poem with visuals of dancers performing spontaneous movement in the Grunewald forest in Berlin, where Audre Lorde would walk with mentees and friends, including the activist May Ayim, during the years Ms. Lorde lived in Berlin. The poem includes references to the “mothers of the movement,” those whose Black children were killed by police, and “I can’t breathe,” a phrase that has taken on sharper significance during the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected people of color.

Femi Oyewole, 31, one of Black Brown Berlin’s founders, said that many of Germany’s demonstrations suggested that racism was “an American issue. Like, ‘Germany’s fine, we don’t have this issue.’ But people here were tired. What about people here in Germany who suffered at the hands of the police?”

Policing, Racial Profiling and Far-Right Violence

“When I was growing up and thinking about being Black, it was so shaped by the U.S.,” said Ciani-Sophia Hoeder, 30, a founder of RosaMag, an online lifestyle magazine for Black women in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

“Anti-Black racism was always something people thought the U.S. or U.K. or France have, but not Germany,” Ms. Hoeder said. “We don’t talk about police brutality.”

Some monitoring bodies have been trying to change that. In 2017, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent reported that while the German constitution guarantees equality and prohibits race-based discrimination, “it is not being enforced.” The report also said that the lives of people of African descent “are marked by racism, negative stereotypes and structural racism” as well as “racist violence and hate crimes.”

The report lists several examples of racial discrimination and violence that were not properly investigated, including the death of Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone who burned to death while tied to a bed in police custody in Dessau in 2005.

Since 2005, a group of friends and family has uncovered various inconsistencies in the police’s version of events surrounding his death. For example, Mr. Jalloh did not have a lighter with him when he was admitted, but one was found later in the fire rubble bag. An independent examination of Mr. Jalloh noted that he had fractures all over his body. The mattress he was tied to was fire resistant.

In 2018, the state parliament in Saxony-Anhalt tasked two investigators with re-examining the details of Mr. Jalloh’s death. This summer, Der Spiegel reported on the resistance the investigators have run into.

The report from the U.N. also described racial profiling in Germany as “endemic.” A report from the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance last year emphasized that in Germany, “though there is strong evidence for extensive racial profiling, numerous police services and representatives are unaware of or do not admit its existence.”

“We have no racism problem in the police here,” Thomas Blenke, the interior minister for the state of Baden-Württemberg said in a news release. Some politicians say that racial profiling does not exist in Germany because discrimination is banned by the constitution. But rules of police conduct allow police officers to stop and search people without suspicion in trains or in train stations all over the country or in “criminal hot spots.”

According to Die Zeit, Horst Seehofer, the minister of the interior, canceled a planned study into racial profiling because there is “no need” for it. (A spokesperson for the minister said that he commissioned a study on “right-wing extremism in security authorities” that will be completed this month.)

Mr. Seehofer recently criticized a new law in Berlin that allows people who have been discriminated against by representatives of “the state,” such as police officers, teachers and judges, to seek damages and compensation, calling it “basically madness,” in an interview with the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. He added that “there is no justification for questioning the integrity of our police officers in such a structural way.”

This summer, Mr. Seehofer, who is on a new government committee against right-wing extremism and racism, threatened to file a criminal complaint against Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, 28, a journalist who had written a satirical column that criticized the police after the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and abroad. Two German police unions filed lawsuits against Mx. Yaghoobifarah.

After pushback from various sources, including from a petition signed by more than 1,000 people, Mr. Seehofer backtracked. Mx. Yaghoobifarah found out last week that 150 lawsuits that had been filed because of the column were being dropped.

Mx. Yaghoobifarah and Fatma Aydemir, 33, the editors of a recent book of essays on racism, spoke about the reluctance in Germany to address the root of the violence against Black people.

“On all the talk shows in which Black Lives Matter was discussed, there was a hesitation to talk about the German police,” Ms. Aydemir said. “And whenever a person did that on a popular or mainstream platform, they always invited someone from the police or a politician very close to the police, or three of them even, to destroy this argument.”

Mx. Yaghoobifarah said: “They would, for example, say the police training in Germany is way longer than in the U.S., so people are more skilled here or they would say the history of the prison industrial complex and anti-Black racism in the U.S. is different than in Germany. And of course, it is different, but it doesn’t mean that Germany is doing well.”

The country has seen rising incidents of far-right violence; in 2019, more than half of politically motivated crimes in Germany were committed with right-wing motivation, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office.

Earlier this year, a gunman killed nine people at two hookah bars in Hanau. “There wasn’t a big outcry, a big protest, it was not at all comparable to what happened now,” said Tarik Tesfu, 35, a performer, presenter and talk show host. “It’s really easy for German media to criticize something so far away, and claim at the same time we don’t have these problems here.”

“White German people can’t keep turning up only when someone dies in America,” said Diana Arce, 38, an organizer of Black Lives Matter Berlin. “They’re saying Black Lives Matter, but they still refuse to really fully investigate what happened to Oury Jalloh. There already is a history of violence here. There has always been a history of violence.”

Historical Revisionism

In 1884, leaders of various European powers, including Germany, gathered in Berlin to carve the African continent into colonies. The German state of Brandenburg had held a slave-trading outpost in Ghana in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

During the three decades that Germany maintained colonies in Africa, from 1884 to 1918, it committed what historians refer to as the first genocide of the 20th century against the Nama and Herero people of present-day Namibia.

The German colonizers and troops created concentration camps, where they used forced labor, sexual violence and starvation to kill their prisoners in an early form of the horrific methods the National Socialists used during the Holocaust. During the Maji-Maji War, a large-scale rebellion against German colonial rule in present-day Tanzania, at least 100,000 resistance fighters were killed, historians estimate.

Since 2015, Namibia and Germany have been involved in negotiations over reparations. Germany has yet to formally apologize for its crimes. The country has returned some of the skulls of the victims of the genocide to Namibia, which were taken by scientists studying “racial purity,” but many still remain in museums and in hospitals. And for the most part, this history is glossed over in school.

“Young kids growing up in Germany don’t realize or remember that Germany had colonies, and there were, for example, predecessors to concentration camps prior to World War II in Namibia,” said Mr. Camufingo, of Black Lives Matter Berlin. “They don’t know about Germany’s participation in the slave trade. None of that is taught.”

The Initiative for Black People in Germany has been campaigning for years to change street names that celebrate colonizers and to classify two German words as racial slurs. The organization recently had a big win: A district in Berlin voted to rename a street and a subway station that used a slur to Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Strasse, in honor of the first known Black scholar at a German university, where his law thesis was on the topic of the rights of Black people in Europe.

“They hold on to these words like their life depends on it,” said Ms. Wiedenroth, a board member for the initiative, who said the word in question was used by “the white Europeans to describe the foreigners, the ‘not humans.’”

Dekoloniale, a new organization that seeks to bring colonial history into the mainstream, will open its headquarters on Nov. 15, on top of the site where the 1884 Berlin conference took place. Anna Yeboah, Dekoloniale’s project leader, and Christian Kopp, a historian in charge of the group’s exhibitions, both recalled first learning about German colonialism in Africa on trips to the continent. “It wasn’t a known subject,” Mr. Kopp, 52, said. “It felt like a secret.”

“It’s weird that we as German people have to go to Ghana to learn about this,” Ms. Yeboah, 30, said, recalling a visit in her teenage years to a German fort in Ghana from which hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

On a walking tour, Mr. Kopp pointed out a sign across the street from Dekoloniale’s office explaining how in 1919, a group of men from East and West Africa who lived in Germany submitted a document calling for “equal rights and independence.” Mr. Kopp said that one of the aims of Dekoloniale is to shed a light on the personal histories and resistance efforts of Black people in Germany over the centuries.

“Many people in Germany have not thought about anti-Black racism or could afford not to think about it,” Mr. Kopp said. “There has been a long history of oppression and repression here, and a struggle for equal rights.”

Berlin Postkolonial, another group Mr. Kopp is part of, has been giving similar tours for 15 years. “In the beginning we did three tours a year,” Mr. Kopp said. “Now it’s 50.” He said that more and more teachers have been requesting tours for their students. Before, the tour groups mostly consisted of young adults curious about part of history that had been skipped over in school.

“History is a construction,” Ms. Yeboah said. “We need to know it to shape our future. It’s the only way you can move forward in a better direction.”

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