Protests against racist police violence swept the globe after the brutal police killing of George Floyd. These demonstrations, held spontaneously in the middle of a pandemic, were very specifically protesting structural police violence. But on another level, they were against the complacency with which casual racism and white indifference towards these problems upholds racist structures. They were about police racism in particular, but the violence of racism in general.
When the demonstrations came to my home country, Britain, watching the slave owner Edward Colston’s statue being dismantled and thrown into the sea was a breathtaking moment. And I feel like for a lot of British people, especially black and brown people, but for many white people too, it was clear that while the BLM demos were imported, racism was a very much home-grown issue. The situation here in Germany was more ambiguous. I personally feel that black and brown people in Germany saw the German BLM demos as protesting German racism, police racism, the deaths in custody, the cover-up of the NSU murders. But as to whether most white Germans saw them this way: unfortunately, I can’t be so sure.
There’s a tendency in Germany to dismiss racism as a foreign problem – it’s far worse in Italy, people say, or in America. The racism so inherent to German society is what makes it so easy for many white Germans to believe this false narrative. Because German society is so racist, many white Germans don’t know any non-white people closely, have very few non-white friends, and have no idea that non-white Germans (and migrants too) experience racism in this country on an almost daily basis.
The racism so inherent to German society is what makes it so easy for many white Germans to believe this false narrative.
Hengameh Yaghoobifarah is a controversial taz columnist: non-binary, anti-racist, and, somewhat unusually for Germany, unafraid of hurting white people’s feelings. Their texts are often sharp, spiteful, and shockingly bitchy. I personally think they’re good, refreshingly honest and sometimes so matter-of-fact that they seem almost cruel, dismissive, almost contemptuous. Hengameh has always been adept at causing shitstorms. A column criticising the East German hippy festival Fusion for cultural appropriation created enough white German tears to fill Schlachtensee one thousand times over. For many liberal or socialist white Germans, including good friends of mine, people who don’t consider themselves racist, Hengameh represents “wokeness” or critical whiteness or identity politics – they are ridiculous, basically. And Hengameh commits the ultimate German sin of being “peinlich.” And, for Actual Nazis, of course, for people who know they are racist, Hengameh is Satan personified.
Out of solidarity with the many black and brown people who have died at the hands of violent racist police officers the world over, including here in Germany, Hengameh wrote a bitchy column about what we could do with the all the ex-coppers when the police have been abolished, but capitalism still exists. For me, it’s kind of clear that it is satire, mainly because it is so bitchy and mean, but also because we won’t abolish the police before we get rid of capitalism. The world in which this text takes place is set in the future – which means the cops Hengameh is bitching about are imaginary. (I am also, to be honest, not 100 percent certain that they are even German cops. It isn’t clear.)
Hemgameh lists the jobs that ex-coppers won’t be able to do. Like all funny texts, this one is silly and absurd and unfair – and also, on another level, a bit true. Hengameh says the ex-coppers won’t be able to become social workers, or have any other positions of power, shouldn’t work in culture because they might try to influence everyone with their fascist mindset, mustn’t work in garden nursery centres because of the Nazi love of nature and countryside. Tattoo studios are out because they will get to close too people, postal work would make it too easy for them to send letter bombs. The text is bitchy and harsh and cruel. Interestingly, the police had no problem with being called murderers or fascists. For some reason, this didn’t seem offensive to them.
The climax of the text is the controversial bit: Hengameh’s career advice is, basically, that the only job they can do is to work on a garbage site. But the ex-coppers can’t be trusted to be garbage collectors, with keys to people’s houses, so they will have to work at the site itself. The last line is: “Unter ihresgleichen fühlen sie sich bestimmt auch selber am wohlsten.” (“Surrounded by people like them / their ilk they will feel well / most comfortable.”)
It’s slightly hard to translate because many Germans, including the police, felt that “ihresgleichen” meant Hengameh was saying directly that the police are literally trash. Or were they just saying people like them – like other cops, that kind of person? My personal opinion is that it is a very clever way of almost saying that the police are trash without ever actually saying it, because I do actually think some of the BSR workers work on site and don’t go out in the vans to pick rubbish up. But of course, the joke doesn’t work in a world where people don’t sometimes say “The cops are such trash sometimes!” The joke wouldn’t work on nursery school teachers – it wouldn’t make sense. It also, by the way, wouldn’t make sense if the cops weren’t racist.
Incensed by the idea that many people think, and that a non-white person dares to imply, that cops are trash, the German police responded in the most trashy, disgusting, garbage way possible. Two different police unions decided to press charges. As previously mentioned, they didn’t seem to care about the accusations of thinking like Nazis or being violent and dangerous.
I don’t think charges would’ve been pressed were Hengameh white or a cis-man. A couple of days later, the police forces of Germany decided that a Berlin law outlawing racist discrimination, if followed, would make it impossible for German police to do their jobs. They persuaded the Berlin city government to exempt them from this law, even though there is nothing illegal in the law that isn’t already illegal in the constitution. You’d think the police would know the laws of this country and realise that racism is actually illegal, but obviously not.
I don’t really understand what they find disgusting about the word “trash” when it seems to me that they know perfectly well that they are racists. They know that they are racist – and persuaded the politicians of Berlin to legally enshrine their right to be racist in law. What, exactly, is so offensive about “rubbish” or “trash” or “garbage” or “waste” when you are literally so racist that you need to be legally allowed to be racist in order to do your job?
And then this happened: on the weekend, after riots in Stuttgart, which may or may not have had anything to do with Black Lives Matter, the Interior Minister of Germany, Horst Seehofer, announced that he, too, would be pressing charges against Hengameh, claiming that the kids rioting would’ve been influenced by the taz column.
The interior minister of Germany is pressing charges against one of the few journalists of colour to exist in this country for daring to be angry about racist police violence.
Hengameh wrote their column, whatever you think of it, out of anger at murder, out of solidarity with dead black and brown people. Racism was the reason for the anger, death was the inspiration, violence was the impetus. The column describes white, racist and imaginary ex-coppers working on a refuse site, while in the real world, the real one black and brown corpses, are literally rotting away. Hengameh’s colleagues at the taz, instead of showing any solidarity, wrote wishy-washy apologetic columns about a “debate”. Freedom of press suddenly seemed to not even be worth mentioning.
The interior minister of Germany is pressing charges against one of the few journalists of colour to exist in this country for daring to be angry about racist police violence. The German police don’t need to worry about living or working on a Müllhalde. They already live in a dump, in a refuse site, in a racist wasteland, in an ocean of trash called Germany: a racist country where freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression only exists for white men complaining about German-Turkish teenagers being too loud on the bus. I have 100 percent solidarity with Hengameh Yaghoobifarah and I also, by the way, sincerely hope the BSR-boys sue the German police for making out like working at a refuse suite means you must be trash yourself.
But I am mostly sad that this country is so racist that people think their own personal feelings about Hengameh, their own personal enjoyment or lack thereof of the columns, matters when the interior minister is now going round attacking journalists for having anti-police opinions. You know what? Don’t ever bother slagging off Özil for meeting up with Erdogan ever again. None of you.