It was a cold and sunny autumn day when they arrived in Berlin: On October 6, 2012, exactly ten years ago, dozens of refugees completed a 600 kilometre protest march. They had come from Bavaria, very publicly violating laws that prohibited them from leaving isolated asylum centres. Up to 10,000 people welcomed them with a demonstration for freedom of movement. After that, the refugees went to Kreuzberg and occupied Oranienplatz.
On October 6, 2012, exactly ten years ago, dozens of refugees completed a 600 kilometre protest march.
They didn’t want to be invisible: stuck in the countryside, in isolated detention centres where a number of refugees had committed suicide. Oranienplatz, created when a canal was filled in the 1920s, was right in the middle of the capital, a perfect place to be seen. Before long, 200 people were living in tents on the square. As the first winter set in, they occupied the former Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule at Ohlauer Straße 10. These spaces provided a home for lots of people denied basic rights. But they were also spaces for organising protests.
In 2014, the Green Party ordered the police to evict the refugees (they waited so long because, back then, the Greens still wanted to appear progressive and anti-racist. Now, of course, they are proud to be the most militaristic and anti-social party in Germany). These evictions led to huge police operations and dramatic standoffs. The cops sealed off a ten-block area of Kreuzberg for an entire week. Thousands of school students went on strike to show solidarity with the people holding out on Ohlauer Straße. (The kids are alright!)
Exberliner did a lot of reporting from Oranienplatz. Not that I ever put much trust in the big capitalist media apparatuses, but I was still shocked to see them all claim that the violent police evictions represented “refugees leaving voluntarily.”
One particularly heroic activist was able to wring a concession from Berlin’s senate: despite the eviction, they would be allowed to keep one circus tent on the square for meetings. When that was burned down a year later, nothing physical remained on Oranienplatz to commemorate the political battle (except for some signs).
Now, ten years later, the square once again has shipping containers for art performances and political meetings.
The world will see many more refugees — and many more protests for their rights — in the coming years.
Angela Davis is coming in from California. That might surprise younger readers, who know the veteran anti-racist and communist from Black Lives Matter. But Davis’s connection to Berlin goes back more than 50 years. She was the biggest star of the German Democratic Republic, whose citizens sent a million postcards demanding her freedom when she was imprisoned on trumped up murder charges. Once she was free, her arrival at Schönefeld airport looked like the socialist version of the Beatles touching down.
In the last decade, Berlin has experienced more refugee crises — the number of people forced to flee their homes will only increase as capitalism burns the planet and provokes clashes between states. Comparing the reception given to refugees from Ukraine and their darker-skinned counterparts from Africa and the Middle East shows how profoundly racist Germany is. Ukrainians were given the right to work with little bureaucratic hassle — a basic right that every person deserves. Many people from Syria or Eritrea demanding that same right were told it was simply impossible.
Oranienplatz remains a symbol of how people from many different countries can break out of isolation and struggle together for basic rights. The world will see many more refugees — and many more protests for their rights — in the coming years. The story of what happened here will remain a source of moral and political inspiration.
For more about the history of refugee protests in Berlin, as well as Angela Davis’s time in the city, see Nathaniel’s anticapitalist guide book: Revolutionary Berlin, available now from Pluto Press, 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.