Archive | July, 2014

The PARTEI has started!

30 Jul


If you ever find yourself in the EU Parliament’s gargantuan chamber in Strasbourg, look toward the back. No, further back – in the last few rows on the far right. This is the area reserved for the xenophobic wackos who aren’t in any parliamentary group. But in their midst, on seat 694, between the neoliberal AfD from Germany and the neofascist FPÖ from Austria, sits Martin Sonneborn.

Wearing the grey suit of a bureaucrat and the noncommittal smile of a politician, the 49-year-old Sonneborn doesn’t look out of place. “We’re not the craziest ones in the European Parliament,” he says. Marine Le Pen of the Front National, just one row ahead, won the European elections in France with diatribes against immigrants and globalization. Sonneborn’s Die PARTEI, in contrast, got their seat with a promise to “overcome substance” (Inhalte überwinden).

Die PARTEI was founded 10 years ago by editors of the satirical magazine Titanic. They wanted to re-build the Wall and crossed every ‘t’ for establishing a political party. After years of slow progress, their breakthrough came at the European Elections of 2014 after Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled to abolish the three percent hurdle for EU elections. The reasoning? Since the EU Parliament can’t decide much anyway, it can’t hurt to fill it with small parties.

Now Sonneborn can make EU politics interesting. Daily life in Strasbourg seems to consist of endless horse trading to fill positions, interrupted by speeches in front of a mostly empty chamber. It seems that many parliamentarians don’t find it too thrilling either and thus don’t bother to show up to work. The discussions about byzantine regulations are mostly theatre anyway, since important decisions in the EU are made by the Commission, not the Parliament. And any attempts to make it look interesting just result in face palms.

That’s why Sonneborn, while taking selfies with his right-wing neighbours, is quite open about his goal to get as much money as possible. The original plan, to have each representative resign after one month and then collect six months of transitional pay, has apparently fallen through due to red tape. But Sonneborn isn’t giving up: “We’ll bring them a 60 PARTEI cadre to Brussels – whether as office managers, interns or EU Commission Presidents.” He has given his word that he will get material benefits for his underlings.

The real question is how much satire is possible in the EU parliament. Udo Voigt, the head of the NPD (who has been featured in Exberliner magazine far too often for my liking), has just been elected to the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. What is left for a comedian to say?

The EU parliament used to have a directive about the required length and curvature of cucumbers. After endless ridicule, it was dropped in 2009. Sonneborn wants to re-introduce this directive but apply it to weapons: “Any gun barrel would need a curvature of at least two centimetres per 10 centimetres in length,” he told the newspaper junge Welt. “I believe that would be less suffering in the world if Germany, as the European champion in exporting weapons, moved ahead on this.” When did you last hear such a sensible proposal from the EU?

And he told the radio Deutschlandfunk his philosophy as a parliamentarian: “Basically I like anything that annoys the EU Commission.” Now that’s a politician I would vote for. If I could vote



Refugees occupy the TV tower

10 Jul


“I’m sorry, but the tower is full” says the security guard at the entrance to Berlin’s Fernsehturm. “You’ll have to try again later.” The tourists turn away. But I’m not convinced, I had heard something else was going on there. I ask her: “Are you sure it’s just full, and not occupied by refugees?” She feigns shock: “What do you mean ‘occupied’? It’s full!” Alexanderplatz is packed with dozens of police vehicles. Officers in riot gear are blocking every entrance to the tower. Because it’s full?

On Wednesday, 37 refugees occupied the viewing platform 203 meters above the city. They bought tickets and went up at 3pm and refused to leave. In a statement they explain that they have been active in political protests for several years:

Everywhere we are turned away. Everyone has the same answer for us. Everyone refers us to the next person. No one listens to us. No one wants to be responsible for us refugees and the inhumane laws under which we live.

This group – originally from many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – have come together from Lager (camps for asylum seekers) across Bavaria. Last week 70 refugees occupied the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Nuremberg, hoping to find someone who would listen to their demands. They were evicted by the police.

“You have to talk to someone in Berlin”, one of the activists recalled hearing. So they went to East Berlin’s emblematic tower. “We selected this place to find public support. The people of Deutschland must understand our problems.”

These refugees say they have been in Germany for three, four or five years, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. They aren’t allowed to work, go to school, or travel outside of the Landkreis of their Lager. They are demanding Bleiberecht (a right to stay) as well as an end to the Residenzpflicht that prohibits travel.

The police refuse to let the press up into the tower. Fabio Reinhardt, member of the Berlin parliament for the Pirate Party, buys a ticket, but only after several hours can he go up to participate in negotiations.

Via social media, dozens of supporters at ground level can see the police breaking up the sitting blockade. “Please translate for us,” one refugee calls out the the police in a video, “since we are not allowed to learn German”.

Over the next few hours, they are let out one by one after their papers are registered. “We are here, and we will fight,” the crowd chants at each new arrival, “freedom of movement is everybody’s right.” The activists show bruises and cuts they got from the police. “They have no respect for us as human beings” says one young man with a bruise on his face. He claims they weren’t allowed to use the toilet for hours. The company that manages the tower, the Deutsche Funkturm GmbH, which belongs to the Deutsche Telekom, had pressed charges against the refugees.

As darkness falls, up to 20 Nazis from the NPD organize a demonstration against the refugees. They are protected by the Berlin police and leave with an escort after one hour. I notice at least one with the stretched earlobes and unkempt beard of a Nazi hipster.

During the occupation, the viewing platform is closed, but a constant stream of people with reservations is still allowed into the restaurant one floor above. I ask people coming out if they saw the refugees. No, they assure me, they just had their meal. Videos have been posted on Facebook showing a cacophony of screams as the police drag away the activists. “But we didn’t notice anything”, the tourist repeats. Why, I wonder, do Germans always say that?

The refugees end their statement with the reminder: “Every day, people kill themselves in the Lager because they can no longer live this hopeless and painful live. We demand a conversation with the responsible politicians. We are people too.” After the eviction of the Oranienplatz in April and the partial eviction of the school in the Ohlauer Straße last week, some racist politicians might have hoped the refugee protests would die down. But as one banner at the time already warned them: “You can’t evict a movement.”

Police violence is becoming surreal

8 Jul

Who is your favorite surrealist author? Breton? Hugnet?

Me? My favorite surrealist is the press officer for the Berliner Polizei.

For an example, how would the average joe describe the video above from last Saturday at Görlitzer Park?

I would say: A bunch of police ask a guy with a clown nose for his ID. Then they beat him mercilessly. Then more people come, then more police, and the beatings continue for several minutes.

But I’m not a surrealist. From the winged pen of Berlin’s police spokesman, this scene is described in an enthralling combination of dream and reality straight out of a film of Luis Buñuel:

… a 22-year-old got in the way of the officers and impeded their investigation. After the police had sent him off, in vain, and the impediments continued, an officer pulled the troublemaker to the side, at which point a group of up to 60 people interfered in the events … two bicycles were flung at the officers, and a policeman suffered a head injury that required out-patient care at a hospital. With the help of further police, the group of people was pushed away and two men (aged 32 and 46) and a 33-year-old women were arrested. They are being investigated for aggravated assault, attempted freeing of prisoners and serious breach of the peace.

Like in any great surrealist art, the absurdist elements predominate, but there’s tidbits of reality to connect the narrative back to our world. So around the 2:24 mark we do in fact see a bicycle enter the frame. But the police officer, far from being injured, flings it right back. Did he injure someone? This is where great art makes us think: What does it mean to claim that “six police were injured”, when all we can see are citizens screaming in pain? Do the police reside in a different dimension than normal people? Does the bicycle exist at all? Is any of this real?

Last Tuesday, it was reported that police attacked dozens of underage school students with pepper spray. Their laconic explanation – “we didn’t use pepper spray” – for me qualifies as great art. Eighty-five years ago, René Magritte shocked the world with his statement: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The Berlin police are going even further: “Dies ist kein Pfeffersprayeinsatz.” It’s up to the art critics to decide.

P.S. There’s lots of discussion in the press about what might have actually happened. We’ll sift through all the “evidence” in the comments.

Just let the refugees stay!

2 Jul


Kreuzberg is under a state of siege. For the last week, 1720 police have sealed off four city blocks surrounding Ohlauer Str., where a former school housed a hybrid crowd of squatters and refugees. Residents are only allowed to go to their houses if they show an ID. No one else can go past the police barricades.

Why has an entire Kiez been locked down? The police operation is directed against 40 refugees camping on the roof of the school on Ohlauer Straße. The former Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule was occupied a year and a half ago by activists from the protest camp at Oranienplatz.

Lots of people moved in, perhaps as many as 600. The sanitary conditions were terrible – just one shower in the whole building! – and there were repeated cases of violence, which shouldn’t be a surprise when people from so many different cultural backgrounds (from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa to the Balkans) and with so many legal situations (some have some kind of visa, some are refugees, some are totally paper-less, others are Germans or have a Schengen passport!) are forced to live with 20 other people in one room. But the refugees preferred this to the Lager (camps) they are forced to live in as asylum seekers.

Last week, on June 24, the Bezirksamt (district government) ordered the eviction of the school – supposedly so it could be converted into an official refugee centre. They wanted the residents to leave “voluntarily”, but brought along over 1000 heavily armed riot police. Under this pressure, several hundred people left. Supporters report, however, that they were not allowed to take their meagre possessions, and some are now living out on the street because they couldn’t get into the promised housing.

Forty fled onto the roof, demanding a right to stay and to maintain the school as a self-organized political space for refugees. They were and still are to this very moment threatening to jump if the police try to storm the roof.

So on Tuesday, the neighbourhood was under police control – not even the press could get in. “I went to get groceries from Penny,” said Belén, who lives on nearby Lausitzer Straße, “and they wouldn’t let me back in.” She has a Spanish ID that doesn’t contain her Berlin address. After a long discussion, the police accompanied her all the way to her door.

“Bist du taub, du Wichser, du kannst hier nicht rein!” one police officer screams at a man who wants to get past the blockade. The men in black (or green) Robocop uniforms, who have been brought in from as far away as Bavaria, let a Pizza Taxi through for themselves – but held up an ambulance for a resident.

Almost 100 local shops haven’t seen a single customer in the last week. On Monday, more than 50 AnwohnerInnen met up and decided to write a protest letter to the district, followed by more direct action through a successful storming of the blockade later that afternoon. “It’s a bit beklemmend to have to show your ID just to go home,” says Martin, who lives on Reichenberger Straße

Trying to keep a sense of Berlin’s playful anarchy, some protestors traded in storm tactics with a friendly game of badminton – over the heads of the police lines. A shuttlecock of resistance. A neighbour told the Tagesspiegel: “In the past two years I’ve walked past the occupied school almost every day and I never felt unsafe.” Now he sees police attacking peaceful demonstrators.

Yesterday, 2000 students went on strike to support the refugees (just like in February). The police brutally attacked underage demonstrators with batons, pepper spray and dogs: one had his nose broken.

As the strike ended at 12:45, news came that Hans Panhoff, the Kreuzberger Baustadtrat from the Green Party, had washed his hands of the matter and faxed a Räumungsersuchen (a request to evict) to the police. All hell broke loose: sirens were blaring throughout Kreuzberg and in the next few hours there was extreme violence against peaceful sit-ins. I personally saw at least one broken arm and one broken foot.

Now none of the politicians want to take responsibility. Kreuzberg mayor Monika Herrmann has disappeared and there are rumours she has called on her party colleague Panhoff to resign. The Green Party is contradicting itself with every new statement: they are against an eviction, no eviction was ordered, and an eviction wouldn’t be so bad. In the Green heartland of the middle-class Öko apartments around Ohlauer Straße, people are angry.

Why can’t they just let the refugees stay? Paragraph 23 of the asylum law would make it possible to grant them all asylum for humanitarian reasons.

But Berlin’s interior Senator Frank Henkel from the CDU says “the state can’t let itself be blackmailed”. He doesn’t like to mention that he came to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1981 as a refugee from his native country, the GDR. He didn’t fulfil any of the conditions he now demands from refugees, such as proving he had to flee for political and not economic reasons.

Demonstrators and activists are calling on Berliners to help break the stage of siege: Go to the Ohlauer Straße and join the sit-ins!


Photo: John Riceburg