Friday, 23 January 2015

Protest is a process, not a product


Last spring, I had a dream that there was a new craze sweeping Berlin: people would dress up like trees and stand in a field near the Bundestag every month, holding a vigil for all the natural spaces being destroyed by mankind.  I went down to check it out so I could write about it for this blog (yes: even in my dreams, I write a blog). And of course I wanted to take part... but not the same way that everyone else was doing.

Everybody at the vigil was dressed as evergreen trees. To save time, a lot of them had cut down actual pine trees to wear.  I thought that was a bit wasteful... but then I saw the sincere looks on their faces and thought, “Well, at least they’re using the trees to say something that they care about… that’s more than you can say for a lot of the waste that people create.” 
I held back my criticism, tried to appreciate the fact that they were spreading a message that I believed in, and watched from the sidelines.   

A few weeks ago, this dream popped into my mind again as I was stepping around another  massive pile of discarded Christmas trees in Berlin.  An entire forest of baby evergreens seems to get cut down each year to supply the people in my kiez with the right mood for their holy nights.  But this year there seem to be so many more.  People were casting away symbols of eternity to make space for their manmade presents.  How paradoxical is that?  It almost seemed like a symbolic sacrifice of the idea of permanence and regeneration - a bizarre leap of faith into a mechanized, manmade future.

My annoyance about the annual tree cull primed me to go to the ‘Wir Haben Es Satt’ demo a few days later, a protest against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) and for sustainable agricultural practices in Germany.  The pine trees had been cleared from most of the kerbs by then, but at the demo, I saw people dressed up like trees standing outside the Bundestag, wearing branches and leaves, just like they had been in my dream.  The difference was that the branches they were wearing looked like they’d fallen off a tree during a recent windstorm.  The people wearing them didn’t seem the type to go and wantonly hack down pine forests, either, so the similarity to my dream ended there… so I thought.

My friends and I delved into the crowd of people wearing fun-fur onesies, rabbit suits, bee costumes, beekeeping suits - there were even a few caricatured farmers with big straw hats.  It was a bit like being at a Fasching party, except with lots of angry signs about battery farming and dystopian Monsanto products penned in red, slashing ink.  Drums were playing here and there, smoke was rising from the beekeepers’ metal censers, pink and green, mass-produced banners fluttered along with a few handmade ones.  Bright, industrial swathes of fabric in manmade colours flapped at us from every angle.  The message of the event had been painted in synthetic hues, mocking the plastic appeal of a TV advertisement.  Either that, or they were mimicking it, in hope of having a similar, mass-market appeal. 

With so many prefab options at the demo, all we had to do was look around, ask ourselves, ‘agree or disagree?’  and if we agreed, we could just grab a banner or a pin and become another carrier for the message.  For the cause - the brand - ‘Stop the TTIP’.  I was tempted...

... but then I pictured the people wearing those outfits going home, hanging up their rabbit suits, laughing about them.  Putting their banners out on the balcony and not talking about Monsanto or TTIP again until the next protest came around. But maybe that's the point.  After all, dressing up as a furry animal isn’t about representing what you really are, is it?  it’s about putting a playful façade between you and the world, feigning naive simplicity.  Maybe the point of these outfits is to try and impart some of that simplicity into the environmentalist message, making a daunting prospect seem accessible. 

In the commercial world, animal costumes are used to draw shoppers into computer stores and car dealerships but never into grocery stores or bars... maybe that's the same reason why they're used to draw people to demonstrations about the environment. 

Plus, it is easier to jump in to a demonstration when there are ready-made banners and placards waiting there, ready-made, in the hands of your furry environmental mascot. But buying into one protest on the basis of a costume or a banner does not rope you into continuing with it. It’s not like buying a pair of shoes.  With activism, that commitment comes from seeing the issue as part of an ongoing theme in your life.  It's got to be personal.
Successful movements are able to engage with people on an every day level, to make them return for every action.  That may be why the three-ring circus known as the International Socialists (or whatever they’re called now) has thousands of dedicated members.  They have an answer for everything... literally.  If you belch in the middle of one of their meetings, they can provide you with a Socialist Perspective as to why you did it. 

Getting back to the TTIP demo in Berlin, though: my friends and I really should have come there more prepared.  We should have come with our own props... or dressed up... or organized a little direct action to do while we were there... but a few of us had hangovers (well, all of us did).  Which may be why I started trying to find some way of blaming the demo for our lack of enthusiasm. ;-)

It was hard to fault the organization of the protest though.  They did an amazing job of bringing a huge number of people together.   Nothing was done wrong, compared to any of the other mass demos I've been to.  But, like almost all of the mass protests that I've been to, I felt like I had to be prepared to give any input.  It couldn't be a spontaneous thing.  If I was just jumping on board at the last minute, my options were limited to something prefab - a banner, a chant - all arranged by the organizers.  This format can certainly attract a certain type of protester - the consumerist type, or those in NGOs - but it leaves out the passers-by who may expect more out of their activism than a souvenir or a photo op.   Creating a free space for people to express their personal reaction to the issues at hand would probably give them a stronger impression to take away, anyway... a sense of input, which is what protest is all about. That's just an observation from someone who has been to dozens of similar one-off events.  A friendly suggestion for next time, if any of those organizers happen to read this.

A phrase from 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' by Neil Postman came to mind: "The medium excludes the content."  And I thought about how a new medium of protest was needed to take activism to the level where it changed people's lives, and not just the way they looked, or the headlines, for a few hours...


 Monsanto is a tad more evil than this installation suggests
Dazzled by bright colours, smoke from beekeepers’ torches and drumming, we walked and walked.  People were staring up ahead, not left or right or behind. Where were we going?  I asked. My friends shrugged.  But being coaxed along like this, it gave the impression of some sort of a big finale up ahead.  No one was stopping and, the few times we tried to, we were nudged along by the slow-motion tide of people.  Toward the end we were herded past a ‘slow food’ stall.  Then we looked around and realized that we had been siphoned in an open space in front of a stage.  This was the critical role we’d been given: playing the part of an audience.

On the other side of the stage, a tide of people was now moving out, over the footbridge towards the Hauptbahnhof.  To join them and go home seemed like a cop-out after all this build-up so we stuck it out there, in the cold.  Just stopping for the sake of stopping, the same way that we had been moving for the sake of moving during
the rest of the demo.  Where else to go until someone listens, but around and around in circles?

No choppers were wheeling overhead but a sense of having our movements coordinated from above was strong.  Being channeled through a pre-arranged pattern laid out on the ground.  The pattern of the city; the pattern of a route; the pattern of activism that is inactive in its execution; all we need to do is turn up and fill in blanks designated to us, a paint-by-numbers march.  All that we can do is turn up and fill in the blanks, if that's how it's designed. 


It’s not as if social change is a point that we can reach by walking towards it, anyway. Even if we ran, it would still elude us.  In a time of constant, robotic movement toward ‘growth’, ‘profit’ and ‘progress’ it seems the most powerful thing anyone could do would be to stand still, rethink everything from scratch instead of flowing along the same old lines. Stop confusing motion with production and size with progress.  Those lines once led outward, but now they have joined up and  lead back in on themselves, an endless loop that gets a little more ground down with each cycle around the planet, searching for another source of untapped potential. But the last, real untapped source of potential exists in our minds.  And, as long as we keep moving forward without stopping, finding bigger and bigger outlines to fill with more and more identical, oversimplified goals, then we’ll never figure out how to exploit the power of the individual.

In the end, I couldn’t silence the inner voice that kept insisting that this protest had left the flawed behaviours that got us here, untouched. 
Like in that dream that I had, about activists cutting down trees in order to save nature - it was just harnessing the wrong impulse for the right purpose. 

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Father time is running out...



Christmas has ended, but when did it start?  By now, you've surely heard the tale of how the early Christians decided to nab the date of the winter solstice from the pagans and use it to celebrate the birth of Christ, some 2000 years ago.  They allegedly did this in the hopes of making their new holiday seem a little bit more appealing to the snake-worshipping maypole dancers haunting their local forests... and maybe even persuade them to put their clothes on once in a while and go to Church.

We're not averse to snake-worship
here at Unscene Berlin, really
The problem was, there was some confusion in Rome (the birthplace of organized Christianity) as to what date the winter solstice actually fell on.  They celebrated it on the 24th and 25th of December, whereas other European pagans knew that it fell on the 21st of December (as hundreds of precisely-aligned monuments like Stonehenge can attest to).  The Roman calendar was approximate and flawed, but the establishment wasn't so willing to accept astronomical tips given by outsiders... even less so if they happened to be naked and worshipping snakes.  Like all bureaucracies, Rome preferred to trudge on with a dysfunctional, antiquated system that was utterly out of sync with the cosmos, inflicting it on whatever unfortunate peoples they conquered until it started to break down... their system, that is, not the cosmos.

To the ancient Romans it might have seemed like the cosmos was breaking down when they woke up one morning and realized that the season didn't match the date on their calendars anymore.  Surprise!  Turns out their inaccurate, pre-Julian calendar had required regular inter-calculations by the people in power to keep it in sync... and, since most of those people in power were politicians, "this power was prone to abuse: a Pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power." (Source: Wikipedia)

Year after year the dates were fudged - sometimes for convenience, sometimes out of sheer confusion about what date it really was.  The last years before the introduction of the Julian calendar were, unsurprisingly, called 'Years of Confusion'.  The pencil pushers of ancient Rome had switched the dates around one too many times to maintain the illusion they were in control, but no one could figure out when to harvest their crops without knowing the exact time of year.  Finally, Julius Cesar was forced to introduce the Julian calendar which didn't require constant maintenance.  It was still flawed, though; for one thing, the solstice was still calculated to the 25th of December and the year was 11 minutes off.  By the 16th century the dates had fallen out of sync again and, after calculating the dates for the new calendar, the Church discovered' that the winter solstice should fall on December 21st.  It decided to keep schtum about this discovery - possibly, Church officials were picturing angry pagans shrieking, 'I told you so' all across Europe, when they found out.  Christmas stayed on the 25th of December, and the Romans saved face.  Again.

Like those confused citizens of ancient Rome, I am looking out my window right now and wondering why it's spring in the middle of December.  But this time it's not the calendar that's out of sync, it's the seasons themselves.  The cause of this modern chaos is, however, the same as it was 2060 years ago: politicians fudging facts on the state of things, so they can maintain the illusion of control.

So why the Hell am I talking about this in a post about New Year's parties, anyway?  I guess I'm just trying to sum the year up and.  To me 2014 was a Global Year of Confusion because, at the end of it, no one knows what to expect from the climate (will things get worse?  What are we going to do about it?).  No one knows whether the people that IS has kidnapped will ever be returned, or whether police will be allowed to go on bullying the public, or whether Mexican governors will be allowed to get away with murder, or...  Throughout 2014, governments everywhere just seemed too busy to deal with any of the heaviest issues that were weighing on people's minds.  So in 2015, I reckon the only way to move those issues forward will be through alternative channels.  Because let's face it: counting on results from this system is as futile as trying to time your harvest to a calendar that keeps changing.

Villa Curiosum
The first event on my list is 'alternative' and free, and it has parallels to the ancient world (well, to the Renaissance world).  Villa Curiosum has taken over Ausland in Prenzlauerberg, where they will be putting on a series of random events for fans of the weird and exotic.  In the event blurb for Alltagskammer IV they say they're influenced by the Renaissance concept of a 'Wunderkammer':

"a collection of curiosities representing the world: stuffed animals, weird weapons, exotic souvenirs and unique early automats.   We believe that the 'real' miracle can only be found in everyday life!"

From now until December 28th these guys and girls will be painting, sewing costumes, printing with silkscreen, making weird hats, and drinking cocktails in a place called the Cunt Lab with sound installations playing in the background, everyday between 4 p.m. and closing time (and as we Berliners know, closing time does not actually exist).  Basically it's your run-of-the-mill creative orgy.  I think the ancient pagans would have approved...


The next Alltagskammer events are the Blac Blob Sound workshop on 26.12 and a Variété show for Beauties and Beasts on 27.12 which will "present unusual characters in their distorted realities" (basically, people like you and me).


Also on Boxing Day is Santa raves harder with the Cerebral Chaos dark psy crew (Chester's Inn, Kreuzberg).  I'd go just to check out what his beard looks like under the black lights, ha. It's 5 Euros to get in.

And then there's MagDalena im Exil at Dublex (Ostbahnhof) on Boxing Day, too, which will revive the sound of the defunct Maria club - one of the original alternatives of Berlin. 

And also also on Boxing Day, there's the Kiwimanjaro X-mas special, which lists its music style as 'independent', making it ideal for anyone who hates, er, dependent music.  It's also 5 Euros in.

In R19 on December 27th, Virus brings us a techno-goa-dinner party.  It's only 3 Euros to get in and that includes free food as well as the standard tunes and cheap drinks.  With all that on offer I wonder if there's any reason to even leave the place. Mind if I move in...?


To round off the year on December 31st in alternative style, there's Alway's the Hard Way. It's first on the list because of its Captain Obvious name... no questions about what you're getting when you go there!  Or are there?  A glance at the party blurb and it starts to sound as if someone has put all the dregs of the Berlin party scene in a blender and hit the 'chop' button.  What did they come up with? "Costume + Freakshow + BODY-SUSPENSION + Live ART + Vernissage + Club closing."
Sounds kind of avant garde, until you look at their T-shirt model >>>


Can prolls can be avant garde?  I have no idea but you should go to this party if you want to find out!   This one-of-a-kind event will take place at Spirograph, a club that I never even realized existed until now.  The turnover of clubs in this town seems to be speeding up...

For guaranteed quality techno there's Hyte Day 3 at Arena club with Carl Cox, Chris Liebing, Tobi Neumann and all the rest of the older, tougher techno crew.  Worth the 35,00 + price tag if you know exactly what you want and don't want to mess about.

There are also the usual secret location and one-off masqued balls etc. that happen every New Year's in random rented industrial venues around Berlin, but without knowing who's doing them or where they are, they're a bit of a lottery.  But if you're an adventurous type then that's probably music to your ears.

That's it for now but I will be posting last-minute event tips on Twitter @UnsceneBerlin, so keep checking back.  

See you in the alternative new year!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Misandry: It's a Big Deal. Not.

Spot the victim: almost all of the above images are from mundane, every day ads on magazines, billboards and news sites.  Some are indistinguishable from images of true violence against women (bottom, center).  Ads like this tap into the misogynist's fantasy life and whether we share that fantasy or not, we have to admit it's riddled with violence and hate... which means that society is, too
I've been reading about the recent Gamergate debate(s) on Twitter - which I've still not got my head around, and am unlikely to, now that the number of tweet accusations flying around has reached critical mass.  But one thing that stuck with me after reading a few threads was the shocking blitheness with which guys on these threads bandy the word 'misandry' about.  They seem to have decided that the word 'misandrist' can be used to refer to any woman who says or thinks negative things about men. 

Is being negative about sexist men such an innately wrong behaviour that is somehow amounts to a real, actual prejudice, though?  And are men such super special beings that they never make mistakes or bad judgements that need to be criticised?  I don't think so. Any man who would suggest such a thing probably needs to get over himself.

When feminists criticise a man's behaviour as sexist, it's like when a colleague says to him at work , 'Just because you're good at your job doesn't mean that you can ask me to make coffee for you.'  The man in question may be doing well in every other respect, but if his behaviour is unconsciously and unfairly burdening another person, then that other person is entitled to criticise. This also applies to misogynist women, by the way.

But even if there are women out there who are just saying unfair, nasty things about men for the hell of it, I don't see how that is in any way as bad as beating up on men; yelling at them in the streets because they're not paying enough attention to us; rubbing up against them on crowded trains; raping them; tailgating them because we assume that their entire gender doesn't know how to drive; paying them too little or no money for their work; trafficking them; renting or buying them like commodities; refusing to treat their illnesses because it's 'all in their head'; and otherwise preventing their ability to live full, equal and safe lives, using the power that an unfair system has granted us over them. 

Let's face it: misandry simply lacks the same opportunities to manifest that misogyny has manufactured for itself, over the last dozen or so centuries.  If misandry exists on a large scale, then it mostly exists in the heads of females who hate men.  Misogyny, on the other hand, exists right out in the open where everyone can see it, where its random targets cannot avoid it, and where bystanders are desensitised by their exposure to it.  It even exists in the system.  That's why women cannot expect protection from misogyny, ironically enough... it's too ubiquitous. 

The restrictions misogyny places on us changes from country to country but they're ever-present, the deadening weight of prejudice embodied in flesh, steel and stone.  Sometimes, it just seems safer just to stay home, quit our jobs and squish ourselves into whatever tiny role the misogynists condone for us.  Indeed, it takes a force of will not to do that, even nowadays.  Any man who'd equate such immediate, physical oppression with the effect of some poorly-chosen words, is only showing how out-of-touch with women's reality he really is.  He would do better to stop and think about what the reality behind a woman's words is actually like to live in, before flinging the word 'misandry' out there as a defense against his wounded pride.  Misogyny is not just another virtual debate in which words are the only component; plenty of actions are involved in it too.  But maybe this point is lost on people who spend more time online than they do in the real world.

If feminists don't want to fight for the man who feels he isn't getting all the respect he deserves from every woman on the planet, it's just because they're already embattled on that front and many others.  They might feel that man's pain, sure, but their own pain is a bigger threat to their immediate existence.  All feminists, and the vast majority of women, do know how it feels to be shamed and snubbed and condescended to... but they also know how it feels to be threatened, groped, injured, shouted down and ridiculed by men who have too much power over their lives. 

So if you think that you're a good guy who doesn't deserve to be tarred with the same brush as all the other sexist guys out there, then that's great.  But it doesn't mean that you have the right to ask feminists to make sure your feelings aren't getting hurt. We have our own work to do too, you know.  

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A cause with 100,00 faces

With the Flood Wall Street protests filling the news and Twitter feeds today it seems like a timely moment to reflect on climate movements through time.  Reclaim the Streets, Climate Camp and Occupy were the three big ones that happened in my lifetime.  I suspect that these urban invasions of green-painted, animistic protestors dancing to drums all owe their existence to London's Stop the City protests (1980s) and before that, the Reclaiming movement (1970s) and possibly even the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

All were omnibus movements that brought together countless small, grassroots groups and individual activists from the countryside and suburbs, and took to the big city streets to confront the real sources of pollution and corruption head-on, in its faceless inner-city fortresses. 

In the extract below, you can read what the scene was like at one such demonstration in London in June 1999.  Called J18 it was part of an international day of action aimed at ending environmental, financial and social breakdown, similar to the international day of protest last Sunday that aimed to send a message to the UN Climate Conference happening in New York City today.

But first, here are some great images taken from famous pavement-stomping marches around the world... 
 
Climate Camp staged a never-ending sit-in in.  London 2009


Reclaim the Streets 1995: demonstrators bought this car & trashed it

Idle No More (above/below) marched on Canadian capitals in 2013



Solstice demonstration by Reclaiming movement in San Francisco

Seattle's N30 protest against the WTO in 1999





Stop the City in London 1983.










The story is taken from my new novel Vote Tekno Party - and you can read more of it by following this link!
Occupy protestor in NYC in 2011

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Berlin's Urban Monsters - A Virtual Tour

You may not realize this, but the human residents of Berlin don't just share the city with rats, wasps, sparrows and dogs. They also share it with a raft of fantastic and frightening creatures; quasi-mythical beings that lurk on secluded walls throughout the city. Born out of the primordial soup of artistic imagination, they silently broadcast sinister visions to the world without any input from it. Though they're made of the same stuff as other street art, they creep up on the viewer or shock him in a way that ordinary grafitti does not. They are the city's urban monsters.
Berlin's most famous urban monster, Molecule Man, is a metallic colossus that juts out of the Spree near An den Treptowers bridge, like a knife pinpointing the spot where art breaches the mundane surface of the city.
Yesterday, I found out that the area around An den Treptowers is a veritable wildlife sanctuary for other forms of urban monster too. While walking along the water below it, I spotted several deformed creations creeping along the abandoned shell of an old park WC.
Next to it, a small shed was wrapped in Gothic line drawings:
As I kept walking I came across a red-faced troll waiting under An den Treptowers bridge ...
...and a two-headed troll guarding the rail bridge.
It wasn't long before I realized there were urban monsters all around me. If you were just passing through, you would never know that there are monsters living on the flipside of the bridge's blank facade. They have to hide from their natural predators: grafitti removers, builders and city planners.

I have come across other manifestations of Berlin's subconscious since coming here. There was the abstract crane in Landsberger Allee...
...plus this complex mural in Friedrichshain...
...neither of which still exists today. The area around An den Treptowers seems to have been a safe haven for urban monsters for some time, if the age and complexity of its works is anything to go by. But that time may almost be up. When I was there yesterday, the air was full of the clanging and crashing of construction work which was taking place all around these buildings. If you look closely at the building below...
...which has had most of its facade stripped away for demolition / renovation purposes, you can see the sad remains of yet another painting in the centre.
This maimed urban monster is a stark example of what happens to art that finds itself in the path of people with more money than imagination.

It's possible that new urban monsters will be born and flourish on the new buildings but once the old works are destroyed, the gene pool of the previous art generation will be lost forever. A city which wipes out the old to make way for the new without connecting the two things can't hope to evolve. It can change but it can't evolve. I think that city planners the world over confuse the meanings of those two words.

Any act of creation deserves respect. If the city is a mechanical entity - like a body - then street art is the voice of the spirit at its helm. The phrase 'soulless metropolis' isn't just a figure of speech, it's a distinct possibility in any culture that doesn't treat its art with proper respect. A city without creative outlets is one where people only exist to serve the city's needs: efficiency, development and profit. Ironically, urban monsters are one of the things that can save a city from becoming a nightmare to live in.

It looks like those urban monsters are here for a limited time only, so if you want to view them in their natural habitat, do it soon!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Swapping one warzone for another: the refugee rights movement in Berlin


"Politicians do not just want to evict buildings like the school in Ohlauer Straße or the house we squatted. In our opinion they want to evict movements, they want to evict the possibility of free decision making and self-organization. They are sneaking out of their responsibility on the cost of marginalized people." Indymedia

August 27, 2014: Oranienplatz, Kreuzberg.

They all had different skin colours, and different accents.  But whether they were fat or thin, short or tall, young or old, they all shared a certain calm, resigned strength.  Their eyes, too, shared an intelligent gleam that had been dulled to a persistent, smouldering glow.   

A few words with any of them reassured me that these people - refugees, mostly male - had not come to Germany just for fun.  Their absolute certainty in their reasons for fleeing their homelands didn’t even need to be expressed in words; it just sort of emanated from every pore.  It was just a matter of fact.

I looked around Oranienplatz.  It was almost entirely encircled with police.  Close to a hundred officers of the law were circling, hovering at a safe distance, eyeing the mixed group of 30 or 40 activists and refugees who were clustered around a bowed-but-unbeaten info stand located near the center of the platz.  With tight jaws and grim faces, the police seemed to be on high alert: constantly, inconspicuously maneuvering themselves to cover every angle of Oranientplatz, like members of the SWAT team on field operations.  They were mostly male, too, but hulking and towering over the rest of us, padded in black, armoured uniforms.The kind of uniforms that they’d normally put on to face down stone-throwing rioters.   Many were staring at us with open expressions of contempt and disgust; some looked like they could barely stand the sight of us and yearned to erase us from view.

As I watched, a group of eight or nine police suddenly splintered off from their ranks and marched toward a group of black men sitting inconspicuously in the grass, off to one side of the square.  Six-foot tall officers surrounded a painfully-thin man with Somali features who was sitting on a low metal fence.  They waded through his friends and started hustling him to his feet with brute force.  The Somali man was almost a foot shorter than the officers and made no attempt to get away; he didn't even try to move.  His face crumpled with despair and physical pain, though, as one gorilla-like cop locked each of his arms in the crook of their elbows, with biceps tightly flexed. It looked like his arms might snap in half, they were so thin. He was frog-marched in this humiliating fashion toward the road that cuts through Oranienplatz.  On the other side of it sat a flotilla of parked riot vans.  The cops were moving so briskly that the refugee was lifted up off of his feet, clamped between these hardened, robotic beings that seemed like they were made of flexed brawn.   

He didn’t make a sound as he was dragged away and vanished into a van. 

“This is a police state," cried an older activist at them as they passed, looking visibly shaken.  A blonde-haired, muscle bound cop standing near the street laughed.

“Welcome to it!” he jeered.  

I ask one of the organizers of the Oranienplatz protest - a show of solidarity with 108 recently- rejected Berlin refugees - what was going on.  Had that Somali man just been arrested?  She was a nervy young woman with long dreads, her hair shaved at the sides.

 “They have a list of the people who are to be deported,” she said.   “They recognize them from and pull them out.  They have pictures beside the names.”

“What happens to them then?”

She shrugged.  “They take him in the van and tell him what will happen if he does not leave the country.”

Apparently, one of the refugees was held in a van, a kind of mobile intimidation chamber, for eight hours yesterday.   Presumably he was beig browbeaten the entire time by military-style police, threatening him to leave or else.  No one really knows, though.  Everything that happens to Berlin’s refugees happens in isolation, without witnesses or accountability, by design.   Is this Germany's idea of transparency?  If so, then it should consider painting the glass dome on the Bundestag black. 

August 26, 2014: Gurtelstrasse, Friedrichshain.

I spent the night outside of a hostel in Gurtelstrasse where 64 refugees were moved a couple of months ago, after being evicted from the abandoned school they'd occupied in Kreuzberg’s Ohlauer Strasse.  They'd squatted the abandoned school as part of an ongoing protest against the German refugee system.  Activists call this system the lager.  Lager is the German word for a basement or storage room.  It’s an apt term for the policy, which sees refugees confined to a single neighbourhood and residence, under close watch - not unlike inmates in a compound.  
While they’re waiting for their cases to be decided, refugees in the lager are subject to a curfew and must show their I.D. every time that they go in and out of their residence. Apparently, they're not even allowed to have guests visit them.  They have no right to work or move freely in the country and few chances to socialize.  Basically, they exist in a state of suspended animation for up to six months, where only the bare minimum of basic human needs stand a chance of being fulfilled.  The need to integrate and acclimatize, to learn the language, to socialize, to be productive?  They aren't included on the list. 

Out of sight is out of mind.

After they were evicted from the school, there was a brutal and un-photogenic standoff.  It made it into the mainstream media, despite an attempted blackout; police denied the press any access to the school and its occupants.  Despite the fact that nearly a thousand (that's right, a thousand) armoured police were present at the eviction of Ohlauer Strasse, they failed to evict the refugees, in large part due to public pressure to let them stay.  One hundred and eight of the refugees remained at the end of the standoff, and those were offered a settlement by the Berlin Senate: they got free accommodation in two hostels in Friedrichshain and Mariensfelde and an allowance of three hundred Euros per month to live on, while their asylum cases were being evaluated.   

It seemed like baby steps were being made towards meeting the refugee's demands, and they were finally being treated like human beings.  

Then, on Monday, the agreement was suddenly and inexplicably broken.  Scores of armoured police turned up in force at the hostels where the refugees now live, and they were told that their applications had been rejected en masse.  They were to be evicted on Tuesday, the following day.  According to one activist who I spoke to in Gurtelstrasse, the police were carrying deportation orders for some of the refugees when they arrived.   

The  eviction of Gurtelstrasse and the Mariensfelde hostel appear to violate the Ministry of the Interior's own guidelines for handling deportations.   The Bundesministerium’s website states: 'Asylum seekers are notified of the decision in writing and given information on legal remedy.'  There’s no mention of same-day evictions being executed by armoured police carrying deportation orders.   It seemed like this was a stealth attack, calculated to get the refugees as far away from the public consciousness as possible, as quickly as possible, without any opportunity for the decision to be appealed or the tactics questioned.  

The activists that I spoke to were understandably suspicious.  One of them told me  that asylum cases are never assessed that quickly, so something must have been done wrong.   There have been other unethical moves by the Ministry of the Interior, too: a number of refugees have been threatened with deportation before the minimum six-month period of temporary asylum has passed. According to the site Contra Info, quite a few applications have also been rejected without even being assessed.  Trust in the system’s fairness is at an all-time low.  Both the activists and the refugees that I spoke to seem to feel that these applications were turned down, not because they didn't meet the necessary criteria, but because the refugees have put city officials on the spot and embarrassed them with their protest movement.  They see the evictions as an act of revenge... and the behavior of the police at Oranienplatz did suggest a sense of resentment and hostility toward the refugees.  

Photographer catches snaps of would-be deportees, to be passed on to the police
The people I've spoken to in the last couple of days have all been unanimous in their belief that the refugees’ mistreatment by German authorities all boils down to one thing: the colour of their skin.  They may have a point.  During my years in Berlin, I've seen the police handling all kinds of difficult situations: hustling an aggressive, mentally ill homeless person  off of  a train; containing unruly groups of city drunks; clearing Skalitzer Strasse after an outbreak of violence on Mayday.   In all those situations, they seemed to follow a standard protocol: they approached the (white) offender from a cautious distance and informed him what he was doing wrong or what  they were going to do if he did not stop.   After repeated warnings, they escorted the offender away with minimal physical contact and force.  But when it comes to the refugees of Oranienplatz, those boundaries don't even seem to exist.   They are denied formalities; denied personal boundaries, and their emotional and mental boundaries are treated like they don't even exist.

One of the refugees who I spoke to at Oplatz (I’ll call him 'Thomas' to protect his identity) told me that he came to Germany to escape from a vendetta campaign against his family, back in his homeland.  The country that he came from was not technically at war, but it has been recognized as being impoverished, underdeveloped and politically unstable.  Blood feuds can carry on there, generation after generation, with impunity.  After seeing his father and a friend murdered in the same night by a rival family, Thomas fled.  He eventually ended up in Germany. 

Blood feuds are much more common in destabilized nations.  So is the murder of young boys who come from the ‘wrong’ faction.  

“They take the baby boys by the feet and swing their heads against a tree to smash it,” he said, graphically.   When I asked him how many babies he'd seen killed this way, he shook his head mournfully and said, "Too many."

I suppose that goes a long way towards explaining the disproportionately high number of men on the run from homelands that are going through any kind of civil strife.   Thomas explained that in his village, women usually stayed behind because they were not targeted for revenge killings in blood feuds.  That's not to say that the women have an easier life -  they just aren't in such immediate danger of being killed.

Stories like this explain why the refugees I met at Gurtelstrasse and Oranienplatz all share a kind of dogged pacifism.  As Thomas said, “I didn't come here to make trouble [...] but I don’t want to go back and be caught up in a fight.  Then I might get caught up in a fight and kill someone and then, their family will kill me too. I just want to live.”  But instead of helping people like Thomas escape the bullies a Germany has taken to bullying them in its own turn.   

One does get a sense that what's happening here is not the routine assessment and administration of refugees, or an orderly dispersal of people who’ve been deemed ‘safe’ to return  to their homelands.  One gets the sense that a campaign of terror and intimidation is  being allowed to go continue just because it can.  Refugees in Berlin are treated like their being here is due to some sort of failing on their part.  To me, and any other compassionate person who drops into Oraneinplatz today, it’s obvious that the only failure is on the part of the German administration for treating them that way.   

I asked one activist what the average Berliner could do to help these refugees.  His humble reply: "Just come here and witness, have a look at what is going on."  It seemed like a humble request at the time, but now I understand why.  The German activists involved in this movement are being run ragged as they try to just be there for these refugees as they are isolated and picked off and moved around, shifted like so many props on a stage, under the direction of the German government.  By just simply being there, these activists are able to prevent the worst abuses happening because it turns the spotlight on the short cuts being taken by the authorities, instead of letting them go on behind the scenes.  

On Wednesday afternoon, there were only enough 'witnesses' like me there to catch the overflow of helplessness from the refugees and suffer alongside them; it will take hundreds more of us to actually repel it. So I'd urge any one reading this to go down to Oranienplatz and, if nothing else, make a visual statement of support that drowns out the officials’ condemnation and contempt.  It seems like the only way that this situation is going to change.   

Find more actions using the hashtag #oplatz on Twitter 




Tuesday, 26 August 2014

No Future (or, How To Succeed in A Dystopian Workplace)

This isn't the cover for my book... it's an artwork by David Holtek of creativedisease.com

The story below is taken from my new book 'Vote Tekno Party'.  And yes, that is the same book that I spent the last seven months working on instead of blogging!

Vote Tekno Party is a collection of stories written from the point of view of Selene, a 24 year-old expat living in late-nineties London.  She is pushing herself to live what she considers to be a totally independent, DIY lifestyle.  Throughout the book (which mostly takes place in squats, underground clubs, illegal parties and riots) she keeps on running into unexpected obstacles to that goal.

In this chapter, Selene gets fired for drawing and daydreaming while at her desk job instead of "pretending" to work, like all of her colleagues seem to be doing.  I wrote it to show the reader how out of touch Selene's expectations are with what's going on around her.  While I was writing it, though, I started to think about the difference between what people 'expect' to happen and what they think is 'meant to be'.  Good example: almost all of the artists, musicians and writers that I know 'expect' to make very little money, even though they mostly believe that's not the way that things are 'meant to be'.  Where does expectation become acceptance?

Read on to find out how Selene's answers that question, and feel free to share your own experiences and viewpoints after reading it!



https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/455815