Berlin - If you follow the news closely, you might think we’re talking about the recent case of Daunte Wright, 20, who was killed after a traffic stop on 11 April in Minnesota. This case occurred mere miles away from where George Floyd was killed by other officers in the same state and is rightly receiving international coverage, Germany included. We would normally celebrate the fact that racist police violence is finally front page news, but focusing exclusively on the US ignores the many other cases and urgent need for reform – right here in Germany. A reform that has so far been evaded.
When the ECRI (European Commission against Raicism and Intolerance) recommended an investigation into racial profiling within the police, an almost blanket denial of its existence was issued by interior minister Horst Seehofer who claimed: “Es ist verboten, also findet es nicht statt." (“It's forbidden, so it doesn't happen.”) This move to stop such a necessary study and the denial of its need and urgency help to create the environment we are living in, where unexplained deaths, racial profiling and police brutality continue to happen in Germany.
Even when statistics exist they are ignored. In 2020, the Ruhr-Universität Bochum conducted a large-scale study which revealed there were at least 12,000 alleged unlawful assaults by police every year. We need to recognise that although conditions are not the same as the US, we are still living in a police state where state actors can operate with impunity. In Germany, we’ve criminalised entire neighborhoods with the creation of the gefährlicher Ort (dangrous locations) designation, inflicting daily violence through high-level police surveillance. On top of this reality, very few cases of police brutality make it to the courts or the news headlines.
One example you might have heard of: Oury Jalloh. On 7 January 2005, the 36-year-old asylum seeker from Sierra Leone was found dead and burned beyond recognition in a police cell in Dessau. The official cause: he burned himself to death. That he is supposed to have accomplished this while strapped to a fireproof mattress strongly suggests that if the police did not kill him, he was killed with their knowledge, implicating them in this murder. Despite filing an allegation of murder at the federal court level in 2017, a 2019 decision from a regional court in Naumburg ruled against continuing the investigation into his death. The absence of video evidence means that his family may never receive justice.
This injustice is not limited to the former East Germany. When Qosay Sadam Khalaf left his family home in Delmenhorst on 5 March 2021, he was a healthy 19-year-old. Hours later, he was dead. A friend claims that officers restricted his airflow by kneeling on him and refused to provide medical attention. In the international uproar over George Floyd’s public execution, Angela Merkel unequivocally stated: “racism is something terrible.” Why, then, does she remain silent after a young Yazidi refugee, who fled a war zone with his family for the safety of northern Germany, died under similar circumstances?
These cases are not outliers. Since 1990, there have been at least 181 deaths in police custody with a suspected racist motive, and each month brings more reports about rightwing extremism among Germany’s police and security forces. Given this reality, the question to ask is not if racist killings are systemic, but what we can do to save lives. That’s why we started filming the police in Germany and ask you to do the same.
You’re probably thinking, “No, we can’t, there are laws against that sort of thing,” but that’s only partially true. In 2015, the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe affirmed the right to film the police under certain circumstances. In other words: filming the police is legal, but publishing what you film is not! Instead of uploading to social media, save that footage as evidence. It’s especially necessary to back up the other side of the story with irrefutable details when German police, prosecutors, and politicians categorically dismiss that a problem exists at all. The consequences of police violence are real and can be fatal, but we are not powerless.
No one needed to see the brutal way in which George Floyd died, but the video might mean a higher chance of justice for the theft of his life will be served. Without a record of his last moments, we would never know that Derek Chauvin knelt on his windpipe for exactly 9 minutes and 29 seconds. This is crucial evidence that would be missing if the teenager who recorded that video, Darnella Frazier, had never taken out her phone. The next time you see what may be an illegal and racist police stop, don’t hesitate. Start filming the police!