(By: conjuncture magazine; special thanks to neukoellnbild, photographer)
Tuesday morning the police moved to evict a former school that is being squatted by refugees. The Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule on Ohlauer Straße, in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, Berlin, has been squatted for the last year and a half. It became a central spot for the refugee strike, a movement fighting for equal rights for refugees in Europe during the last two years.
The fact that a squat was evicted is, unfortunately, not surprising. However, in this case there are some additional aspects that are worth mentioning.
First of all, the refugees began the squat with the promise to leave the building as soon as their political demands were met. No one planed on living in the school for longer than necessary. The sanitary conditions were insufficient and the rooms were crowded. It was not the classic “we came to stay” but rather a clear “we came to move on.”
The squatters chose the school because it is in the center of the city, making the immigrant squatters visible to the government and the general public — a confrontation that the German state usually avoids by building refugee-camps in the middle of nowhere, far from the public eye. (Some Photos from one of the camps at ‘Zeit Magazin’)
Nonetheless, the city government was in a dialogue with the protesting refugees for more than a year without any progress. While not solving any of the problems the refugees are protesting against the promise was made, however, that there would be no eviction.
What happened to that promise? Well nothing – according to the official statement from the district office, given out on flyers around the school, the refugees are leaving the school on their own “free will” to move to a “new home”, under the protection of the police. Apparently, 1000 police (wo)men equipped with complete riot gear and automatic rifles were needed to facilitate the refugees exercise of their “free will”. The ‘help’ of the police was mainly to carry out people that didn’t leave the building by themselves.
The two streets around the school were closed for more than 2 days and the city-government (supported by the police) repeatedly prohibited the press from documenting the event. The district representative (from the supposedly left Green party) informed the journalists present on Tuesday morning that press coverage is not necessary.
Looks like someone forgot that the freedom of press does not mean that politicians are free to tell the media what to write about and what not. (Spoiler Alert: The last German president had to resign mainly because he tried to force a big – and populist right-wing – newspaper not to write about how he financed his house.)
It also looks like the state found its way to isolate and silence the refugees again. This time not by interning people into an isolated camp, but the other way round: by turning the public space the refugees picked into an isolated one.
A big problem about the whole situation is that the state seems to have almost unlimited possibilities to control the situation. This is combined with fact that structures of the now over two year-old refugee-movement stay fragile – due to the constant threat of deportation.
The wall of isolation that is built around the movement gives the police as well as the elected representatives of the state a space where only their rules count. In similar situations in Hamburg and Berlin, there were even contracts signed between state representatives and the refugees that resulted in their attempted deportation. Different state agencies such as the police or the migration department simply did not accept the contracts as legally binding. Only quickly started petitions, media attention, and committed lawyers – in short the informal network the refugees developed during the last years – prevented these deportations.
The reaction of the refugees as well as supporters outside of the school was a demonstration contained behind police barricades. Little could be done from the outside, except maintain contact to those inside via telephone. While the police were telling us that the refugees wanted to leave the school now, the messages from the inside informed us, that they intended to stay until residency for all involved refugees was secured. Given that the press conference planned by the refugees in the school was denied, protesters outside the school became the only nexus of visibility to the public.
The eviction, including the total denial of the freedom of press as well as the presence of an obscene amount of police shows that the state is currently a huge source of power. Additionally, the broken promises show that under current conditions, this source of power is not a reliable one. The reaction from the state continues to be limited to making very small concessions without ever touching the core problem of the highly exclusive concepts of citizenship. And like the example of the school shows, even the smallest concessions are broken.
The strategy to a least break through isolation and to avoid the creation of a ‘legal vacuum’ in which the state power is not controlled any longer was a good emergency intervention for this actual case. The question that comes out of this conflict is, how we can protect ourselves against this form of state violence on the long term. How deep can we get into the existing system without getting lost in it.