It doesn’t often occur to me to identify as a Jew, and when it does it is usually because of outside circumstances. These past few days have provided those circumstances. Here, in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, today’s refugees are yesterday’s Jews.
I currently live in Berlin, in one of the most radical neighborhoods in Germany, and perhaps this part of Europe. There are dozens of buildings that used to be squats that are still collectively run. There is active defense against gentrification and regular occupations of buildings, parks and squares. People fight to maintain public space in a myriad of ways, from protests that take over and keep streets open, to hundreds barbequing in parks when it is declared forbidden. There are collective kitchens, cafes, bike repair spaces and bookstores. It is also one of the European centers of anti-fascist organizing. Political spaces and centers abound. This neighborhood is also incredibly diverse with, besides Europeans, Turkish, Kurdish and African families all around. These are the reasons why I felt fine about moving here – and giving birth to my child here.
Two blocks from our house is an abandoned school that was occupied by hundreds of refugees almost two years ago. This sort of occupation has become a common occurrence in the city, and in this neighborhood in particular. The community has been essential in supporting this, and all the occupations, with everything from basic necessities to defense against potential eviction. These have been successful common occurrences, that is, until very recently. First, the police and city officials, using diverse tactics of divide and conquer, evicted an encampment at Oranienplatz, a plaza that has been occupied for over a year. Then, the same week, not coincidently I believe, that culminated over a month of coordinated pro-migrant and pro-refugee actions throughout Europe, the police and city decided to evict the refugees from the school in my neighborhood – while many migrant activists and their supporters were in Brussels for the closing actions.
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The morning the eviction took place, before I knew what was planned, I left the house early with my now 9-month-old baby to get fresh bread (buying bread is a daily task in Germany.) As we left the house I immediately noticed an overwhelming and frightening police presence. Dozens of green and blue police vans, strobe lights blinking, were bumper to bumper along our street and perpendicular streets. When I turned the corner toward the bakery, I was asked something in German by police, who had created a metal barricade at that intersection; completely blocking the street and sidewalk. Because I was holding the baby, nervous about the police presence, and unclear about what I was being asked, I returned to the apartment and watched from the balcony. As people approached the intersections, they were made to show identification to the police, and I assumed had to prove they lived on the block in order to pass. This was three days ago, when the police and city began what is now still an attempted eviction. For the past three days and nights, everyone must show ID to go on Lausitzer Street or Ohlauer Street. Lausitzer is one building away from where I am living. What the police fear, and use to rationalize such repressive measures, is that people will go to help the refugees. You see, there are a few dozen of them now on the roof of the school.
The real fear is of human solidarity. The police blockades and actual occupation are to prevent people from bringing food or supplies to the refugees at the school. Freedom of movement no longer exists. And that one has to show identification to move about Berlin – in Germany – I cannot begin to write what this feels like to me as a Jew. I never imagined I would feel this. I do know this is not the same as fascism, that being asked to show identification to go on certain streets is not the same as being forced to wear a colored badge, but, then again …. What is happening now is all about othering, in this case, Africans refugees are the others. It is also about creating divisions in society, and using force to prevent solidarity with those who are othered. This frightens me. This sounds all too much like what lead to the rise of fascism.
What prompted me to write this however, was not the fear and anger I have been feeling, but the bravery shown in the face of such fear. When I was a child and learned about the Holocaust, I learned about the “righteous among the nations,” the non-Jews who did something to help, often at considerable risk. Here and now it is the few dozen very young people who formed a blockade on my corner, preventing the police vans from passing. These young men and women, most in their teens and early twenties, stood up to riot police in defense of others. They sat down, linked arms, and chanted, “Refugees are Welcome Here.”
For their actions, they were dragged along the pavement, four or five police pulling each youth, often applying pain compliance holds, to remove them from the street. And then, after they were removed, one by one, a little further into the intersection, they sat again, surrounding the police vans, again blocking their ability to move.
It is these youth who have inspired me to write and have caused my eyes to tear. They were afraid I am sure, there were hundreds of riot police moving in on them. But they held strong. To sit down again, after they were forcibly removed, sometimes being pulled by their hair and often pushed face down on the street, was more than simply admirable. It was inspiring. These are the people who make history. These are the people who stop fascism. Refusing to move, refusing to allow a city to turn into a police state, refusing to allow people to be othered. This is how we change the world. Little by little, a few dozen that night, but those few dozen are forever changed. And those, like myself, who watched, will be that much more inspired to organize and defend others.
Over one week later. Since writing this opinion piece, the refugees continue on the roof of the school, asking for some sort of guarantee that they will not be deported. And the city and police continue to make sections of Kreuzberg a police state. One still must show identification to walk on certain streets. Africans on the street and in the park are treated with suspicion and regularly questioned and harassed by the police. And the demonstrations continue. Now, every night, on the intersections where the police have blocked free passage, hundreds gather and protest. A bookstore on the periphery of the police occupation is now a collection spot for supplies for the refugees in the school, with supporters smuggling in food and other necessities. (Again harkening a ghetto from days supposedly passed.) Last night an assembly was called by those in the neighborhood, culminating in a badminton game over the heads of the police and barricade, ending with neighbors charging the police lines numerous times. And this past weekend, over six thousand people marched in solidarity with the refugees and against the policies of the city and state. They marched chanting. “Sol Sol Solidarity” and “Refugees are Welcome Here”.