Racist Continuity

If Bremen continues like this, the city will hardly accomplish any critical reflection of the past: notes on a future political concept of postcolonial memory, occasioned by the conflict around “Lindenstrasse”

A commentary by Fatoş Atali-Timmer, Silke Betscher, Sabine Broeck, Christiane Falge, Andreas Fischer-Lescano, Ayla Satilmis, Nurhak Polat,

(German version published in the daily TAZ Bremen, https://taz.de/Archiv-Suche/!5679550&s=betscher&SuchRahmen=Print/)

A few years back, the city of Bremen committed considerable political attention and administrative support to creating and pursuing a concept for critical reflection of her own colonial past. One major tenet of this concept was to analyze the colonial cooperation of various actors in the history of Bremen, as well as the various discursive legitimations of her colonial involvement and practices. A first forum with numerous groups and individual actors from civil society in 2016 resulted in the declaration that communal acts of memory will not be an “easily resolvable task providing closure on the past,” but should be an “ongoing process in our present time to struggle against and end racism”. However, a glance at Bremen’s recent history and at the events around the refugee reception centre in Lindenstrasse (“Landesaufnahmestelle” Bremen-Vegesack) reveals that long after the historical phase which has been named as colonialism we have been continually confronted with state politics and practices which can only be understood in the longue durée context of racism, and thus connected to the colonial past – practices that have always been mobilized and legitimized by racist discourses, however disavowed.

On January 7 2005, a young man, Laye Alama Condé, died as a consequence of having been committed to emetic torture at the hands of Bremen police – a practice that had been used for 13 years against Black men who were accused of petty drug related misdemeanors. White civil society was willing – in full sight of the ample dangers of this tortuous practice – to accept the death of black life in order to enforce their system and their notion of law and order. There is not a single recorded case of the use of emetic torture against a white person.

Between 2016 and 2018, a group of young refugees – self-identified as unaccompanied minors under 18 years old – were housed separately from other refugees in a building in Gottlieb-Daimler Strasse – the youth welfare office of Bremen assumed they were lying about their age. In small groups the refugees (mostly migrated from African countries) were transported to Münster where their bodies were examined and measured by white doctors in order to have their age assigned. This is a fatal reminder of colonialist practices. All those youngsters who protested against this scientifically unvalidated practice of “age assignment” were kept for months in permanent tents in a peripheral area of Bremen. This practice was justified with reference to German law for the protection of minors (SGB VIII). It was not, however, without any feasible alternatives: It would have been possible to believe the young people in question, or to proceed according to the report in the “15. Kinder- und Jugendbericht der Bundesregierung” (15.Federal Government Children’s and Youth Report) which stated clearly that the process of becoming an adult is not generally finished by the age of 18. In doing so, the city could have employed the directives for the support of young adults in the Youth Welfare Law (Jugendhilferecht §41 SGB VIII). Thus, it could have been possible to act in support of a number of young people who had fled from countries still suffering from the long-term effects of colonial regimes.

The latest example for racist practices from pre-Corona times, this one from January 2020 – practices which arise in an enabling cooperation of attitudes, discourses and the diffusion of responsibility which always emerge in the grey zone of possible interpretations of the law in terms of its employment or non-employment – is the case of a young man from Gambia who reassigned to a different refugee housing complex in the state of Brandenburg and transported there in handcuffs and only wearing his briefs. This was not a one-time incident, in October 2019 the same happened to a young man from Guinea. These decisions were legitimated by the state with the employment of German law as well, thus counteracting and undermining the UN-Convention on the Rights of the Child which demand state action be conducted “in the best interest of the child”. In time with the re-assignment action in January, the state social authority (“Sozialbehörde”) issued administrative guidelines which delineate the justification of this disregard of international law and the spirit of the German Youth Welfare Law. With this directive, and its bureaucratic pedantry, this practice gains a legalistic nimbus. This also reveals the racist-colonial reference if one stops to reconsider the young men’s reasons to refuse relocation and thus to refuse losing the social and emotional context they had just built in Bremen – their insistence to lead a self-determined life should be considered as an active realization of the goals of becoming a responsible adult in Germany. Their mistake, it appears, was to come from the “wrong” country of origin and to be consequently sorted into a group of “non-citizens” excluded from the democratic standards and rights of German civil society. The continuity of colonialist racism becomes evident as soon as one visualizes the acts in question: the handcuffed, bound body of a young person, stripped of her rights by white adult state officials and legally empowered police force are being shipped across Germany. It becomes obvious that a legally legitimized violation of their dignity is being practiced on the bodies of these young people.

If we were to take literally the self-obligation of the city’s concept for postcolonial memory – to battle today’s racism – the Bremen politics in the case of Bremen Lindenstrasse show immediate and urgent demand for active response. Even in the very early days of the pandemic hitting Germany, the residents of Lindenstrasse had fought for evacuation of the camp and for an accommodation which would allow the required “social distancing” and thus to avoid infection with Covid-19. For weeks, their demands have been ignored, and answered with public commentary by the city according to which the situation in Lindenstrasse was appropriate, even though it is obvious that the space does not allow for the necessary physical distance between residents. The current number of infections proves these fears legitimate; the rate has gone up to 33 %. With cynical poise, the city has recently offered „psychological advice,” as an improvement of the situation, instead of immediate shut down of the center.

To clad violence and ignorance in paternalism has always been part of colonialist trajectories. The residents of Lindenstrasse have at no point appeared as self-determined subjects of civil negotiation. Instead they are being represented by the city’s interventions, and in much media commentary, as a group which needs either top-down social measures and/or efficient state control. The fact that the city official for Social Affairs (Sozialsenatorin) responsible for the refusal of early intervention and thus for the failure of assistance (evacuation) now calls the result of her political decisions – mass infection with the virus – “interesting for virologists” has particularly appalling implications: the white gaze on epidemics’ outbreak zones (“Seuchenherde”) has been part and parcel of colonial so-called science. The entire history of tropical medicine and epidemiology has been most intimately tied to colonialism – to viz the case of Robert Koch, who conducted experiments on colonized human beings on the African continent.

To understand and work through the colonial past and racism in the present only becomes possible if one takes into account the complex relations of cooperation and negotiations between different actors and disciplines. In the past, the colonial stakes were not restrained to the collection of loot to display in European museums. Amassing these objects was a kind of welcome side effect of colonial violence and the articulation of racist epistemology and knowledge formations about the so-called “others” – a knowledge which such museum collections helped to popularize, and thus to perpetuate the civil establishment of longstanding categories of differentiated access, or its denial, to humanness, human rights, and exposure to exploitation which have been active way into our present moment.

This trajectory of emetic torture, the arbitrary age assignments, the shipping of handcuffed and the denial of the right to health in Lindenstrasse reveals those events as practices depending on knowledge formations embedded in colonial-racist continuity – and also amplifies the cooperation between political apparatus, social institutions, police, the legal system, public health and media to maintain legitimacy. In opposition to these practices we need to understand which patterns of thought and action are being perpetuated by white society to respond to the kind of urgencies – as the supposedly irrational and “uncivil” demands of the refugees in Lindenstrasse – which have been discursively produced as such in the first place. Here, too, the colonialist measure of humanness is the reigning paradigm: Some lives are – in this perspective – deemed less “valuable” than others, and their sanctity becomes dispensable. This is a practice that – important to keep this in mind – is not without alternatives.

In the future, the city can no longer hold ivory tower debates about Bremen’s colonial role in the past. Should this concern at all gain credibility, it needs to take the recent events of the past years and weeks and the present tense actions of political leaders in the city into critical account. Should anybody have assumed we could – by way of propagating a concept of public memory of the past – alleviate a historical guilt, which is then placed safely in the realm of “past and gone”, they/ we are asked to realize now that we are faced with a present responsibility to act according to our postcolonial imperatives and to prevent further mass infection and risk possible human death. In a post-Corona future, it will not be possible to keep propagating a post-colonial memory concept based on abstract, mainstreamed postcolonial discourses addressing the city’s bygone era. We can expect that not only more consciousness raising but also massive resistance will be necessary so that white majority society in Bremen will acknowledge that what happens before our eyes in the present, is racism.