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White men need to open their eyes

Mirjam Gehrke
Mirjam Gehrke
August 2, 2020

The debate about racism in the German police goes on. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has refused to approve a study on it and sees the police mainly as victims. This is a cynical denial of reality, says Mirjam Gehrke.

A sign at a Black Lives Matter rally in Berlin ready Stop Racial Profiling
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Soder

Blaise Francis El Mourabit knows exactly how it feels to be stopped and questioned by police out of the blue. Not just once, but again and again, without cause. El Mourabit is a German lawyer in Düsseldorf — and Black. He said that police stop him whenever he goes out in jeans and gym shoes instead of a suit, often speaking to him in an insolent manner.

More and more people of color in Germany have been speaking out about their daily experiences with police racism, particularly since the killing of the Black US citizen George Floyd by a white police office in late May. Three weeks ago on social media, El Mourabit offered to represent clients in cases of racial profiling free of charge. Since then, he has received some 700 messages and 230 legal queries.

Mirjam Gehrke
DW editor Mirjam GehrkeImage: DW/E.-M. Senftleben

But if one is to believe German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the Düsseldorf-based lawyer is dealing with mere fantasies. Police in Germany are not allowed to stop people without cause just because of their skin color, hair color or other external features, Seehofer has said.

And with this simplistic argument, he has refused to allow a proposed study on racist practices among German police.

Seehofer squandered an opportunity

The interior minister has gone one step further, saying he is convinced there is no structural problem with racism in Germany's police forces. By making this statement, he is giving his personal opinion precedence over scientific insights that could provide a sound basis for an objective debate. With utter conviction, this white man in the top office of the Interior Ministry is denying what many people in Germany — 26% of the population — experience every day.

As the person to whom police in Germany ultimately answer, Seehofer is not doing them any favors with his cynical refusal. Instead, he has created the impression that there is something to hide. An independent study could help identify and rectify problems and restore people's trust in the police. With his shortsighted argument, Seehofer has squandered an opportunity.

Seehofer compounded his blunder after the massive anti-police riots in Stuttgart and Frankfurt. They were triggered by police checking for drugs and attempting to break up a mass brawl. Hundreds of mostly young people attacked the police with bottles and stones, injuring several officers and setting police cars on fire.

In response, Seehofer announced a study looking into violence against police — a transparent smoke screen, as this data is readily available. The Federal Criminal Police Office publishes an annual summary of violence against police across Germany. In 2019, almost 70,000 police officers were victims of violence — while on patrol duty, at football matches or during demonstrations.

Horst Seehofer in Stuttgart, surrounded by white police officers
Seehofer needs to focus on what's happening in German police forces, says GehrkeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Murat

Vote of no confidence in the police

There are also reports dating back to at least 2013 documenting some 200 cases of far-right extremism among police forces. This includes showing and wearing unconstitutional symbols. The case currently receiving the most attention is that of the threats sent mainly to left-leaning women, including some with migrant backgrounds.

They were signed by the "NSU 2.0," referring to the National Socialist Underground, whose members killed nine migrants in Germany and a police officer between 2000 and 2007. Personal information to address at least three of the threats was accessed from police computers in the state of Hesse.

It can be assumed that this is the tip of the iceberg , as not everything sent in a private chat ends up getting the attention of prosecutors. And people are supposed to believe the 200 registered cases are individual incidents? Or is it possible they are indications of possible right-wing structures in a body that — despite having the trust of the interior minister — is seen as a threat rather than a friend and helper by parts of society? Criminological research has stated for years that charges are only pressed in about 20% of racially motivated crimes. It's a vote of no confidence in the police.

Racism among the police and violence against police — studies into both are badly needed. It's about understanding why respect for the police is dropping, whether and to what degree far-right and racist ideologies exist in police forces and how the two are connected. Interior Minister Seehofer, open your eyes and take off your white man glasses.

Black Lives in GermanyRacism Hidden and Overt