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  • Red Flag: Dear BVG, please stop assaulting people


Red Flag: Dear BVG, please stop assaulting people

Berlin's public transport company is responsible for a steady stream of violence against its own customers. The legal basis for this is a law written by the Nazis. Nathaniel Flakin wonders if they could stop.

The BVG say they love us, but they’ve got a funny way of showing it. Photo: IMAGO / Müller-Stauffenberg

They’re back! For three months this summer, public transport in Germany was essentially free, and ticket checkers became a rare sight. (The BVG denies that there were fewer controls, but I wasn’t asked to show my €9 ticket a single time — were you?) Now, ticket prices are expensive and Kontrolleur:innen are back in force.

Every rider has seen controllers being aggressive and threatening — many of us have seen physical assaults. I reached out to the BVG’s press office to get some numbers about how much violence their employees dish out. All I could get, unfortunately, were rote non-answers: “I can assure you that the BVG does not tolerate … neither discrimination nor violence.”

This has not been my experience. In all my years in Berlin, I have seen more violence from ticket checkers than from all other people combined (except for cops, of course). Asking around the Exberliner office, it seems like everyone has witnessed shocking scenes. The internet is full of horrible stories — and those are just the ones that made it into mainstream media. In all these cases, the victims have been People of Colour.

It seems like everyone has witnessed shocking scenes.

It sounds like the BVG is hiring people who wouldn’t qualify to be cops in the United States. Again, the BVG explains that there is “regular training for internal and internal employees” to prevent violence and discrimination, and these have been “intensified in recent years.” They always aim for “deescalation.” 

But that doesn’t seem to be helping. What’s really going on?

Controllers are enforcing a law passed by the Nazis in 1935: paragraph 265a of the criminal code deals with Dienstleistungserschleichung, which means surreptitiously obtaining services. Riding without a ticket is thus a Straftat, which roughly corresponds to a felony. This mean so-called Schwarzfahren is in the same category as murder and assault. It is not an Ordnungswidrigkeit (misdemeanor) like illegal parking or littering.

Paragraph 265a is an absurd law: Numerous judges have determined that a person is not committing a crime as long as they have a sign or t-shirt that indicates they are traveling without a ticket, because then it is no longer surreptitious. 

This law is why people who repeatedly take public transport without a ticket can be sent to prison. The most recent statistics I saw, from 2018, showed 8,000 to 9,000 people in prison (!) for taking the bus. Prison costs €150 per day per person — criminalisation is likely costing hundreds of millions of euros a year — this is money that could be invested in public transport!

This also forms the legal basis for controller violence. According to Paragraph 127 StPO, when they forcefully drag someone off a train, they are carrying out a kind of “citizen’s arrest” to prevent a felony. By both legal and moral standards, such behavior is assault, and often even serious assault. But the law, as formulated by the Nazis, says that such assaults are justified because someone can’t afford €2 or €3 for a ticket.

Imagine the following scenario: I often see car drivers illegally parking on bike lanes. This has been known to cause vehicular manslaughter. I could call the police. If the driver tried to leave the scene, should I try to punch and otherwise restrain them? I think any civilised person would say: Are you insane? Of course not! A parking violation, even when illegal and dangerous, can never justify violence.

By both legal and moral standards, such behavior is assault, and often even serious assault.

But car drivers tend to be wealthier, and subway riders tend to be poorer, so of course they are treated differently by the law. The Nazis established the legal basis for car supremacy that continues to this day. This is why you’ve certainly never seen a driver getting beaten up because of a parking violation. 

There is good news: Germany’s government, including Justice Minister Marco Buschmann of the FDP, wants to change the Nazi law. This isn’t so much about preventing racist violence — they just don’t want to spend so much money on prisons. But let’s take what we can get. A side effect would be that assaults by ticket checkers would finally be illegal, as they should be.

But the BVG does not have to wait for the law to change. They could declare a moratorium on violence right now. Berlin’s Senate Administration for Transport, currently run by the Green Party, could do the same. Senator Bettina Jarasch has said she wants more people on public transport — this would be an extremely simple reform.

Now would fewer people buy tickets or pay fines if they were no longer threatened with violence? Probably! But the loss of €2 to €3 seems like a small price to pay to end constant violence.

Let’s not forget that the BVG is already funded in large part by tax money. The money they currently get from ticket sales could be replaced many times over by getting realty speculators in Berlin to pay a minuscule amount of taxes. (The BVG could also trim down the €500,000 salaries to its top managers. They didn’t respond to my query about how much exactly management costs.) Ideally, we could get rid of tickets entirely, and ticket checkers along with them. It worked fine during the summer of almost free public transport.

In the well-documented cases of BVG violence above, videos have been extremely useful

Until the law or the policy is changed, we can all do our part to stop violent hooligans paid by the BVG (and all of us). If someone asks you to show a ticket, please make sure they can identify themselves properly. You need to be able to check the photo and note down the employee number on their ID before they can demand to see your ticket. In my experience, despite “regular training,” many aren’t prepared to identify themselves. This kind of basic accountability can limit violence.

If you see an assault taking place, or a situation where it looks likely, don’t hesitate to pull out your phone and document it. The BVG claims this is illegal, because it would violate controllers’ “right to their own image.” And while I’m not a lawyer, they seem to be completely misunderstanding the law. Germany’s “right to one’s own image” regulates the publication of images. Simply taking them is a different matter, and the legal rulings here are less clear. Courts have repeatedly determined that filming police is legal because their actions are automatically in the “public interest.” Cops can’t actually force you to delete videos, even though they often claim they cant.

One could make the same argument about employees of a public company like the BVG: public interest. Furthermore, the “right to one’s own image” has never been so absolute as to prevent citizens from documenting crimes taking place. I am not aware of any court decisions that deal with controllers on public transport specifically, so I don’t think anyone can say for sure if it’s legal or not. In the well-documented cases of BVG violence above, videos have been extremely useful, and the BVG has not tried to sue people for making them. Finally: Isn’t the BVG filming us all the time?

Ultimately, though, we need structural solutions. Both the BVG, the Berlin Senate Administration for Transport, and the German Federal Government are called on to annul Nazi-era laws that allow for violence against riders.