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John Riceburg: Refugees vs. Robocops

Last Thursday, 2500 Berlin students went on strike to defend the rights of the refugees at Oranienplatz. The police were not at all happy about this.

Image for John Riceburg: Refugees vs. Robocops
Photo by quilombofotos (Flickr CC)

“Say it loud, say it clear: Refugees are welcome here!”

The refugee protest camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg is usually a pretty tranquil place – just last week I did an interview on a park bench. But on Thursday afternoon, the square was packed with more than 2500 students who were on strike in support of the rights of refugees. Young people came from schools and universities across Berlin. There were fiery speeches and a hip hop concert – any interviews had to be shouted. In the days leading up to the strike, there had been assemblies at half a dozen schools featuring presentations about Germany’s asylum laws as well as speeches from refugee activists.

Originally the strike had been planned against the ultimatum by Interior Senator Frank Henkel (CDU) to evict the protest camp by January 18. The ultimatum was cancelled, but the alliance of left-wing youth organizations and independent students maintained the protests. Even without an eviction, there seems to be plenty to object to – refugees are forced to live in camps with no right to work or education. The last attempt to evict the O-Platz in November was thwarted by 600 supporters, but there’s still an ongoing threat. In fact, early on Saturday morning, the toilet truck used by the refugees was completely burned down – arson is suspected, but the perpetrators haven’t been identified.

The first pro-refugee school strike took place on December 12 in Hamburg – now there is talk of a national day of strike action in the coming months. School students have parents, and parents write angry letters to newspapers. So I would expect the police to let the young people, mostly aged between 12 and 18, demonstrate in peace, right?

Not so. Police surrounded the march with officers in black riot gear reminiscent of those Robocop posters all over Alexanderplatz. Also present was the Anti-Konflikt-Team in neon yellow vests and armed with (anti-conflict?) pistols. A total of seven students and refugees were arrested during the day – a spontaneous protest at the Berlinale in the afternoon saw further detentions. (I have to admit, with a bit of shame, that I was in a film screening at the time.)

Since they opened the camp at O-Platz, I’m not the only person who has learned about the refugees’ struggle. It used to be a niche topic that I would think about only a few times a year. But now everyone is talking about the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. More student strikes will keep the discussion going. The right-wing tabloid Bild has accused the students of Schwänzen (truancy) and attacked the teachers’ union for supporting the protest. But I can say I learned more in a day at O-Platz than I ever learned in a day in a classroom. The strike is an important part of a humanistic, anti-racist education and the students get my vote of support in their decision to participate.

Look out for more on O-Platz from John Riceburg in the March issue of Exberliner.