A Trans-Atlantic Platform for Fighting Racist Police Violence
by Tina Lee
In both the United States and Germany, the police are overfunded, have too much responsibility, and are infiltrated by white supremacists and neo-nazis. We can’t leave it up to them to change on their own.
Over the past few weeks, disgusting images of police violence in the United States have sparked an international outcry about state-sponsored violence against Black people and what can be done against it. While Europeans demonstrate their solidarity with Americans fighting against racism, their support is also needed here to challenge police racism that has a different historical context but can be just as brutally violent (just consider the case of Oury Jalloh).
In fact, here in Germany, we share several key “police problems” in common with the USA. We can fight in solidarity with our allies across the Atlantic while fighting for the lives of Black people and People of Colour (BPOC) here in Germany at the same time, and the best part is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel! Thanks to the pressure of civil rights activists, the US was years ahead of Germany in addressing workplace discrimination, hate crime, and racial profiling. Now, Black activists in the US are leading the way in how to address systemic racism and injustice in the criminal justice system, and we should listen.
Here are three problems the police in Germany and USA have in common, and ways forward on how to address them.
1. Bloated police budgets
The war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on terror: three racialized concepts that allowed police departments to pose as soldiers on the front line of a generalized domestic conflict; one that had to be fought through any means necessary and with the latest, expensive technology. This “war” positioning has had the happy side effect of enriching private defense contractors who made millions equipping local police officers with equipment unnecessary for their jobs - which hasn’t stopped them from using it. Yet Germany was experiencing the lowest violent crime rates in decades. Unsurprisingly, there are proven links between police militarization and police violence. But having police equipped for total war didn’t do much for communities, who were left grappling with austerity .
In Germany, the Interior Ministry, led by the overtly racist CSU politician Horst Seehofer (who famously declared that “Islam does not belong to Germany”) received a 12% boost in the budget in 2019. The largest amount of that funding went to police. Despite persistent fear-mongering by the center and far-right about immigrant crime and “parallel societies”, crime levels sunk to a nearly 30 year low in 2018. This was three years after a large group of people fleeing war in Syria were accepted in the country in accordance with international law.
So why the budget increase? In Berlin, the over-funding of the police can be seen in their extensive presence in riot gear at even small peaceful protests. As seen also from their near-daily appearance in Görlitzer park to racially profile and steal from Black people, under the guise of enforcing ludicrously one-sided anti-drug policies.
In the US, police budgets can account for anything between 30% and 60% of the total annual spending in cities, and have continuously risen even as violent crime rates have declined as much as 50% since 1990.
But while both countries were experiencing dramatic drops in violent crime, economic inequality was on the rise. In the USA, income inequality is the highest on record, while Germany, which enjoys considerable prosperity and the world’s largest budget surplus, also sees wealth concentrated increasingly among a small few.
There is no reason for police departments to enjoy unfettered tax-payer support - while crime continues to fall, and our education systems, public housing, and social welfare programs suffer and fall into disrepair. Instead, we should demand that our elected representatives fight to reduce police budgets and direct funds to things that actually improve people’s lives. This “divestment” is what many Black US-based organizations are and have been calling for, and there’s no reason why the same logic cannot apply to Germany. (You can find out more from Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, and Black Lives Matter).
2. Police do too much
A police officer shoots and kills a 33 year old woman during a mental health episode in her own home in Berlin. A police officer shoots at an autistic man and his caretaker with his arms raised outside a group home in Florida.
An argument that is often raised to defend police who commit inexplicable violent acts like these against innocent people, is that police are overworked and occupied with high levels of stress because of the dangers of their job. But who decided that police should be responsible for everything? From dealing with mental health issues, to loud music, to enforcing immigration law, to regulatory offenses like allegedly forging checks or selling smuggled shisha tobacco? The solution is not to increase police budget even further, so they can do more, but rather to reduce (and eventually eradicate) their workload.
Over the past few decades, thinking on the best way to handle drug abuse, community conflict, domestic violence, and even violent extremism, has changed. For many of these issues, experts now recognize the role that mental health issues and addiction can play. Experts have studied the benefits of community-based, non-incarcerative and preventative solutions to addressing them. In other words: surveilling, arresting and throwing people in jail to stop them from doing drugs, committing property-based offenses or joining gangs and extremist networks is not considered to be a solution. Experts find they are often actually counter-productive - particularly when combined with pervasive racist policing. And places that have an alternative to the police to contact for mental health crises have seen violence in their cities decrease.
"For me prison abolition is two things: It's the complete and utter dismantling of prison and policing and surveillance as they currently exist within our culture. And it's also the building up of new ways of intersecting and new ways of relating with each other."
– Activist Mariame Kaba
If we want to reduce the stress and overwork allegedly causing police to commit violent acts, let’s demand that their role is shrunk dramatically. The best way to start is to demand that police department budgets are starved and their range of responsibilities reduced, while community organizations are fed with the resources they need and given the public platform necessary to explain how to solve social problems without policing and incarceration.
You can find a collection of links about alternatives to policing from the US- based Marshall Project here.
3. Nazi and White Supremacist infiltration
The modern US criminal justice system was largely shaped by the Jim Crow era of systemic racism (although the history of racism in the police goes back much further). Most of Germany’s post-war Justice Ministry and numerous of the country’s prosecutors and judges were Nazis who had not faced penalties for their complicity in the war crimes of the Third Reich. Both of these systems have continued to attract white supremacists and neo-Nazis in significant numbers over time and still do today.
In the US, numerous investigations have revealed that large numbers of current police officers are members of online or offline groups that are overtly racist towards Black people, immigrants and Muslims. In Germany, police and law enforcement involvement in far-right extremism goes even further. One police officer was arrested for his involvement in a planned mass attack on mosques across the country. Others have been suspected of ongoing involvement in extremist networks without facing consequences.
While it’s important to remember that we want to dismantle the system, not individually replace its members, it is still necessary to demand that people who present an imminent danger to our communities are removed from authority immediately. And the infiltration of law enforcement in USA and Germany is absolutely an imminent threat.
First, well-placed police officers can acquire weapons that they or others in their movements use to commit attacks and hate crimes. Second, they can help to cover up the tracks of their buddies and ensure that their crimes don’t come to light. And third, they can access surveillance on left-wing movements and BPOC organizations that can be used to harm those groups or expose them to violence.
To weed out these people and recognize what damage may have already been done by their presence in law enforcement, an independent commission must be established. This should investigate right-wing extremist links and come clean about how past infiltration has acted to cover up violence. There must be yearly background checks and vetting of police officers to ensure they haven’t previously been involved in far-right movements or been accused of racist violence before they can be hired for any position. And complaints by the public or by whistleblowers must be taken extremely seriously and lead to immediate suspension. And police who have participated in or aided extremist plots must be brought to justice.
People in Germany interested in helping our friends in the US to fight against racist police violence can follow the leadership of the movement for Black civil rights that has provided a clear path forward. We can’t rely on police to reform themselves without expanding their own authorities, and with abundant evidence that they are compromised by white supremacists and neo-nazis, giving them more authority is not an option. Germans should join with our allies in the US to ask for divestment, abolishment and culpability, and start to imagine different solutions to crime and public safety than the ones we’ve been taught are inevitable.
Tina Lee is a writer and researcher based in Berlin, Germany and the co-founder of MigrationVoter.com. This article was written for theleftberlin.com