Making Room for Palestinians

Black Lives Matter in Berlin

Long before today’s pro-Palestine mobilisation in Berlin, another campaign would pave the way for widespread activism among local migrants.

Israel is everywhere. George Floyd protest, Alexanderplatz.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) was the first movement led by people of colour to take place in the city, where, until recently, protest culture was dominated by white Germans.

Even though German BLM activists have stayed quiet on Palestine, unlike in the United States, their presence on the streets as the leaders and the organisers of protests in 2020 tipped the scale in favour of politics led by people of colour, like Palestinians.

“After all the grief caused by the right-wing terror of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) or of the racist attacks in Munich, Halle, and Hanau, BLM seemed to be a vital step in gaining self-confidence for migrant street mobilisation,” Die Linke’s Ferat Kocak told The Battleground.

Before the 2020 mobilisation, the protest community consisted of several activist groups.

This included environmentalists, who are predominantly young, white Germans from groups such as Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, GermanZero, and Last Generation.

In addition, there is the antifascist movement (Antifa), which has traditionally consisted of white militants.

A large segment has always been “offensively pro-Israel”, according to longtime activist Phil Butland, who is also a member of Die Linke Internationals, which aims to integrate non-German leftists into German politics.

Originally, Antifa was rooted in radical left opposition to the German state, a position which, over the years, shifted to hardline solidarity with the Jewish state.

This solidarity grew as a response to perceived Antisemitism in various factions of the German left.

While the vast majority of individuals in these movements said that the Israel-Palestine issue was too complicated to address, the Zionist members were always louder, openly showing solidarity and raising the Israeli flags during their demonstrations.

Today, many youth who once participated in Antifa student groups have become some of Germany’s most prominent politicians.

Other regulars in the protest community belong to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and LGBTQIA+ groups.

These activists come from all walks of life: the rich and the middle class and working-class migrants.

However, the faces on Christopher Street Day, the German Pride Day, held in July, used to be primarily white. Israeli flags can be a common sight at events.

While the past few years have seen growing support for Palestine in the LGBTQIA+ community, the Palestinian bloc has not been welcomed.

Due to the prevalence of white Germans in Berlin’s protest scene, the vast majority remained silent on Israel-Palestine.

This silence amplified the few loud voices expressing solidarity with Israel.

Unlike these groups that previously dominated the activist community, Black Lives Matter members had far less to worry about.

“Most people of colour understand anti-Palestinian racism in the way that a lot of white Germans don’t. I think it is really significant that white Germans are mostly worried about what their grandparents did in the Holocaust. Black Germans don’t have the same trauma because they have a different relationship to the Nazi history of Germany,” Butland explained.

In 2020, all these groups suddenly took a backseat while BLM Berlin was leading the way. This made the movements in the streets more relatable to migrant communities compared to previous protests.

After all, Germany’s biggest problem is the prevalence of racism, more so than any other issue that activist groups have been contending with since the Cold War.

“What was noticeable going down to the BLM protest from the neighbourhood of Wedding was that a lot of the participants were young working-class black women, which is the sort of people you didn’t normally see (at) demonstrations,” Butland recalls, adding, “The balance was different to most of the demonstrations.”

The emergence of this movement, in which discussing Palestine was not as complex as it is for white Germans, took centre stage, drawing an increasing number of people of colour to protests and transforming the protesting culture of Berlin.

Almost a year later, in 2021, a demonstration was organised to commemorate the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, in which up to 800,000 Palestinians are estimated to have been displaced.

Organised by the activist group Palästina Spricht (Palestine Speaks), 15,000 protesters took to the streets that day.

“Definitely, the BLM movement and other antiracist mobilisations have strengthened Palestine solidarity. There is a new generation of activists that don’t accept being pushed aside anymore,” Christine Buchholz, a former Die Linke MP, told The Battleground.

Two new types of protesters took to the streets that Nakba Day. One was non-German, mainly consisting of white Europeans, Israelis, and expats from the United States. This is in addition to a second type of participant, Black Germans.

“Previously, most pro-Palestine demonstrations have been almost entirely Palestinian and Arab. The Nakba Day demonstration was different,” Butland said.

The emergence of Black Germans in this context was peculiar, as they were not accustomed to participating in pro-Palestine protests and had not previously been visible in demonstrations before Black Lives Matter.

What makes this dynamic noteworthy is that BLM was orchestrated and spearheaded by Black Germans, who had been relatively marginalised in Berlin’s protest community.

By bringing large numbers of BiPoC protesters to the streets, these new types of protests helped midwife the large-scale pro-Palestine mobilisation that began in 2021.

“I’d say that BLM had an impact insofar that many young activists in Germany asked themselves: Why unconditionally support BLM while being quiet towards the issue of Palestine? At least in part, this German contradiction fell apart,” Kocak said.

“Also, regarding the history of the Black liberation movement, many activists have thought of Palestine and the Black liberation as a joint struggle, which, of course, also influences and paves the way for a joint fight today,” he added.

After all, the connection between groups like Palästina Spricht and Black Lives Matter in Berlin is marked by a growing international left that champions both causes.

These movements resonate with one another, illustrating a shared quest for justice and freedom.

It will be interesting to see the extent of the parallels connecting BLM with the current pro-Palestine mobilisation. After all, things did not end well for Berlin’s chapter of BLM.

“The pandemic weighs heavily on all of us. The last people who were still active are intersectionally heavily affected by the structural oppression that this pandemic intensified. Unfortunately, due to organisational and communication challenges, we can no longer sustain the Berlin chapter of Black Lives Matter and have decided to close it at a recent meeting,” read the group’s last Instagram post, published in December 2021.

The group had deactivated the email address and social media group, leaving Instagram as an information channel. Meanwhile, all the fundraising proceeds were donated to another group called International Women Space and a now-deleted account, Women in Exile.

The post also invited people to reopen the chapter, reinforcing their call to organise, unite, and continue the struggle.

Afterwards, the group’s activities in the German capital ceased.

“What has become of these movements and alliances?” a journalist from a migrant background wrote in Die Zeit. “When asked in the background about what’s going on and why former key figures are no longer visibly present, there is a lot of resignation.”

“Many seem to be thinking about how they can secure themselves and mentally pack their bags. No one wants to talk about it publicly. Frustration seems to have spread,” the journalist wrote.

Will this also be the fate of the pro-Palestine mobilisation? Will this be the fate of migrant groups attempting to speak up about their rights in Germany?

While the pandemic ended, the current mobilisation still faces the same structural oppression and intersectional challenges as Black Lives Matter.

Even though activists thought things would calm down with the new year, the German government’s crackdown on Palestinian solidarity politics has only increased.

From raiding venues hosting pro-Palestinian events to excising Palestinian flags and kufiya from anti-AfD protests, the pressure to exclude Palestine has been steady.

At the time of this article’s writing, pro-Palestine activists continue to attempt to penetrate the current anti-AfD demonstrations in Berlin.

Only time will tell which direction this will lead and whether that will entail more rejection, violence, or integration into the city’s protest culture.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.