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Germans push to hold police accountable after global George Floyd protests

“Policing starts with stops and ID’ing but can also end in death,” said activist Tahir Della.
Image: Berlin
A poster inscribed with "George-Floyd" hung on the Mohrenstrasse subway station in Berlin-Mitte, Germany in June.picture alliance / via Getty Images file

Malick Gohou says it’s happened when he has dressed in a suit on his way to work. It’s happened as he walks on the street of his hometown in Heidelberg, Germany, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It’s happened when he’s out on the town with friends.

Gohou, 26, says he’s lost count of how many times the police have stopped him to check his ID or ask what he’s doing, but he estimates it’s somewhere from 20 to 30. Last month, he had to have pictures taken of his face and hands because “a guy who fit his description” had gotten into a brawl somewhere.

“I’m being stopped in situations where I’m like, ‘This can’t have anything to do with my behavior,’” said Gohou, whose father is from the Ivory Coast and whose mother is half-German and half-Polish. “This happens one time, two times – OK, fine – but after that, you’re like, this can’t be a coincidence anymore.”

Image: Malick Gohou with his father Deme Gohou who came to Germany from the Ivory Coast in 1980.
Malick Gohou with his father Deme Gohou who came to Germany from the Ivory Coast in 1980.Courtesy Malick Gohou

Though officially banned in Germany, where there are estimated to be around a million people of Black descent in Germany, racial profiling is regularly experienced by people of color, according to activists and residents. Protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s death have helped the issue gain prominence and even resulted in a change to the laws in two cities. Now, activists are hoping that these changes will come into force around the country.

The cities of Berlin and Bremen both passed new anti-discrimination legislation in June. In Berlin, people who believe they are victims of racial profiling can now more easily file a complaint against law enforcement with the police needing to prove that they didn’t rely on racial profiling. Previously, the person filing the complaint needed to prove they were profiled.

In Bremen, the city’s local politicians have incorporated a ban on racial profiling into the law governing the police. It includes a proviso that identity checks are only allowed in limited form even in areas considered by police to be “places of danger” like train stations where it is legal to check anyone for ID even without cause.

For Alioune Sall these changes can’t come soon enough. Sall, 26, son of a German mother and a Senegalese father, said he has been stopped and even searched on some occasions by police around 15 times in the past eight years. He often feels singled out by police, especially when with a group of white friends.

Image: Protest Againt Racism and Police Brutality In Berlin
People protested against racism and police brutality and paid tribute to George Floyd in Germany's capital Berlin in July.Emmanuele Contini / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

At a music festival several years ago in Mannheim, next to Heidelberg, he described how police officers asked him for ID, then took him to the side to question and search him.

“My friends were allowed to stay back,” Sall said. “I endure it but I don’t understand why it is that way. When you challenge the officers over it they simply deny it and then that’s that. What else is there you can do?”

When contacted for comment on these incidents, the Mannheim Police Department said in a statement to NBC News that “skin color, ethnicity or descent are principally irrelevant for police action.”

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German organizations don’t collect ethnic data due to the country’s history with the persecution of minorities. Because of that, police departments do not keep statistics on the ethnicity of the people they stop and there are no reliable numbers on how many people of color are stopped by police.

However, the Justice Ministry announced in June plans to probe the scale of racial profiling in policing “to give this phenomenon a factual basis.” Several weeks later, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called the study off, saying that racial profiling is already illegal and can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“Policing starts with stops and ID’ing but can also end in death as in the case of Oury Jalloh,” said Tahir Della, a spokesperson for the Initiative for Black People in Germany, an activist organization which acted as advisers to Berlin’s lawmakers during the process to pass the new anti-profiling law.

Jalloh, a 36-year-old asylum seeker from Sierra Leone, died in police custody in 2005 and his death is often pointed to by activists as an example of racism in law enforcement. Jalloh burned to death in a police cell in Dessau, Saxony-Anhalt, and his body was found with his hands and feet tied to a mattress.

His name was often printed on signs held aloft during the demonstrations in June.

Image: George Floyd protest in Berlin
Hundreds of people, wearing masks and observing social distancing, attended a June demonstration for George Floyd, in Berlin.Abdulhamid Hosbas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

“There is still a very narrow understanding of racism in Germany,” Della said. “It is, so to speak, only racism when an intention can be proven. That is not how institutional racism works.”

He would like future laws to be made with the understanding that racist action is possible even without intent.

Around 33 percent of people surveyed in Germany as part of a “Being Black in the E.U.” study, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, said they have experienced discrimination based on their ethnic background.

According to Rafael Behr, a professor at the Police Academy in Hamburg, the problem with law enforcement is that it is a dominant culture, as he calls it.

“The police assume they define what is normal and what is not, who belongs and who doesn’t belong,” he said.

“When police officers rely on their empirical values or gut feeling during stops, it can be problematic because, of course, they sometimes create a bad experience, which can then lead to bias” in future interactions, said Behr, a former police officer.

In addition to the changes to the law in Berlin and Bremen, there are other small signs that the protests this spring, and the subsequent renewed emphasis on anti-racism, is having an impact.

Image: Black Lives Matter protest Germany
People protest against racism and police brutality in Berlin's Alexanderplatz in June. Maja Hitij / Getty Images

In Berlin, demonstrators in June revived a 20-year controversy surrounding the name of the Mohrenstraße subway station. “Mohr”, or moor in English, is a dated and offensive term for a person of color. Protesters tampered with the subway sign so it read “George Floyd Street.”

On July 3, Berlin’s BVG transit authority announced that the station would be renamed.

“We wanted to get rid of the current name as it is discriminating towards all nonwhite people,” their spokesperson told NBC News.

Politicians are now debating whether to rename the entire street in Berlin-Mitte, the city’s Senate Department for the Environment, Transport, and Climate Protection told NBC News.

For Gohou, even these small changes are giving him a sense of hope.

“The protests are the first step and we have to start somewhere,” he said. “Many white people are now waking up to what’s been going wrong. Before it was black people advocating for black people and now you see white people protesting for civil rights everywhere. It does feel like our generation is changing something.”