By Alejandra Hernandez
It felt incredibly strange making my way to Kruezburg this morning. As we approach the end of our third and final week in Berlin, I finally feel comfortable navigating the city without needing my GPS every five minutes. The thought of leaving Berlin soon is baffling to me.
As the U-Bahn left the station, we made our way down from the Kotbusser Tor platform and headed to ReachOut. As the class trickled up the stairwell, Biblap Basu opened the front doors of ReachOut to greet us. We gathered around a table where he started with an introduction of his work with civil rights. Basu is from India and has lived in Germany since 1979. As a university student both in India and Germany, he has always been involved in civil rights work. In 1984, Basu began to examine how racism manifests in Germany. In the 1990s, there was a great increase in the number of attacks against communities of color. By the end of the 1990s, the government decided to start a program in response to the growing attacks; thus was the inception of ReachOut in 2000.
ReachOut is an organization that offers counseling to victims of right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic, or racist violence in Berlin. Additionally, because it is funded by the state, these counseling services offered by ReachOut are free. As one of its founding members, Basu explained how ReachOut was the first program that focused its work on victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Basu works as a counselor at ReachOut. To give us an idea of what ReachOut does for the community, Basu delved into what counseling work entails for him. Counseling connects you with people. “It becomes intimate,” exclaimed Basu. You build relationships with communities and form networks. First and foremost, he emphasized the importance of listening to victims’ stories. Furthermore, Basu talked about listening to the stories of these victims without judgment. “Give victims the feeling and confidence of ‘I believe you!’” Working with vulnerable populations, such as victims of violence, requires a tremendous amount of physical and emotional work.
As I watched Basu light up as he spoke about the work he does, it is evident how people within counseling need to be compassionate and authentic with their clients. For example, ReachOut makes great strides to ensure that victims of violence who come in to seek help are not pushed along from one organization’s door to another. As a counselor, Basu makes it clear that he is working with victims. He expressed, “Let people understand that they are not beggars. They have the right to this service.” This phrase stuck with me the most. He wants them to know that they are in control of their own lives. They took the first steps by seeking counseling, and will continue to decide for themselves what they would like to do not only throughout this process but throughout their lives. In this way, ReachOut seeks to empower victims and restore agency.
Over the course of the next few years, Basu took note of the discrepancies between the legal actions taken for victims of police violence in comparison to that of other groups of victims who have experienced violence. As he pointed out, “Victims of police violence are not believed.” Further, victims of police violence receive little aid and often get treated as perpetrators. For instance, in 2002, a victim of police brutality came into ReachOut seeking counseling. As Basu recounted this man’s story, everyone in the room could see the many stark parallels between police brutality in the United States and Germany. ReachOut continued to work on this case but soon realized just how poorly funded their organization was. As a result, ReachOut began a legal aid fund in efforts to raise money to hire advocates and aid in the court processes. However, as in most social justice work, raising money alone was not sufficient. It was evident to Basu that these people were clearly victims of racial violence. Even with the work they were pursuing, moving forward proved to be a challenge with the lack of acknowledgement of racial violence throughout the society. As Audre Lorde points out in the foreword to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, “To successfully battle the many faces of institutionalized racial oppression, we must share the strengths of each other’s visions as well as the weaponries born of particular experience. First, we must recognize each other” (ix). Along these lines, the words of Dr. Maisha Eggers rang through my head, “If you’re dealing with oppression…there is no way you are going to do that in a place of isolation.” Working as a collective creates a space in which dialogues can be started. In such spaces, collectively allows for reflection and the formation of language of one’s experiences. ReachOut came to the realization that the public needed to be informed about the injustices that victims of institutional violence face.
In 2004, the term “racial profiling” was introduced into German public discourse. A speaker from the Institute of Race Relations came to Germany to speak to the public about what racial profiling is. However, Basu recounted how at the end of the talk, no one in the audience had any questions, which, as he reflected upon it today, came as no surprise. How could people begin to understand racial profiling with such a lack of awareness and recognition of racial violence as a problem? Along these lines, even in 2012, a young Black German boy was traveling on a train when he was approached by police officers who asked to see his ID. As in many instances across both Germany and the United States, when the young boy asked for the reasoning behind the senseless request, he was met with hostility from the police officers. Despite the evident racial profiling that was committed by the police officers, the courts dismissed his complaints and ruled that skin color was reasonable grounds on which to carry out ID checks. Hearing about this case brought to mind the term “person with a migration background.” Basu explained how many people of color are often asked to show their IDs by police officers because they are profiled as migrants. As Sharon Dodua Otoo points out in Winter Shorts,
“[The term ‘person with a migration background’] is rarely used to describe certain white non-Germans- I think white US Americans for example do not feel addressed by it. On the other hand, people who were born and raised in Germany, and who do not look white, are often labeled as having a ‘migration background’ (15-16).
Earlier in our conversation, Basu pointed out how up until the mid-1990s racism wasn’t a term used in Germany. Basu also exclaimed how many people in Germany cannot fathom how racism could exist within institutions such as the police administration. There continues to be a great consensus in Germany believing that racism no longer exist; racism ended alongside with the National Socialism era. Instead, many people argue that there is a great fear of foreigners (xenophobia). For instance, in “Turks in the New Germany,” Jenny B. White writes, “Black means for the whites [:] abroad, foreign, not German. That’s why supposedly in Germany there is no racism, but only hostility to foreigners (Auslander- feindlichkeit)” (760). This particular case brought an enormous wave of attention to ReachOut because they had been talking about racial profiling long before the case. As a result, film director Riccardo Valsecchi sought a collaboration with ReachOut on a film he wanted to create following the 2012 sentence in Germany. Subsequently, ID-Without Colors was released in 2013. Initially, the film was denied entry into several film festivals, especially in Germany. However, it is now being circulated internationally and continues to receive recognition.
Today, ReachOut continues to counsel victims of violence, as well as, works to develop strategies to study and eradicate police violence. Basu was excited to introduce an Android app in development that will allow for users to record incidents of violence. The app also logs the user’s location using GPS and takes pictures of anyone who incorrectly inputs the phone password. Both the audio and video that is recorded is immediately saved every minute and sent to the user’s Cloud so they are not at risk of losing footage if their phones are confiscated or destroyed. ReachOut is also seeking ways to record every confrontation police officers make, which include confrontations that do not result in charges. In this way, records and statistics can be gathered to help further study cases of institutional violence. While ReachOut has made and continues to make a great impact within marginalized communities, Basu has also acknowledged ways in which ReachOut can improve its services for the community. More specifically, Basu voiced the need for ReachOut to begin to look at incidents of institutional violence through an intersectional lens. Until recently, there has been little focus on how women and trans people are affected in different ways by institutional violence. Still, there is no denying how crucial the work Basu and ReachOut have completed within marginalized German communities. As the conversation began to wrap up, we were able to reflect on how far ReachOut has come but also be conscious of the work within this social justice movement that needs to be done. Basu’s passion for his work radiated throughout the room. Being able to hear from and talk to people and groups in Berlin, such as Basu at ReachOut has been infinitely inspiring. Once again, I am incredibly appreciative of the chance to be able to enter these spaces while in Berlin; it has been a humbling experience.
Alejandra Hernandez is a rising junior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies. She is also on the Pre-Medicine track, and is planning to attend medical school. She was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she learned to love reading and dancing to Latin music. While in Berlin, she is excited to explore and learn about different cultures and communities.