This is not why we remember the O-Platz migrant protest camp

This is not why we remember the O-Platz migrant protest camp
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Almost 10 years ago, dozens of refugees set up a protest camp at Oranienplatz in Berlin’s Kreuzberg. The protest camp sparked the O-Platz refugee movement, which Berlin activists still vividly remember today.

I first learned about O-Platz in 2014. at the beginning Then I traveled around Germany to investigate racist hate crimes. The protest camp has been a frequent target of racist violence since the rise of anti-migrant parties and movements such as PEGIDA and the Alternative for Germany (AFD).

in 2012 in October, after several suicides and suicide attempts by refugees, activists marched 600 km from Würzburg (Bavaria) to Berlin, where they set up a protest camp. When in 2014 in April the local authorities evicted the protest camp, the popular mobilization against the border regimes entered the twilight of its most visible stage.

in 2018 I returned to Berlin for an extended period to conduct an ethnography of population resistance to border regimes as part of my doctoral research. In January, a few days before Berlin, the remaining residents of the former Gerhart Hauptmann school, which was occupied shortly after Oranienplatz, decided to vacate the premises ahead of the planned eviction by the local authorities.

When I arrived in Berlin, I knew that the bright days of mobilization concentrated in the protest camp were long gone. But I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to soak up the optimism that I imagined the O-Platz inspired.

In the first months of my stay, I participated in dozens of protests. Although the activists’ determination to challenge the border regimes was remarkable, they attracted only a few hundred activists, were ignored by the mainstream media, and rarely formed new alliances. Opposing images of O-Platz emerged: a dynamic resistance capable of attracting people who took to the street for the first time.

I soon realized that the perceptions of many of the activists I met mirrored my own. This understanding fueled my interest in understanding how activists interpreted O-platz years after its eviction, what O-platz meant to them, and how collective memory can connect past and present phases of resistance to border regimes.

“O-platz changed German history”

When I asked Joanne, a refugee activist from Kenya who participated in O-platz, to describe the main achievements of the protest camp, she highlighted:We [refugees] we got a face, we got a seat. The O-Platz movement changed German history as refugees became visible for the first time.[1]

O-Platz was different from previous grassroots mobilizations, which usually took place in remote shelters located in rural areas or on the outskirts of the city. Instead, the activists decided to set up a protest camp in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, originally a working-class, migrant neighborhood that became a center of activism after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the gentrification of Berlin. However, its centrality does not fully explain the association between the protest camp and the visibility that is embedded in activists’ collective memories.

Activists perceive O-Platz as a collective action in which racist refugees played a leading role, especially as they articulated grievances and claims against border regimes closely related to their lived experience of oppression. That’s why they remember it.

The refugees were forced to live in isolation, were not allowed to move freely around Germany or work, and were paid limited benefits such as food stamps. Based on this experience, refugee activists have railed against an unfair asylum system that has often resulted in denial of protection and residency. They demanded unrestricted freedom of movement and the right to live for all, regardless of legal status.

In contrast, other aspects of the protest camp were less prominent in the activists’ memories. For example, the formulation of common demands of refugees has been complicated by their different legal status. Indeed, while some refugees applied for asylum in Germany, others moved to Germany from Italy before their asylum applications were processed by the Italian authorities. The latter were at risk of being forcibly returned to Italy under the Dublin rules[2]. Activists highlighted these aspects only in longer conversations about O-Platz, when they had time and space to expand their views on the protest camp.

One of the contributions of my article is to explain why activists remember some features of O-Platz more than others. The work of collective memory works by selecting characteristics of the O-Platz that serve as aspirations for the present. The visibility of the grassroots refugee activism that O-Platz is remembered for is even more important in 2018, when the tightening of border regimes and the rise of populist radical right parties and movements have fueled the mobilization of new networks and organizations.

“We are now in defense mode”

When I asked Anne, a German activist at O-Platz, to describe the resistance to border regimes in 2018, she told me:We are now in defense mode. It is mainly due to the organization of small actions, it is invisible… there are no big events or fights“.

Joanne highlighted the different role refugee activists played in 2018 compared to O-Platz. She explained: “Nowadays there are many platforms, but refugees are not there, they remain a “thing”.“.

in 2018 In the mid-1980s, opposition to border regimes intensified as the German authorities continued to tighten border regimes. The new policy restricted family reunification and established new multipurpose reception centers, the so-called Anker Centers, where asylum seekers had to live for many months. In the same year, the newly elected Italian government increased the criminalization of search and rescue NGOs operating in the central Mediterranean.

Some major protests took place in 2018. on the other side. For example, in 2018 July. Seebrücke, an activist network, organized large protests in many German cities demanding safe and legal routes for refugees and opposing the criminalization of search and rescue operations. in 2018 October 13 Unteilbar, a large coalition of NGOs, trade unions and grassroots organizations, managed to mobilize a quarter of a million people to march against the rise of populist radical right parties and movements.

However, unlike O-Platz, these initiatives did not focus on racialized refugee activists and their lived experience of oppression under border regimes. In principle, these organizations did not demand universal freedom of movement and the right to life for all.

The Unteilbar coalition asked for the right to asylum to be respected, which in principle does not challenge the power of the state to deny protection and residence rights and to deport people after a fair assessment of their asylum applications. Seebrücke demanded safe and legal routes for refugees to reach Europe, but did not demand the right of residence for all refugees already in Germany.

in 2018 activists realized that the role of racist refugee activists, a key legacy of the O-Platz that gave visibility to refugee struggles, was waning. Despite the increased resistance, some new networks and organizations did not base their demands on the experiences of racialized refugees. People’s activists responded to these changes by creating and evoking collective memories that provided guidance and aspirations for their current mobilization.

Memories of O-platz are constructed as aspirations of the present

O-Platz was not the first mobilization of refugees in Germany. However, O-Platz contributed to changing the perception of refugees as political subjects and broke the history of invisibility that characterized refugee struggles. For these reasons, O-Platz is a memorable mobilization.

The memorability of O-Platz also plays an important role in the current resistance to border regimes. Activists remember the O-Platz as a mobilization focused on refugee activists, precisely when they realize that the legacy of the O-Platz itself is fading. Memory work is not limited to signaling the inconsistency of past and present mobilization; it also translates past mobilizing features into present aspirations that might resolve and perhaps transform that perceived discontinuity.

[1] Activists use the refugee category not only in its legal sense. Most people who self-identified as refugees had a precarious legal status. This self-identification challenges the restrictive categories that the state uses to divide and disenfranchise migrants (Perolini, 2022).

[2] The Dublin III Regulation (604/2013) establishes responsibility for the assessment of asylum applications between EU countries. The general rule, with the exception of minors and family members of asylum seekers and refugees, is that the first country to arrive in the European Union is responsible for assessing an asylum claim.

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