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How to deal with the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne and Hamburg

Let’s just keep sticking up for the women. As far as being a black man of African descent goes, the racists in Germany and elsewhere hate us anyway.

For any woman, the sight must have been terrifying. On New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne, groups of drunk and aggressive men surrounded them in the town centre, groping and mugging them. The estimates are that there were between 500 to 1,000 attackers, and the early indications are that their efforts were co-ordinated.

A minister described these events as a “completely new dimension of crime”. According to Wolfgang Albers, the police president, “sexual crimes took place on a huge scale”. He continued: “The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the north African or Arab world.”

The volume of sexual violence against women worldwide is extraordinary: it is horrifying, heartbreaking, and finally it is enraging. Whether women are in public or in the supposed safety of their own homes, the offences committed against them are off the scale.

To quote the United NationsIt is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime“. (My italics.)

The Cologne assaults, then, did not occur in isolation, but as a particularly severe eruption of a situation which, in global terms, has always been volcanic.

If that sounds dramatic, then so be it: after all, the statistics and the eye-witness accounts are stark enough. As the Guardian reports:

One of the victims, identified only as Katja L, told the Kölner Express:

“When we came out of the station, we were very surprised by the group we met, which was made up only of foreign men…We walked through the group of men, there was a tunnel through them, we walked through…I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and hit them, they men didn’t stop. I was horrified and I think I was touched around 100 times over the 200 metres.”

One investigator told the Kölner Express: “The female victims were so badly pushed about, they had heavy bruises on their breasts and behinds.”

The Guardian continues:

“The attacks have been the main talking point on Twitter in Germany, with some people accusing the media of a cover-up and others expressing their concern that the incident would be seized on by anti-refugee groups.”

In the ensuing conversation, there is a very real danger that the women assaulted will disappear from view, quickly buried beneath a tug-of-words between the Right and the Left. In fact, it has already happening. So let us reiterate the facts. Scores of women were set upon by up to a thousand men in a public place. Ninety of them made complaints to police. There were also sexual assaults of a similar fashion in Hamburg on the same night. The level of entitlement that these men felt towards the bodies of their victims is appalling.

These events are proving particularly controversial because the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has within the last 12 months admitted something like a million refugees from Africa and the Arab world – the same demographic dominant among the young men who carried out these assaults. Merkel’s policy is therefore being blamed by many for the influx of sex attackers. On a point of accuracy, it must be noted that many of these attackers were already known to the police, and were not drawn from the recently-arrived refugees.

However, that’s not going to stop this conversation being dominated by the issue of race, so we may as well go there. In racial terms, Germany is not particularly diverse, and the majority of the black and Arab people you see tend to be working-class. There are all sorts of economic reasons for that, one being that those arriving from Africa and the Middle East find it very difficult to get papers or work once they are here.

In Berlin, where I live, the overwhelming majority of black men you see every day are poor, homeless, or selling drugs by Görlitzer Bahnhof or Warschauer Strasse, two of the city’s busier train stations. And when I say the overwhelming majority, I would say something like 80 per cent, if not more.

And, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, I don’t think that as many people as I would like are concerned with the socio-economic nuances of why these black men are so poor. I think that there is instead a tendency, more widespread that many people might like to acknowledge, to regard black men as inherently untrustworthy or criminal.

I say this partly because of my own experiences in the city, and from speaking to several other friends who are non-white. A friend from West Africa, when visiting the city, found it so difficult to secure an Airbnb apartment that he had to ask someone to do it on his behalf. The stories of black people struggling to find rooms and flats in the city are legion – not that it is easy to rent in Berlin anyway, given the popularity of this place, but the tales of discrimination do all start to stack up after a while.

More mundanely, I am struck by how often – even on the most crowded of trains – white Berliners will leave a space next to me, somehow fearing the prospect of sitting next to a male of African appearance. And if that sounds paranoid, then it was only something I first noticed when a sympathetic white man, shaking his head with bemused laughter, pointed it out to me.

For those who might think that I am being overly sensitive, I will say that I am merely stating facts. I love this city, and life here is well worth dealing with these inconveniences. But these instances have made me realise that the cultural expectations of black men in some parts of Germany arealready dangerously low. And now we have these attacks in Cologne, one of the worst incidents of its nature that I can recall. 

So, what to do with all of this analysis? Well, it is actually simple. Let’s just keep sticking up for the women. As far as being a black man of African descent goes, the racists in Germany and elsewhere hate us anyway. They thought we were rapists and perverts and other assorted forms of sex attacker the second they set eyes on us. They don’t care about the women who were attacked in Cologne and Hamburg, except to prove the point that we are the animals that they always thought – or hoped – we were.

In return, I don’t care about them. Nor am I too bothered by the people who don’t want to sit next to me on the train. Fear of the unknown is a hard thing to unlearn. I am most concerned, by far, with the safety of the women who may now be more frightened than ever to enter public spaces. I don’t think that women have ever felt particularly comfortable walking through crowds of drunk and aggressive men at night, regardless of the race of those men. But groups of young men of North African and Arab origin, whatever their intentions, will most likely endure more trepidation from women than before.

So here’s what I propose we do. Why don’t we just start with the premise that it is a woman’s fundamental right, wherever she is in the world, to walk the streets and not be groped? And why don’t we see this as a perfect moment for men, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces: to reject with fury the suggestion that we are somehow conditioned by society forever to treat women as objects, condemned by our uncontrollable sexual desires to lunge at them as they walk past?

Let’s do our best to challenge the rampant misogyny that has gone on worldwide for far too long, and reject whatever lessons of sexist repression we may have been taught. Because women are tired of telling us about this, and exhausted of fighting a battle that for too long has gone overlooked.

This article was originally published on the author's blog, Okwonga.com. You can find his poetry on his website too. He tweets at @Okwonga​.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.