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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​.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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