Malick Gohou says it happened when he dressed in a suit on his way to work. It happened as he was walking down the street of his hometown in Heidelberg, Germany, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It happened when he’s in town with friends.
Gohou, 26, says he has lost count of the number of times the police arrested him to check his ID or ask him what he was doing, but he estimates it is between 20 and 30 years. Last month he must have had photos of his face and hands taken because “a guy who fit his description” had a fight somewhere.
“I get arrested in situations where I’m like, ‘This can’t have anything to do with my behavior,’ said Gohou, whose father is Ivorian and whose mother is half German and half Polish. . “It happens once, twice – OK, okay – but after that you’re like, it can’t be a coincidence anymore.” “
Although officially banned in Germany, where there are an estimated one million people of black origin in Germany, racial profiling is routinely experienced by people of color, according to activists and locals. The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death helped the issue gain prominence and even resulted in laws being changed in two cities. Now activists hope these changes will take effect across 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, as the police have to prove that they did not rely on the racial profiling. Previously, the person making the complaint had to prove that they were profiled.
In Bremen, local city politicians have incorporated a ban on racial profiling into law governing the police. It includes a clause stating that identity checks are only allowed in a limited form, even in areas considered by police to be “places of danger” such as train stations where it is legal to verify the identity of anyone. without motive.
For Alioune Sall, these changes cannot come soon enough. Sall, 26, the son of a German mother and Senegalese father, said he had been arrested and even searched on some occasions by police about 15 times in the past eight years. He often feels singled out by the police, especially when he is with a group of white friends.
At a music festival several years ago in Mannheim, near Heidelberg, he described how police officers asked him for identification, then took him to the side to interrogate and search him .
“My friends were allowed to stay behind,” Sall said. “I endure it but I don’t understand why this is so. When you challenge the agents about it, they just deny it and that’s it. What else can you do? “
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When contacted for comment on these incidents, the Mannheim Police Department said in a statement to NBC News that “skin color, ethnicity or ancestry is primarily irrelevant to the action of the police”.
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German organizations do not collect ethnic data due to the country’s history with persecution of minorities. For this reason, police departments do not keep statistics on the ethnicity of people they arrest, and there are no reliable figures on the number of people of color arrested by police.
However, the Justice Department announced in June its intention to probe the extent of racial profiling in the police “to give this phenomenon a factual basis.” Several weeks later, Home Secretary Horst Seehofer canceled the study, saying racial profiling was already illegal and could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“Policing starts with arrests and identifications, but can also end with death as in the case of Oury Jalloh,” said Tahir Della, spokesperson for the Black Initiative in Germany. , an activist organization that acted as an advisor to Berlin lawmakers during the process of passing 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 cited by activists as an example of racism in law enforcement. Jalloh was burned alive 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 protests in June.
“There is still a very close understanding of racism in Germany,” Della said. “It is, so to speak, racism only when an intention can be proven. This is not how institutional racism works. “
He would like future laws to be made with the knowledge that racist action is possible even without intention.
Around 33% of people interviewed in Germany as part of a ‘Being Black in the EU’ study, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, said they had experienced discrimination because of their origin ethnic.
According to Rafael Behr, a professor at the Hamburg Police Academy, the problem with law enforcement is that it is a dominant culture, as he calls it.
“The police assume that they define what is normal and what is not, who belongs and who does not,” he said.
“When police officers rely on their empirical values or their instincts during stops, it can be problematic because, of course, they sometimes create a bad experience, which can then lead to bias” in future interactions, Behr said. , a former policeman.
In addition to the changes to the law in Berlin and Bremen, there are other small signs that this spring’s protests, and the renewed focus on anti-racism that followed, are having an impact.
In Berlin, protesters revived in June a 20-year controversy over the name of the metro station Mohrenstraße. “Mohr,” or moor in English, is a dated and offensive term for a person of color. Protesters tampered with the subway sign to read “George Floyd Street”.
On July 3, the BVG Berlin transport company announced that the station would be renamed.
“We wanted to get rid of the current name because it discriminates against all non-white people,” their spokesperson told NBC News.
Politicians are now debating whether to rename the entire street of Berlin-Mitte, the city’s Senate Department for Environment, Transport and Climate Protection told NBC News.
For Gohou, even these small changes give him a sense of hope.
“The protests are the first step and we have to start somewhere,” he said. “Many whites are now waking up to what is wrong. It used to be black people defending black people and now you see white people protesting for civil rights everywhere. I have the impression that our generation is changing something.