Three months into the global pandemic, during the already heavy and politically tense month of June 2020, groups of UdK students started gathering to speak up about the racial injustices within the university. At the time, the Black Lives Matter movement that set off in the US after the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25 had already sent a powerful ripple effect across Europe. The so-called “silent protests” happened in all major cities, including Berlin, where two peaceful anti-racism “demos” on May 30 and June 7 filled the streets.
Shortly after, on June 11, the students hung protest banners from the windows of the UdK building in Hardenbergstraße in support of the movement. The banners were removed and stolen overnight, which left students “shocked by the disinterest and lack of solidarity on the part of the teachers” (as stated in the open letter by the #exitracismudk organizers) concerning the incident and their ongoing anti-racist work. The growing dissatisfaction culminated in a protest in July during the UdK Rundgand which revealed disturbing levels of racist discrimination in the university through a displayed collection of student reports.
The BLM movement’s breakthrough impact was – and still is – felt worldwide. At UdK, mainly thanks to the organized work of students, racism and the needed structural changes are now being talked about more than before, but not yet meaningfully acted upon. However, in a 300-year-old institution counting about 4 000 members, changes won’t happen overnight, or over a few months, or even years. For them to be happening at all in the long run, the July 2020 protest and the students‘ work before and after laid out some necessary blueprints.
In the open letter #exitracismUDK which was part of the protest, the students demanded “to study at a university that recognizes their structural barriers and discrimination, resolutely and sustainably tackles them, and unitedly supports diversity-oriented and anti-racist organizational development.” They called for “the university management to support and expand existing structures, groups, and actors critical of discrimination, financially and structurally.”
To understand how the situation developed since then and how it might influence further progress, I asked four of the involved students to reflect on the events and their own thoughts and feelings. The interviews were conducted in December 2020. The answers are anonymized to protect the individuals, as well as to emphasize that the protest was a collective endeavor aiming to raise awareness of racism and incite transformation in the direction of social justice, anti-discrimination, and decolonization.
How were your demands received by the university so far? Has anybody from the UdK officials reached out yet? Were there any promises made? If yes – are any of these promises fulfilled or in progress?
→ The most positive responses came from outside of the university. At UdK, many didn’t even know about the protest. Some professors signed the petition and very few reached out to us. Maybe the others didn’t know whom to reach.
→ I heard from others from the protest’s organizational group that we were mentioned in an Instagram post, which said that the Rundgang went well and there were some interesting protests about climate change and racism. I heard of two anti-racism workshops, but they were just for a small group of people.
What has been achieved with this protest? Not just in terms of how the demands were met or not, but in a broader sense. Do you think it triggered anything? If yes – what? Was it all worth it?
→ I think two things were happening. First, there were really productive specific demands by AG Intersectional Antidiscrimination that could be implemented very soon. On this front, from what I know, the school’s administration hasn’t done much or only implemented small changes. But the second aspect, something probably all protests carry in them, was that it pushed issues that need sustained attention to the front. This is about influencing a discourse. And I think it’s difficult to identify how much weight one action has on this, but it’s certain to me that it had some. Structures that have been building up for centuries can’t be changed over one summer. So everybody, and especially the “unmarked” people in the respective power structures, has to stay alert, has to keep pushing for change. Critique is not a one-off thing, it has to be part of an everyday life practice. I think the protest has made that very clear and has shown that this school is in dire need of such practice. In this sense, I believe it has been very successful. Whether it was worth it is something I can’t answer. I am very grateful it happened, and I’m sure it had a positive impact on the discourse within the school, but it’s up to the mostly female and/or queer BIPoCs who were in the front line, who carried this protest, to tell whether it was worth it.
→ In terms of the perpetrators of toxic structures, I don’t think the protest changed anything. I don’t think it even generated enough pressure to do that. They just get away easily. But on the optimistic side, and this is the only hope I see, a lot of students and others approached me to say – this is really cool what you’re doing. Among our generation, there were a lot of positive reactions. Interflugs wanted to do panel discussions. It was somewhat inspiring for some people and I think that can have a long-term effect. Maybe someone will come again and do it better than we did sometime in the future, but I don’t think anything will change at all. Nothing was really done until this point. Things like anti-racist workshops are just another cosmetic change. A workshop is the smallest change you can make and it’s the easiest thing you can do. You have this one time and then it’s out of the way, and you can always refer in the next five years to this workshop that happened even though it’s impossible to prove whether the workshop actually had results. So, the workshop is a rhetorical defense strategy of proving that something has been done although nothing has been done. It’s kind of an alibi.
Rundgang usually ends with the closing and certainly involves emotions, but it is incomparable to the emotional and affective labor that was invested by the students before, during, and after the Rundgang 2020 protest. Some people have had a difficult few months afterward and are still recovering emotionally, so the work hasn’t stopped yet. Can you relate to this and talk about invisible labor? How much work this protest was actually, and still is, up until today?
→ How the situation unfolded and the emotional labor it required was the worst. It’s a painful process. In any form of activism, you must get used to people telling you that what you’re doing is no good and you should stop doing it and be ashamed for doing it in the first place. They’re going to find ways of convincing you of this and really getting under your skin. It will be like that anyway. And you can get very stressed about it, it’s not a nine-to-five job. You’re not going to get away from this emotional payment, it’s going to be there for sure. But there should be some moments in which you reach out to each other. Ultimately, many people were doing that. However, there should also be moments when you have these conversations collectively; meetings where you talk about how you feel as a group and discuss any doubts that might have occurred. That just never happened and I think that’s what is needed. But when I got into this, I didn’t even think it would get that far. I didn’t come with expectations that we will change anything. I think this is a very big misconception that many people have when they go into activist work, they think they will be alive and there to see the fruits of their labor, but it’s really not like that. Don’t expect that much if you want to be an activist. You’re not doing this for a sense of success.
→ The problem is that, for people who don’t suffer from structural violence as an everyday experience, the more they want to look away, they can. Sometimes they will misunderstand their attention to a problem as a charitable act of fixing somebody else’s problem and not as fighting a system one is always already a part of. As a white person who was somewhat involved in the antiracist protest, I’m in danger of misunderstanding a situation like that. I was exhausted, but I was not a fraction as exhausted as my BIPoC-friends. On a personal level, I tried to give the assistance I could, but it’s clear that it hasn’t taken the same toll on me and that the aftermath hasn’t been as long for me as it was for some of my friends. I can also only assume how the invisible labor for my BIPoC-friends often means staying nice and accommodating while watching their white friends processing racist realities they were never forced to deal with. Here I think it’s every white person’s task to keep learning, even after the hype is over, but to do so on terms that don’t put further work on the shoulders of people who have to live with racist violence directed towards them every day. Do your own research, talk to fellow white people about ways to deal with your own racist socialization, things like that.
Looking back on the protest with today’s perspective – what were the issues, and what do you wish had been done better or differently? What is important to pay attention to when working collectively for a social change?
→ The protest was a process as democratic as it could have been. I don’t think we could have done it differently, but we definitely should have. I think the first steps to do something like this are to acknowledge that we are a heterogeneous group of people with different traumas and discrimination experiences, talk about how we want to work together, and how we want to speak to each other. The group needs to split responsibilities and not put a lot of mental pressure on a few individuals. If we want to work together, we have to raise our sensitivities.
→ One of the main issues is fear. People on the payroll of the university are scared of losing their jobs and won’t say anything. I have spoken to some professors about it, and they have been very supportive, much more than they were publicly. I don’t think it’s disingenuous; I just think that some lecturers without permanent employment are scared of losing their jobs or getting bullied. They’re not in the position to help. The only people that can really do something are students. It’s the students who have the best chances of saying their truth, being heard, and creating this kind of movement. But amongst students, there is a lot of fear as well. Some fear that there will be consequences because their professors disagree. Ultimately some risks must be taken, and many have taken them. You need to stand strong in solidarity and have a sense of collective energy, not of your singular position inside it. You have to have trust and rely on each other. What I would definitely do better is the final part of the process when the action takes place. This must be discussed more thoroughly so that everyone is on the same page and we all understand that we are going to take a huge risk together. The strategy for that moment and some kind of emotional support of each other should be planned before. I also had the feeling that, in the end, everyone was tired and kind of annoyed. You always see this kind of mentality when you work voluntarily for a cause when, all of a sudden, people realize that they have more important things to do and everybody should be happy that they helped at all because they’re not even getting paid for this. That’s the moment when things go wrong because somebody else who is also not getting paid for it, who already has enough on their plate, has to finish it.
→ I wasn’t really in the center of the organizational part, so I can only report as a bystander. I think for me, it has become clear on what precarious grounds self-organization is materializing. The meetings in the weeks before the protest were a real practice in basic democracy; everybody was invited to participate. And that’s hard work. I think this society does not necessarily prepare one for more democracy, so every time we find ourselves in positions where we are able to make more self-determined decisions, it’s also always a process of reflecting on one’s own limitations and learned behavior. Personally, this experience has inspired me to read up on theories and histories of past and present revolutionary movements. I think it’s important to understand oneself as participating in a history of people who have voiced dissent on how things are. People who have tried to find ways to establish relationships built on solidarity and equality and not on competition and artificial scarcity of resources. The more we study our revolutionary predecessors, the better we are prepared to find contemporary solutions on how to organize resistance in a fucked up world.