The little group, waiting for their appointment at the US Embassy in Berlin, were shocked when one member showed the latest photos of a haggard, incredibly aged Mumia Abu-Jamal, unable to stand without assistance.
For any who don’t know, the African-American radio journalist with the dreadlocks and a wonderfully deep, warm voice has been in prison since 1981, convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman. More and more evidence piled up that, seriously wounded, he could not have been guilty. But even those with doubts know that his trial was totally unfair, with a racist prosecutor, a racist judge, an incompetent defense attorney, suppression of evidence and witness intimidation. But, hated for his views by the Fraternal Order of the Police, he was never granted a fair second trial. After long years in a tiny death cell, a world-wide movement saved him from the gas chamber but not from life in prison with no hope of parole. Yet his amazing commentaries on American and world events, telephoned from prison, enraged those who wanted his death. They have often tried to muzzle him, most recently with a law aimed almost directly against him.
After half-hearted medical care in prison, a frightening coma resulted in a brief hospital stay, shackled to his bed and with only rare visits. Then he was taken back to a prison infirmary unable (and perhaps unwilling) to grant needed treatment for diabetes. The petition to the US Embassy near the Brandenburg Gate was to protest this.
The Mumia movement in Germany has been active almost from the start. It led rallies and parades and won support for a new trial from major German city councils. On December 7th 2000 the German Bundestag passed a resolution condemning death penalties in general and calling for a new trial for Mumia; not one party voted against it. On October 2nd 2010 the European Parliament also opposed death penalties everywhere and mentioned several people on death row, explicitly including Mumia and – in vain – Troy Davis. 574 voted in favor, only 25 voted no.
It wasn’t the ambassador but a polite official who met the group on the doorstep and accepted the petition, photos and factual material, while stressing that the USA has a different attitude toward the death penalty than European governments. It was unclear whether he realized that this petition was not about that but about urgent medical care. But he promised to send it all to the State Department which could pass it on to Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania and his Director of Prisons (to whom you can also certainly write!). This was a minor victory; in over twenty years it was the first petition on Mumia which the embassy has accepted.
Mumia’s story has been compared by some here to the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston; both concern racism, police and power. And so does a case now stirring emotions in Germany.
Large numbers of people are currently seeking asylum in Germany and Europe, after escaping, often risking their lives, from areas of severe repression, hunger and warfare. This raises problems on where to house them, especially in the weeks, months, even years when they await the decision as to whether they may remain or will be deported. They are “portioned out” to towns and cities in all sixteen German states, affording neo-Nazi groups fearsome opportunities to focus hatred against them even more viciously than against Turkish and other minorities which have been here longer. The resemblance to hatred of refugees in the USA from Central America is remarkable. Here, three forces have been most active: the neo-Nazi NPD party and its thugs, the more recent “anti-Islamist” PEGIDA movements of generally dissatisfied, xenophobic demonstrators, and the only slightly more respectable young party AfD (Alternative for Germany), now getting 6 % in poll ratings.
It was the thugs who showed their hand in the little town of Tröglitz in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt. When forty asylum seekers were to be given temporary homes in an unused building the local mayor, Markus Nierth, 46, who has held the unpaid job for five years, foresaw possible problems and posted a Christmas message urging the 2800 inhabitants to welcome and assist the expected arrivals. Many were willing, but not the fascists! For three months they organized weekly protests, loud and vicious, in front of his house, sometimes with over 150 goons. They planned an even bigger rally for a Sunday in March, with busloads from other areas.
That is when Nierth, a churchman and father of seven children, had had enough; he quit the job. “Must I subject my children, who have already suffered more than enough, to having armed protective policemen standing at their windows while racist, hateful shouts blast into their rooms?”
“It was not cowardice which made me quit,“ he stressed. “I wasn’t intimidated by the Nazis but I was disappointed by the authorities. I felt that I had been abandoned.”
After his decision hit the media all kinds of officials, near and far, discovered how very shocked they were. Yes, yes, they should have prevented the threatening gatherings, they should have forbidden the planned rally. Their remorse was almost tearful. (One county official who seemed genuinely regretful soon received Emailed death threats.)
Then, in the night of April 4th, the building being readied for the refugees was set on fire, its roof was destroyed and it became uninhabitable.
Two big meetings followed in little Tröglitz. At one, people quarreled about housing refugees, saying that townspeople should have been consulted in advance. At the other meeting, outdoors, attended by about 300, many vowed to help rebuild the house and welcome the newcomers, some into their homes. No arsonists have yet been found.
Saxony-Anhalt (don’t confuse it with plain Saxony, Lower Saxony – or “Anglo-Saxony”) has three main cities. Halle is proud that George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), composer of the great cantata Messiah, was born there. Magdeburg boasts another great composer, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), but also its mayor Otto von Guericke (1602-1686), who demonstrated the power of air pressure by creating a vacuum, pumping the air out of two metal hemispheres which two eight-horse teams were then unable to pull apart. The son of Magdeburg I admire most was an impostor: Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, known as Baron Steuben (1730-1794). As a simple gay captain with phony titles, pretending to be a general (with a striking uniform organized in Paris by Benjamin Franklin), he became a key figure in the American Revolution. Then there is Dessau, birthplace of a more modern composer, Kurt Weill (1900-1950), and site, in the 1920s, of the famous Bauhaus school of design and architecture, with teachers like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. The school was forced to leave Dessau when the Nazis gained control there, a year before Hitler seized all of Germany.
And little Tröglitz? The Nazis left a tragic mark there, a branch of Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Thousands of Hungarian Jews, living in improvised tents, worked there as slave laborers to rebuild a bombed-out chemical factory. The heavy labor at starvation rations cost the lives of most of them. One survivor was Imre Kertész, who won the Nobel Literature Prize, in part for descriptions of the camp. Could history repeat itself?
The struggle between rightist groups in East and West Germany, stamping and shouting slogans in one town and city after another, and the many who oppose them, reject racism and are friendly to refugees – is crucial in Germany, indeed in all Europe and beyond. Yet while the older parties voice their devotion to democracy, humanity, love and other virtues in the most moving tones, politicians of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), especially in Dresden (the capital of real Saxony), have been meeting more and more openly with AfD leaders and representatives of PEGIDA. Their justification: “There are issues regarding asylum-seekers in the world which must be discussed with everyone.” Most brazen, perhaps, is Arnold Vaatz, once a main dissident in the GDR, for decades a far-right hater of anything mildly leftish, who had an answer to criticism of his footsy-game with PEGIDA: “I will never again let anyone tell me whom I should speak with and whom
I should not speak with.” Vaatz himself is not just anyone, but deputy chair of Merkel’s caucus in the Bundestag.
At least equally disturbing are accusations that Volker Bouffier, now prominent minister-president of the state of Hesse in coalition with the Greens, but then Interior Minister, had covered up for an undercover agent of the FBI-like Constitutional Protection bureau. The agent was evidently present in the internet café when its owner, Halit Yozgat, a 21-year-old of Turkish background, was shot down in 2006, one of ten people murdered by an underground Nazi group. The agent had brought in a bag, possibly containing the murder weapon, but was protected from clarifying interrogation; interview records were shredded or disappeared. At the time Bouffier was boss of the police and has lots of questions to answer; his role may soon face some music at the year-long trial of the one survivor of the Nazi trio which organized the murders of people with immigrant backgrounds.
Is there no good news to report? Well, the numbers were not gigantic, but better than last year anyway. About ten thousand people joined in annual Easter Peace Marches in over 80 places. Resist sending armaments eastwards, they demanded, no more war exercises, no armed drones, and push harder for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in the Ukraine.
A second item of hopeful news, this time from Pennsylvania: Mumia, defying his serious illness, has insisted on and succeeded in writing another of his regular commentaries.
And thirdly, finally, at last – spring has arrived here, with forsythia, daffodils and budding shrubs everywhere, with early morning blackbird serenades and already perhaps (it needs checking), the wonderful song, by night and day, of the nightingales.
Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin, which you can subscribe to for free by sending an email to: email@example.com.