A number of Americans have asked me about the events in Cologne this past week. A number of Germans who live in America are reporting that their communities are increasingly divided and agitated about what is happening. The events on News Year’s Eve at the Cologne central train station are a global event, and #koelnhbf is the next hashtag to follow #staddefrance – although the events are quite different in magnitude.
What is difficult about explaining the events in Cologne to a foreign audience is how murky the facts remain. As protests take place in front of the station today, including one by Pegida recently broken up by police, what is clear is that the events of New Year’s Eve have stoked resentments and exacerbated political tensions that have long been present. Reports of sexual violence are being instrumentalized to racialize Muslim populations and stoke xenophobic fears of “invasion.” At the same time, it has become clear that the police response to such a disturbance were ineffective – partly because of the style of criminal behavior. The Cologne Chief of Police has voluntarily entered early retirement – which means he effectively lost his job over his mishandling of the situation. Police initially reported a peaceful New Year’s Eve celebration – until tens of claims of theft and assault were filed, at which point the police created their own commission to handle the investigation.
Flashmob against women violence #koelnhbf pic.twitter.com/f5W2guOui1
— nicolas martin (@_nico_martin) January 9, 2016
The basic facts seem to be that a large number of drunk men were shooting off firecrackers in the crowded station, and were groping and encircling young women as a tactic to distract them from noticing that they were also being robbed. According to this article in Spiegel Online, this tactic is not new: they report that more than 11,000 people have been robbed using this tactic in the past three years. This kind of sexual harrassment is – I can well imagine – a successful diversionary tactic precisely because it is physically and emotionally violent.
A wide variety of sensationalist right-wing press attention has exaggerated these reports and attempted to create hysterical panic. Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann has posed in pictures wearing an offensive “rape-fugees not welcome” t-shirt. These stories often portray a violent mob of 1,000 migrants wantonly raping and attacking young women, like the narrative on the website Right Wing News. These reports are exaggerated, if not false. Numbers vary, but the number of rapes reported vacillates between 1 and 2; the number of men at the train station between 500 and 1,000. The state-run news media tagesschau emphasizes that we are not talking about 1,000 perpetrators; rather, the number represents the general size of the entire crowd.
The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, a local Cologne paper, reported today that the number of reported crimes has risen from 170 to 379. About 40% of these offenses constitute sexualized crimes, like groping. The ethnicity of the perpetrators has been partially identified; an early police report erroneously called all of them “refugees.” According to the NYTimes:
The Interior Ministry identified the 31 suspects as nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, four Syrians, five Iranians, an Iraqi, a Serb, an American and two Germans. Most of the crimes they were accused of involved theft and violence, said a ministry spokesman, Tobias Plate, but at least three acts were considered sexual assaults.
According to WDR, a German state news station, the police had identified 32 suspects, with 29 “foreigners” in the group (the numbers are the same as the NYTimes, with the exception of having 3 Germans rather than 2). 22 of the suspects are supposely seeking asylum. Given the long duration of asylum proceedings, however, we have no information about how long any of these suspects have been in Germany.
According to criminologist Rita Steffens, the use of sexually-based tactics to commit theft is an emerging trend in criminal behavior that is not restricted to Cologne. The intensity and quantity of assaults are new.
In contrast to the attention being paid to determining what happened on New Year’s Eve, most of the press attention has started furiously circulating around questions of race, class, gender and integration. These debates are self-multiplying and prohibit the emergence of a reasoned response to the complex issues at hand. This press attention will be the subject of the next post.