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Wednesday, 19 December 2012 14:40


By  Lukas Mairhofer


The bridge spans thinly across the autobahn, nearly transparent in the light ahead. A single person stands on top of it next to a minibus. The vehicle reminds you immediately of the grey delivery van that followed you for a long time before you crossed the border. Actually you didn’t think you would make it across, but you weren’t even stopped. Above, on the bridge, a light flashes brightly as sunlight reflects in a pair of binoculars, and you know that your journey is over, now. A patrol car slides onto the highway behind you, changes into the fast lane, and after a short desperate escape manoeuvre you follow the blue light into a cordoned-off rest stop.

The parking lot is empty, you are alone. Police officers with automatic weapons open the car doors. As you get out, some way off beside the tightly parked prisoner transporters, the guard dogs go mad. One of them sniffs his way through the car, then your bags that have been spread on the concrete; the dog comes up with nothing. One by one, you are led to the small grey house2 where the loos are crowding. They strip you naked. The officers frisk your shoes, socks, underwear. As nothing is found, you are allowed to put your clothes back on, but they keep your IDs, keys, cash, credit cards and cigarettes. Then you are escorted back to the parking lot. It’s about midday, but the winter sky is tired and dirty and it begins to snow.

A young blond policeman initiates the interrogation. He is the only one without a machine gun strapped to his body. Where are you heading, he wants to know.

“The snowboard fair in Munich.”

He knows better: “You want to take part in an illegal demonstration.”

Since he has to hinder this criminal offence, he declares you arrested. You ask him for his badge number. The information is withheld: “I’m not disclosing my name to you, I don’t have to disclose my name to you.”

That is undoubtedly correct, you agree, nevertheless you want to know his badge number. But he is insistent: “I’m not disclosing my name to you, I don’t have to disclose my name to you.”

No, not his name, but his badge number. Well, he doesn’t have a number. He isn’t a dog, after all.

But he does have a name, the dashing officer-in-charge. It was even mentioned in the Bild, just below a very successful photograph and next to a rather less successful article. When later you page through the issue, recognition sets in immediately. This is a portrait of a professional and fearless civil servant who defends an exposed outpost in an autobahn parking lot against attacking rioters. Were a state of emergency to be declared, the good man would receive a medal. A war is on already, the one in Afghanistan, and the defence of democracy and freedom in Iraq is currently being prepared, here at the NATO security conference in Munich. Yet, there has been no declaration of a state of emergency in Munich. Rather, freedom and democracy have been proclaimed, and a total ban on demonstrating.

Meanwhile the officer would have deserved a medal for the article alone. What his name is – the officer-in-charge without a badge number – the reader must look up herself in the February 2002 issue of Bild, because you don’t recall it.

The refractory questioning about the badge number was definitely not to his liking. Now you have to wait nearby and get your own overseer with a machine gun at the ready. That creates a queasy feeling, but unfortunately there is no choice: “Regulations”. Then his ammo clip comes loose and drops out and the officer, burning crimson with embarrassment, picks up the bullets scattered all over the cobblestone pavement. You offer to help, which is surlily declined; but the regulations are relaxed and the muzzle of the machine gun disappears.

The regulations on fingerprinting and photographing are also strict: two Polaroid photographs, a portrait, and one with the officer who puts his arms around your shoulder. Hunter and prey. The photographs are stapled to a file of colourful forms that are red, yellow, blue; the meaning of the individual colours is excitedly discussed. While the forms are being filled in, a mistake is discovered, because everyone must hold a card with a number. The number is recorded in the file. But because of the mistake, the images are torn off the colourful forms and new photographs must be taken. But this is not unproblematic, because the numbers must be recorded correctly on the forms. And instead of starting anew with the filling in of the forms – red, yellow, blue – two shots are taken again, of each and every one of you. When you offer to help with the forms the officers become grumpy.

You wait. Slowly night falls; the drifting snow becomes denser, stops abruptly. Another vehicle is directed into the parking lot: Eastern European license plate, highly suspicious. But the woman driver in a fur coat is not held up for long. The officers are luckier with their next hit. The Italians get out and greet you with their fists raised. Then everything happens very fast. Hectic radio messages come through, a blue light convoy is put into motion, you are all packed into a van, and the parking lot is vacated. The small red car with your luggage remains behind, all alone.

There are two cages in the van: segregation of the sexes, no windows. You are moving fast, but then you obviously enter a city; there are stops and turns. The vehicle halts, the engine is stalled, doors bang. Outside you can hear voices. Cars arrive, steps follow, doors bang again. Your door stays closed. More steps, cars, voices. You hold on to the black metal bars of the cages, begin to swing your prison. Soon you have found a rhythm and the tall bus begins to lurch about, as if high waves are rolling underneath it. The rear door is ripped open, freezing air rushes in, a red face roars, threatening you with tear gas in the narrow cabin, and the door slams again. The vehicle is swinging so much now that you wonder whether you could capsize it.

Then a calm grizzly face appears at the rear door, accompanied by the cold breeze, and it asks whether anybody would like a smoke. You are permitted to get out one by one, and because your tobacco was taken back in the parking lot, the old officer offers you his own cigarettes. It’s your turn, and you stand in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by barred windows. You inhale deeply and blow the smoke into the dark night sky and the dancing snowflakes.

The friendly policeman accompanies you through the prison intake. It is like checking in to an overbooked youth hostel. Almost four hundred people have been arrested. They now stand lined up in the corridors waiting to be interrogated or admitted to a cell. Most have a mean-looking official in impressive combat gear by their side; some are handcuffed, and others are pressing cloths to bleeding head wounds. A few youths are going to the toilet to get rid of their hashish. Beside you are three grey-haired, toothless women who sell roasted chestnuts to frozen passers-by in a square in the city centre. Today their stalls happened to be inside the forbidden zone and they were rudely removed. An official passes by with a screaming man who has a plastic bag in his hand. The man’s cell phone rings in the bag. It is his wife; he is not allowed to answer.

You refuse to sign a few papers and to make a statement. But you give them your name, since you have no choice in the matter. The cell is overcrowded. It is hot and the low oxygen levels are exhausting you. A middle-aged man tries to engage a few people in a conversation about the demonstration and you immediately mistrust him. A fourteen-year-old tells the story of how happy he was with his new shoes when he left the store and found himself suddenly in the middle of the demonstration. When he asked a policeman in combat uniform how best to get home, the official forced his arm behind his back.

You lean back on the wooden pallet, shove your crumpled jersey under your heavy, swimming head. The fourteen-year-old won’t be able to call his parents tonight. The right to a call is denied all prisoners because of cost concerns. It has been a long day. You close your eyes, breathe in deeply, and fall asleep.

Translated from the German by Karina Magdalena Szczurek

1. In February 2002, NATO held its annual security meeting in Munich with a focus on international terrorism and future strategy. For the duration of the event a complete demonstration ban was issued across the city, including the outer city area. That weekend a few hundred people were detained as part of a preventive measure. Some were even stopped at the German borders. The risk of large groups of people turning to violence was used to justify the actions of the state. The possibility of peaceful protest was ruled out from the start. (Translator’s note, source: www.statewatch.org)

2. “Graues Häuschen” in the original, translated here as “small grey house”, is a reference to the “Graue Haus” (Grey House) a prison in Vienna where many people were executed during the Nazi era. (Translator’s note)

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