'We're Sitting on a Powder Keg': Immigrants Protest Death of Moroccan Teenager in Cologne

By and Andreas Ulrich

Following the violent death of a Moroccan teenager in Cologne, hundreds of immigrants have taken to the streets in nightly demonstrations to protest what they see as evidence of their second-class status in Germany. Police warn the city could be ready to explode.

The owner of an electronics shop on Cologne’s Kalker Hauptstrasse had rolled down the shutters on the windows in case there was unrest. Now they have photos of a 17-year-old Moroccan boy taped to them. The teenager, whose name was Salih, was killed in front of the shop two weeks ago.

The sidewalk is a sea of candles as hundreds of people chant: “Salih! Salih! We want justice!” They feel that Salih was one of them -- a youth from an immigrant family.

For the police, the case is clear cut. According to their version of events, Salih allegedly wanted to mug a 20-year-old German man, who tried to defend himself. But he panicked and pulled out a pocketknife that he plunged into Salih’s heart with an unlucky stab. Prosecutors said it was a clear case of self-defense, and there are witnesses. But none of that matters any longer.

Every night last week, up to 300 protestors gathered at the spot where Salih died to demand “justice” instead of letting his killer walk free. They are protesting against “racism in Germany” -- but since it appears clear that this case involves self-defense, it’s obviously about more than just the unfortunate Salih. It’s more about how immigrants and their children feel they are currently being treated in Germany.

The incident has struck a chord with those who feel disenfranchised from German society -- those without a proper education or vocational training, those without a future. The frustration is palpable. “We’re sitting on a powder keg," warns former police commissioner Winrich Granitzka, who is also head of the Christian Democratic group in Cologne’s city council. "There’s the danger we could see a situation like in the suburbs of Paris.”

Cologne certainly isn’t Paris and the district of Kalk can't be compared with the high-rise suburban ghettoes surrounding the French capital. But Kalk, which used to be home to a chemical plant, is certainly depressing. The only bright spot is the large and colorful new shopping center, which stands out from its gray surroundings.

Immigrants and people with at least one non-German parent make up 54.7 percent of Kalk’s population. The amount of young people between 15 and 18 living there is above average; education levels, on the other hand, are below average. Some 90 percent of people without a job in the area count as long-term unemployed.

“It seems to me as if they only send losers here,” says Kemal Düzardic, a 22-year-old friend of the dead teenager. He and the others gather near the photos and candles even in the cold and the rain. One question weighs heavily on their minds. What if a German had died and the killer had been one of them?

A mere eight hours after the incident happened, the police announced it had been a case of self-defense and no charges would be pressed. The statement was "somewhat unfortunately formulated,” admits Cologne police officer Catherine Maus in hindsight.

The "unfortunate" wording came at a particularly unfortunate time. “We have too many criminal foreigners,” Roland Koch, the conservative governor of the state of Hesse, said in late December. In his re-election campaign, which many observers considered xenophobic, Koch made clear he thought immigrants should assimilate and shouldn’t expect Germans to accommodate their cultural practices.

Of course, many of the Kalk youths who were born and raised within sight of Cologne’s towering cathedral and speak the local German dialect don’t consider themselves "foreigners." But Koch’s populist attacks still resonated throughout the immigrant community.

“Stop this Racist,” was the headline in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, accompanied by a caricature of the Christian Democrat politician with an extra-long nose. The Social Democrats, the left-wing Left party, the Greens and even a few Christian Democrats distanced themselves from Koch. Only the mass circulation newspaper Bild took his side and delighted in featuring new stories about "foreign" repeat offenders with long criminal records on an almost daily basis.

But the people with immigrant backgrounds in Kalk read Bild too. “What’s with this crap?" says one irritated young man. "We grew up here, we aren’t criminals. So why are we treated differently than other Germans?”

'We Feel like Second-Class Citizens'

For more than 40 years, the German mainstream tried to assert that Germany wasn't a "country of immigration." That attitude has had repercussions. Around 72 percent of Germany’s 1.7 million Turks -- the largest group of foreigners living in the country -- don’t have proper vocational qualifications. Some 40 percent of young people from immigrant families neither study nor pursue a traineeship after they leave school. They do odd jobs or hang around -- and they make up a disproportionate amount of violent offenders.

“The city of Cologne does a lot for integration,” says police director Michael Temme, who has been keeping a careful eye on how his officers have been policing the demonstrations. But he admits there are “hot spots” in the city, including in Kalk. And so every evening he finds himself wondering if this will be the night when a spark finally ignites the powder keg, if this will be the night when shop windows get shattered and cars go up in flames.

“We feel like second-class citizens,” says a middle-aged Moroccan man. “It will never stop, maybe it will even get worse,” adds a young man. A group of intimidating-looking youths chant: “Salih, Salih!” They want a different kind of justice. It sounds more like a call for revenge.

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