Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Munich's bouncers are allegedly turning away people of color without reason. Can a handful of lawsuits make that stop?
Last year, Munich resident Hamado Dipama decided that he'd had enough of being turned away from the city's nightclubs. Born in Burkina Faso, the 38-year-old had experienced what he suspected was racial profiling at club entrances time and again, leaving him feeling hurt and frustrated. As he explained to Süddeutsche Zeitung:
You stand there and then ask yourself: What have I done wrong? You feel degraded, publicly exposed, injured in your personality. It is a total humiliation that I find hard to take.
It's a humiliation that Dipama is far from alone in experiencing. In the past few years, nightclubs across Germany have been sued for turning away (sober, appropriately dressed) members of ethnic minorities – including this high-profile case in the city of Hanover. This could suggest that the actual incidence of such discrimination is actually higher. Proving that a club has rejected you solely for your ethnicity is hard, however, when clubs routinely make decisions about who they let in that can seem rude and arbitrary.
That proof is exactly what Dipama set out to secure, starting an experiment that saw him take on a large chunk of Munich's nightclubs in an almost single-handed in an attempt to stamp out racial screening.
This is how he did it. With a group of friends – some, like himself, members of Munich's Foreigners' Advisory Council – Dipama tried to get into one nightclub after the other. Of the 25 clubs they paid a visit to, 20 turned him and his minority ethnic friends away. Shortly after they were rejected – typical excuses were "it's a private party" and "you need a reservation" – white German friends also involved in the experiment were let in without problems.
Now Dipama is suing six of the clubs for a symbolic €500 worth of damages, under a German law that forbids the exclusion of anyone from public life (including nightclubs) because of their ethnic origin. The first trial – there have to be individual cases opened for each club – began this week.
Dipama has insisted on taking the complaints to court because simply naming the clubs publicly isn't enough to change things. In the interview quoted above, he mentions an earlier case of a man of African origin who complained to a Munich club about being refused admission.The club apologized profusely, but it was still among the group to which Dipama was denied entry.
Does this mean that there is systematic racism at work here? Or is it just that the German legal system working better than others in rooting out isolated cases of discrimination? Without more open legal challenges like Dipama's, it's hard to say.
My suspicion, however, is that the sort of racial profiling he experienced is probably pretty common in Germany, as it is across the continent. German minorities commonly report widespread discrimination, whether it's being summarily turned down for housing by landlords or exclusion and hair-raisingly racist comments by teachers in the education system. From my own experience, open racial prejudice is more tolerated in the country than it is in (hardly racism-free) Britain, an impression backed up by a Council of Europe report released this winter that criticized Germany for not doing enough about racism, both in terms of laws and their enforcement. This level of prejudice isn't necessarily ubiquitous, and cases of extreme racism, such as the horrific National Socialist Underground murder trial of last year, induce a wave of genuine public outrage and disgust. Too often, the everyday grind of racism in the country is ignored or denied – which is why cases like Hamado Dipama's are so important.