‘In no city have I felt as unsafe as Berlin’: opera singer sues metro over racism claims

A Berlin metro ticket controller squeezes through a throng of old-school punks, mariachi band members and burly men in leather chaps, all while jauntily humming Is’ mir egal, “It’s all the same to me”.

The 2015 viral ad, featuring Turkish-German Neukölln rapper Kazim Akboga, was a great marketing success for the German capital’s public transport company, BVG: if you ride on our metros, trams and buses, it said, you can be whoever you want to be – as long as you remember to buy a ticket.

Jeremy Osborne’s experience with Berlin ticket inspectors is a less cheerful one. The dual national American-German opera singer is one of a string of people of colour who say they have been singled out and physically abused by controllers on the public transport system of a city that outwardly prides itself on its diversity and social liberalism. In a landmark case for Germany, he is currently suing the state-owned metro operator for discrimination over an incident in October 2020.

At about 7pm one day, Osborne was on a train on the U2 underground line between Spittelmarkt and Hausvogteiplatz when four plainclothes ticket controllers stepped into his carriage. Berlin’s underground train network does not have ticket barriers, which BVG says it cannot install because of fire safety regulations and building preservation orders. Instead, paper and digital tickets are spot-checked by a pool of 170 roaming controllers, of whom a quarter are BVG staff and wear uniforms, and the rest work for two private subcontractors, who started wearing blue uniforms in their role only last November.

When Osborne asked one of the controllers to show proof he was really entitled to see the annual season pass he was carrying in his wallet, things turned ugly.

According to a report BVG’s subcontractor produced a year and a half after the incident, and which is in parts inconsistent with a police report written immediately after the event, the passenger had provoked the controllers by showing his ticket “very slowly” and abusing them as ausländer or “foreigners” (three of the four controllers had Turkish citizenship). Osborne, who had yet to obtain German citizenship at the time of the incident, denies doing so.

According to the Arkansas-born singer, the inspectors snatched his pass and made him leave the carriage for the platform, where one told him that “Black Lives Matter is only an excuse for you” and another pushed him on to a metal bench, causing scrapes on his forearm and thigh that required hospital treatment.

“I’ve lived in Baltimore, New York, Nice and Vienna, but in no city have I felt as unsafe on public transit as in Berlin,” the 35-year-old told the Observer. “It’s as if the controllers feel they have the freedom to harass you at will.”

Osborne’s injuries were milder than those of Abbéy Odunlami, a Nigerian-American art curator, who in December 2020 suffered a crushed shoulder blade, a broken collar bone and two broken ribs, one of which pushed into his lung, when he was shoved to the platform floor by Berlin ticket controllers working for the same subcontractor, Berlin Object Protection and Service (BOS).

“The doctor who operated on me said I had been lucky,” Odunlami said. “A few millimetres deeper and I wouldn’t have survived.” Like Osborne, Odunlami was asked to step on to the platform even though he had a valid ticket.

Juju Kim, a 31-year-old American yoga teacher, suffered a broken finger in January this year when a ticket controller twisted her hand. Kim had been asked to get off the M10 tram for having validated her ticket too late. “Public transport shouldn’t feel scary,” Kim said in an Instagram post in which she recounted the incident.

A petition and social media campaign called #WeilWirunsFürchten (“Because we are afraid”) – after the BVG’s own slogan #WeilWirDichLieben (“Because we love you”) – has had about 60 reports since it started in February 2021 from people who felt they had been aggressively singled out by ticket controllers because of their appearance.

“Controlling tickets is low paid and precarious work,” said Anna-Rebekka Helmy, one of the women behind the campaign. “No one outside a certain socioeconomic context wants to do this job.” Instead of focusing on the subcontractors, she says change needs to come from Berlin’s majority state-owned transport company.

Among other measures, her petition calls on BVG to pay its controllers better wages and enforce anti-discrimination and de-escalation training among its subcontractors.

BVG says its subcontracted controllers are already schooled in “intercultural competences” and made to role-play scenarios where they assume the role of passengers. The operator points out that ticket controllers are regularly subject to verbal and physical aggression themselves, with 118 cases leading to criminal charges over the past two years. BVG said it could not put a number on the complaints it had received about controllers behaving aggressively.

In a Germany-wide first in 2020, Berlin state introduced a new anti-discrimination law, and Jeremy Osborne will be the first person to sue the city’s transport operator under this legislation.

His lawyers argue that the law, which bars discrimination against anyone based on their skin colour, gender, religion, disability, worldview, age or sexual identity from taking place in a public authority’s “area of responsibility”, applies to Berlin’s public transport company and the conduct of its ticket inspectors.

The same transport operator that used to have a ticket controller rap about its laissez-faire philosophy in viral video ads, however, now argues that it has no real legal responsibility for the behaviour of the men and women who try to catch fare-dodgers on its trains and trams.

In a letter sent to Osborne’s lawyers in April, BVG’s legal team argues that while the transport authority was a public body, a ticket bought to ride on its metros or trams was a private-law contract, and any fine issued was a penalty for breach of contract rather than an administrative act.

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