The privilege of civic life

2 July 2015

Last week, I was invited for an interview with Civic Radio. We talked about what it means to participate in civic life, and the role of civic technology. For me, civic life is closely connected to participation - and this made me wonder, who has the opportunity to participate in public life?

###Participation in Berlin

A couple of weeks ago in Berlin there was a protest - #dietotenkommen, or ‘the dead are coming’, to draw attention to the horrific number of migrants who are dying on their way to Europe, organised by the Centre for Political Beauty. As part of the protest, graves were dug on the lawn outside the German Chancellery, representing migrants who died on their way to Europe.

There were, and have been, numerous issues of representation discussed around the protest - who has the right to ‘represent’ dead migrants? I’m not going to go into that here, though, but I wanted to mention another issue that came up; diversity of attendance at the protest.

Apparently, though I sadly couldn’t be there, the 5000+ attendees seemed to be largely (though not exclusively) of a non-migrant background. This doesn’t really surprise me. The police were in attendance at the protest, which, though peaceful and non-violent, is for many who are living in precarious situations, a reason not to attend.

It’s also worth noting that towards the end of the protest, the police asked people to leave and then started seemingly randomly arresting people. For those who are unsure of their status here in Germany, attending a protest and risking being one of those arrested would have a huge, damaging effect to their applications. It could change their application status, and change their lives for the worse.

For me at least, the fact that people of a migrant population weren’t so represented at the protest wasn’t so much of a problem, but I was so happy to see that so many people living in Berlin took part. I’ve written before about racism in Berlin, and though it’s a small section of the Berliner population, seeing people around me standing up for migrant rights and actively embracing a diverse society is incredibly reassuring.

In the case of the protest in Berlin, participation and attendance seems largely to come down to privilege and status in society. To participate in the protest - and thus, play a part in civic life - some people face potentially life changing risks, even if what they are doing is totally legal, and among a wider group of citizens. For others, such as myself, taking part involves no such risk.

It’s easy sometimes to ignore this barrier to participation when we think about civic life, or being a “citizen”, as we discussed in the podcast. It depends a lot too on where you are, and what kind of trust you have in your government. For example, if participation in civic life is punished, then being an “active citizen” brings with it a very different set of considerations.

I talked more about this theme with Jo in the podcast, which is now online here:


You might also like: