On Yom Kippur 2019, I survived a white nationalist mass shooting in Halle, Germany.
Halle, with its squat stone castle, spiked medieval church, and cobblestone market square, sits along the river Saale. During the second World War, prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp built combat aircraft at the Siebel plant, just miles away from where the neo-Nazi attacked us.
After the shooting, I became a co-plantiff in the trial against the shooter. In the German system, this meant I was part of a prosecuting team that included witnesses, survivors, and lawyers.
Jana Lang, 40, was the first victim of the shooting. She was killed when she confronted the perpetrator as he was attempting to blow the door off the synagogue using homemade submachine guns and explosives. People walked or drove right by him—including the police—as he was attempting to blow up the door. The police drove right by him and they didn’t see anything suspicious. They just saw another white man in army fatigues.
Yet Jana Lang stopped, turned toward him, and demanded: “What are you doing there?”
Violent silencing and reclamation
We give a lot of attention to the perpetrators of ultraviolent crimes. The perpetrator is scandalous; he—and it’s usually a he—seems like something otherworldly. He is grotesque when he speaks, since he speaks such violent things. Yet until he speaks, he could be anyone. Short cropped hair, a normal T-shirt from a normal chain store. Mouth, cheeks, forehead. Perhaps a stutter or a nervous tic. You’d never be able to pick him out of a crowd.
That’s exactly what makes him so curious. He is anyone. He is someone’s brother, or a man on the train. He is your neighbor. The impulse is to dissect him, until he is something completely removed from us, from society. The impulse is to make him un-normal, because his normality is terrifying, and it’s unsettling to imagine that he could be anywhere. So he is dissected until he becomes something far away from us: an anomaly, a lone wolf.
The Halle court focused a lot on the perpetrator’s motivations: Why did he shoot? Did it have something to do with his mother? With the Soviet Union? With the Berlin Wall? With his alienation? With his grade school teacher, a frail octogenarian with a withering voice who was brought as a witness to attest to his character? Did it have to do with the incel movement? With feminism? Or worse, the women who rejected him?
Frankly, I don’t care about his motivations. The perpetrator is banal to me. If I met him at a bar, I’d be bored to death. He thinks of one thing: the ideology that drives him. His sheer single-mindedness, the inflexibility of his thought, is pitiful at best, and absolutely irritating. His hatred is straightforward and uncomplex. Thus his motivations should factor little in our analysis, as they are but a symptom of institutionalized historical racism, antisemitism, and anti-feminism. The analysis of his ideology is important, and it is well-documented. Read about it. But his personal motivations remain uninteresting, and spotlighting them grants the perpetrator the fame that he desperately craves but in no way deserves.
What I’m interested in, then, are precisely the ways in which the end of one woman’s life is tragic. I’m interested in Jana Lang’s life. I’m interested in what pushed her to stop and ask, “What are you doing there?”—when nobody else did. I am interested in where she got that strength from—a strength so entrenched, it was impulsive.
I’m also interested in how her death follows a historical trajectory, and echoes in places of small daily deaths for other women elsewhere. Doesn’t her death—that she died speaking up—seem familiar? Isn’t violent retribution against the women who choose to be visible a recognizable phenomenon—almost ordinary? It happens in subtle ways, daily. Men speak over women. Men speak to each other in the office; women aren’t invited to such conversations. Men dismiss women’s good ideas. Men steal women’s good ideas, and take credit for them as their own. The Duchamp toilet. The DNA helix. Fine, this we can bear, and we do. These are the small things.
Yet women are killed for speaking up, and often. Jana Lang died for speaking. Incels go on mass killing sprees. Intersectional experiences of racism, classism, misogyny, and transphobia make the reality even bleaker for trans women, for whom 2021 was the “deadliest year” on record: At least 375 trans people were murdered, and 96% of those victims were trans women or trans-feminine people. Women of all backgrounds are killed by their domestic partners, though not all cases are treated equally before the law.
For the first time in Britain, [Femicide UK] analyzed the shocking killings of women and girls, from the age of 14 to 100, at the hands of men, over a 10-year period, 2009-2018. The census defines “femicide’” as “men’s fatal violence against women”, and reveals that, on average, a woman was murdered every three days – a horrifying statistic, unchanged over the decade.
The Femicide UK census recognizes that “men’s violence against women and girls will not be eradicated without fundamentally addressing sex inequality and the beliefs, attitudes and institutions that underpin it.” In the same way, Jana Lang’s murder did not occur in a vacuum. It did not occur outside of crystallized conceptions of misogyny. It occurred in a world where women die for being women. When Lang stopped, she essentially said, “No, I will not pretend this is not happening. I will not look the other way.” Her unspoken “no” echoes a chorus of “nos” said and unsaid, nos that threaten to kill us, even as they work to keep us fully alive.
In response to her own brush with death, Audre Lorde wrote, in The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength …
My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living.
I learn from this strength, and that’s why I do speak. To speak is to take space in places where you are not expected to be, and to push against doubting your own significance and power. To speak is to trust my community to defend me, to trust my version of events, to assert that I’m necessary in participating in the terrifying and winding process toward justice.
“… for we [women] have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
The weight of silence chokes us collectively as it builds. Like the bystanders’ silence when the Halle perpetrator harassed a family in a supermarket for speaking Arabic—years before his violence crescendoed in taking lives.
It’s like other silences, too. There’s self-silencing because reality is painful, complicated, unnerving, because we wish it wasn’t true: like my fellow Jews’ silence on the violent occupation of Palestine. Like silence on wars in Gaza, Ukraine, and Syria. Climate disaster. Destruction of the Amazon and racist killings by police. Audre Lorde promised that silence won’t protect us, and I believe her. If the Halle trial taught me anything, it taught me that unless you speak, your narrative will be written for you, your story will be told for you, and you won’t agree with the way it’s told.
Your story won’t be yours anymore.
Articulating critique to a German court: Justice beyond the courtroom
We were in the courtroom. The building was warm, the room was heavy. Armed guards were everywhere, wearing black balaclavas, friends of no one on our side. Their suspicious eyes and matte submachine guns were suggestive and tense as the cops leaned on walls, chatting with each other. The co-plantiffs, the lawyers, the scribbling reporters. The perpetrator, in cuffs, across the room. The judges at their bench wore black cloaks.
In some ways, articulating criticism of the German state in front of the German court felt like a show trial. As we spoke, Frontex was involved in “‘maritime pushback’ operations to drive away refugees and migrants attempting to enter the European Union via Greek waters.” Racial discrimination was on the rise across Germany. And here we were, in a country that was attempting to show its noble stance against bigotry by taking an active gunman seriously, and putting him on trial. I didn’t buy it.
The judge even asked us, after our testimonies, “How long will you stay in Germany?” Perhaps a well-meaning question, but one that echoed the perpetrator’s sentiments more than it reflected the goal of sharing our narratives: to show, again and again, that the perpetrator was not a lone wolf, that white nationalism and the pandora’s box of bigotry that it breeds are not isolated or anomalous.
Being in the German court meant seeing firsthand who is not invited to speak. Germans are fighting for change like Americans, with similar results: namely, none. The people behind the Initiative for Oury Jalloh are still fighting for recognition of the 2005 murder of their friend while he was in the custody of Dessau police. The activists behind Initiative 19 Februar are still fighting for clarification and justice, for investigations into the Hessian state government and its subordinate authorities in connection with the 2020 racist attack in Hanau, and to establish the need for changes in the existing structures of the Hessian security authorities.
Justice beyond the courtroom should look like the end of silence and silencing.
Justice beyond the courtroom should look like solidarity efforts.
Justice beyond the courtroom looks like you, reading this.
And this gives me hope: That even if nothing seems to change, we can be surrounded by violence and still draw from an endless well of resilience, both in a community and as individuals.
This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet other Emerging Fellows) here.
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