Garth and I walk slowly along the path that hugs the bank of the Rhein River. We’re just east of Eltville, Germany. It’s early, before 9am. The sun shines. Bikers and joggers go by. A tiny police car crunches along the gravel road, coming up behind us. We stand aside to let it pass, but it stops instead. Two officers get out. One of them greets us. His name is Volker. Garth asks if he speaks English.
“Yes. We do. A little bit,” Volker says. His long-haired comrade wears a bullet-proof vest. It covers his name tag.
“Were you camping here last night?” Volker says.
“No,” Garth answers.
“There was a tent by the river last night,” Volker continues. “There was also a fire left burning and no one was there.”
“No,” I say.
“We also had a theft about three hundred meters from here last night,” Volker says.
So what? The tent and the burglary are automatically connected? Lets see, Garth and I are backpackers. That means there’s a chance we use tents. That means we’re probably the thieves. You better get our ID and search our belongings. Better yet, just save yourselves some time and paperwork and take us right to jail. Maybe there’s a cell open in Guantanamo you can get us into. We are Americans after all.
“Where are you from?” Volker asks.
“United States,” Garth says.
“We need to see your passports.”
“We’re not showing you our passports,” Garth says. “You have no reason to ask us for ID.”
“This is a law in Germany,” long-hair says. “If a police officer asks you for your passport and you don’t show it, you are obstructing the law.”
“You are also foreigners,” Volkers says. “We need to make sure you are in Germany legally.”
In Arizona, you have to show your “Papers” if you look like you might be a Latino. In any western country, you have to show your “Papers” if you look like you might be an Arab. In Georgia, you must show your “Papers” if you look like a protester. Now, you must also show your “Papers” if you look like you might live in a tent.
“And we need to make sure that you are not the thieves,” Volker says.
I didn’t see them ID any of the joggers or cyclists that went by. I didn’t hear them interrogate any of the dog-walkers about a burglary. Why us? Because we’re foreigners?
The growing Nazi mentality that you can pick people out based on their looks, ID them, question them, search them and accuse them of some random crime is absolutely disgusting. And all over the western world it’s becoming more pervasive by the second.
“It’s not guilty until proven innocent,” I say. “It’s supposed to be the other way around. You have no good reason to see our ID.”
“Either show us your passports, or we arrest you,” long-hair says.
“Arrest me then,” Garth says. “I’m not giving you my passport.”
“Okay! You are arrested!”
Long-hair calls for back-up. The four of us then stand around in the lane for a few minutes, saying nothing. They don’t cuff us. I’ve seen plenty of people arrested in Germany, but I’ve never seen an officer cuff anyone. They’ve gotten used to the docile compliance of the natives.
“You can wait on the stairs,” long-hair says.
Garth and I sit down on the top step overlooking the Rhein. I unbuckle my pack, leaving one arm thru its strap.
“Will you get out my phone?” Garth asks.
I reach into the pocket beneath the solar panel strapped to his pack and get it out.
“No pictures!” Volker shouts.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Why are you afraid of the camera?” Garth adds.
“It’s just my personality,” Volker says.
“That’s a good answer,” I say.
Garth turns the camera on and aims it at the car and the two officers.
“You’re gonna be on our blog today,” he says, snapping the photo.
Volker comes down the stairs, reaching for the phone.
“Give me that!” he demands.
“No!” Garth says. “You’re already online anyway. It’s too late.”
Volker reaches for the phone again.
“No!” Garth says again. “If you want any more compliance from me, you’ll have to cuff me and actually arrest me!”
Volker gets out his cuffs. “Get up,” he says.
I try to rebuckle my pack, but long-hair pulls it away from me. “Stand up,” he says.
They cuff Garth’s hands in front since he’s still wearing his pack. They cuff my hands around the back. They push us toward the rock wall and hold onto us.
“You are going to have so much trouble on your hands,” Garth says. “We’re bloggers and we’re with the Occupy Movement.”
A van rolls toward us. Everyone accept long-hair gets in. He takes my pack to the little car and follows us to the police station in Eltville.
“Remember the license plate number,” Garth says to me. “We’ll need to write all this down later. WIHP7356. Wisconsin…Hewlett Packard…”
“My mom was born in ‘56,” I say.
“Have you ever read the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights?” he says.
“Yeah. Actually I read it just a couple of weeks ago.”
“So much for that.”
At the station, they seat us in two separate offices joined by an open door. A cop named Birkenhager guards my door while they question Garth.
“I’m not giving you any personal information,” he reiterates. “I’m not gonna talk anymore.”
They search his pack. After fifteen minutes of sitting in a chair, staring at the big desk, long-hair brings my pack in, groaning as he lifts it onto the table.
“This is heavy!” he says. “Now, if you want to give me your passport, you can go.”
I say nothing.
“I do not think you are a criminal,” he says. “I think this is a protest.”
I say nothing.
“Is it in here, or is it in your shorts?” he asks.
I say nothing.
Finally, he and Birkenhager have to search thru every single pocket on my backpack. They get out my tent, my tampons, my first aid kit… They scatter all my carefully-packed possessions all over the desk. It’s incredibly difficult for me to watch, but I refuse to make this easy on them. They asked for trouble. They got it. Eventually they find the passport and take it out of the room.
They call the American Embassy in Frankfurt and allow Garth to talk with someone.
A young woman comes into the room and puts on a pair of blue rubber gloves. Unable to speak English, she gestures for me to stand and hold my arms out. She takes everything out of my pockets. Spoon, can opener, chapstick, lighter, 92 cents… She takes the insoles out of my boots. I didn’t even know they were removable. The officers take a special interest in my Alaska driver’s license. It goes to the front desk with my passport.
Not five minutes later, an officer tells Garth and I that we can both go. I can hear Garth talking to an officer as he gathers up his stuff.
“That old German thinking is coming back,” he says. “Single out a group of people and harass them. Why not put a label on their chest? If they don’t wanna leave on their own, you can build some camps to put them in.”
“Well, what do you think would have happened to you if you had acted like this back then?” the officer responds.
One thing we’ve learned during our time here is that Germans are incredibly sensitive about Nazi references. But this guy seems to actually miss the good old days.
I re-pack my things, taking my time, packing everything exactly the way it’s supposed to be. I want to drive home a point about how much inconvenience they’ve caused themselves. I’m not walking all over town with a disaster of a backpack. It’s hard enough to carry when it’s packed right.
I hoist the thing onto my shoulders and meet Garth out on the sidewalk.
“We’re not letting them get away with this,” Garth says.
“I’m so tired of being harassed by authority figures just because I have a backpack, because I’m foreign, because I live differently,” I say. “Or because I might be a protestor.”
No authority figure should be able to harass, intimidate, search, ID, question or arrest someone based on their appearance. I cannot stand by and let that happen. Ever.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Garth says. “We’ll set up an Occupy Camp right here in this little town and have signs about how we were arrested for being foreigners, and they’ll have to arrest us again and it’ll be all over the news. This kind of thing gets a lot of attention.”
“It think that’s a good idea,” I say.
We find a map and head for the center of Eltville. These cops will get more than they bargained for. There are some people in this world who do not just automatically obey the orders of authority figures without question. Garth and I are two of them. We will cause as much trouble as we can in order to draw attention and opposition to ridiculous rules, laws and policies.