As Europe’s lockdowns drag on, police and protesters clash more

By Mark Landler and Stephen Castle

In Bristol, an English college town where the pubs are usually packed with students, there were fiery clashes between police and protesters. In Kassel, a German city known for its ambitious contemporary art festival, police unleashed pepper spray and water cannons on anti-lockdown marchers.

A year after European leaders ordered people into their homes to curb a deadly pandemic, thousands are pouring into streets and squares. Often, they are met by batons and shields, raising questions about the tactics and role of police in societies where personal liberties have already given way to public health concerns.

From Spain and Denmark to Austria and Romania, frustrated people are lashing out at the restrictions on their daily lives. With much of Europe facing a third wave of infections that could keep these stifling lockdowns in place weeks or even months longer, analysts warn that tensions on the streets are likely to escalate.

In Britain, where the rapid pace of vaccinations has raised hopes for a faster opening of the economy than the government is willing to countenance, frustration over recent police conduct has swelled into a national debate over the legitimacy of the police — one that carries distant echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

“What we’re seeing is a growing level of discontent among members of our society who see a fundamental illegitimacy in law enforcement under the pandemic,” said Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University and an expert in crowd behavior. “And it has created strange bedfellows.”

Right-wing politicians who bridle at lockdown restrictions are as angry as the left-wing climate protesters who regularly clog Trafalgar Square in London as part of the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. The traffic snarls from those protests were one of the reasons authorities pushed for greater powers to restrict such gatherings.

Adding to the sense of outrage is the case of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who was abducted and killed, allegedly by a police officer, while walking home in London. The Metropolitan Police then roughly broke up a vigil for Everard on the grounds that the participants were violating coronavirus rules on social distancing.

The potential for more such confrontations is high, Stott said, citing “the warmer weather, duration of the lockdown and increasing dissatisfaction among sections of the community about the imposition of control measures.”

In Bristol, the trigger for the clashes was sweeping new legislation that would empower police to sharply restrict demonstrations. A peaceful “Kill the Bill” rally on the city’s College Green turned violent when some of the demonstrators marched to a nearby police station and began hurling fireworks and projectiles at police officers.

The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, harshly criticized the violence, blaming much of it on outsider agitators who he said seized on a peaceful demonstration as an excuse to pick a fight with the establishment.

But Rees, a Labour Party politician, also staunchly opposes the legislation. He said it was rushed and ill-considered — a cynical bid by a Conservative-led government to “rally their base behind law and order” during a pandemic.

An earlier version of the government’s coronavirus regulations contained a provision that allowed nonviolent protests. But that was removed from a later version, leaving the right to peaceful assembly in a kind of legal limbo. Under the latest draft of the rules, issued Monday, protests would be allowed under limited circumstances, starting next Monday.

These emergency laws were rushed through Parliament without the scrutiny normally applied to legislation. Lacking a written constitution, Britons who want to take to the streets have had to rely on the less clear-cut protection of a human rights act.

“This pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of our unwritten constitution when it comes to certain rights,” said Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and expert on the coronavirus rules. “If you take representative democracy from the process of lawmaking, you miss out on key voices.”

By contrast, the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany last year upheld the right of its citizens to protest, provided that they adhere to social distancing rules. But even there, the rules of engagement can be murky.

In the city of Kassel, police were criticized for allowing thousands of anti-lockdown demonstrators to gather, unmasked and packed closely together, on public squares. Only later, when some of the protesters attacked officers, did the police move against the crowd, using pepper spray, billy clubs and water cannons.

Outrage surged after images emerged of an officer making a heart-shaped symbol at a protester carrying a banner opposing restrictions, while another officer smashed a woman’s head into her bicycle frame as he battled counterprotesters trying to block the rally. The episode raised questions about whom the police were trying to protect.

“It is a slap in the face of our city,” Kassel’s mayor, Christian Geselle, told the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. He had tried unsuccessfully to ban the demonstration on the grounds that it would be a superspreader event.

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