• The Star Staff

Berlin police halt march against virus restrictions, saying protesters risked spreading disease


By Christopher F. Schuetze and Melissa Eddy


Thousands of Germans angered over restrictions intended to control the coronavirus marched in Berlin on Saturday, but the police dispersed them after an hour because many were violating the very social-distancing rules championed by Chancellor Angela Merkel that they say threaten their rights and livelihoods.


Many of the marchers were bunched together and maskless in Berlin’s streets, with some shouting “Merkel must go!” and others carrying American flags and a photo of President Donald Trump that read, “Help.”


The city’s police chief, Barbara Slowik, had earlier warned that even though the march was allowed to proceed after a week of legal wrangling, “we will not be able or willing to watch tens of thousands assemble and create infection risks.”


Despite some threats of violence from far-right groups, most marchers dispersed peacefully as police bullhorns declared the march an impermissible risk, and they moved to a nearby park for a rally that the police did not stop. But the events laid bare a percolating resentment of Merkel’s handling of the coronavirus threat despite its success compared with the response in other developed countries, especially the United States.


And it came as Merkel warned that infections would likely rise as winter approaches, with more people confined indoors, which could mean a return to a more severe lockdown like the one this past spring, which is credited with helping limit the spread of the virus.


“We must expect that some things will be even more difficult in the coming months,” Merkel said Friday at her traditional summer news conference.


Officials estimated that 18,000 people had turned out to march in Berlin, and the park rally was expected to draw at least that many. A large, mostly maskless crowd also gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square on Saturday, calling for an end to virus lockdowns and other restrictions.


Although Germany has been celebrated for its ability to manage the pandemic, with schools reopening and signs of an economic rebound, many Germans who have found themselves out of work or furloughed are angry and afraid they could not withstand a second lockdown.


“This is the second demonstration I’ve taken part in my lifetime,” said Thomas Dausend, 64, from southwestern Germany. “I’m here for my children and my grandchildren.”


Pastor Dietmar Schwesig, who came from Bad Salzungen for the protest, said he had initially stood behind the governmental guidelines. But when Easter services in his church had to be canceled, he had what he called a change in perspective.


“It’s probably the first time in 2,000 years that Easter church services had to be canceled because of an infectious disease,” he said, holding a Bible and wearing his collar.


The protest scene at the park, the Tiergarten near Berlin’s famed Brandenburg Gate, was peaceful and almost picnic-like in some places. The protesters were not wearing masks but were mostly spread out, with some holding signs such as “The Truth Will Come to Light.”


On Friday, the German health authorities registered 1,571 new infections over the previous 24 hours, a slight dip from a recent high point a week earlier, when more than 2,000 new cases were registered in a single day, according to a New York Times database.


The group that organized the march, based in the southwestern city of Stuttgart, is angry over the economic damage caused by the monthslong lockdown in the spring and restrictions imposed on public life that have led the German economy to shrink by 9.7% and caused millions to lose their jobs or be furloughed.


But it quickly attracted support from vaccination skeptics, anticapitalists and members of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a party best known for its noisy nationalism and anti-immigrant views. It also is the largest opposition party in Parliament.


For the AfD, the demonstration provided a chance to highlight criticism of Merkel’s government, which has enjoyed widespread success and made Germany the envy of many countries for its handling of the virus.


Berlin security authorities sought to ban the march over fears that participants would violate rules intended to prevent the spread of the virus. But supporters of the march assailed the ban as an attempt to stifle citizens’ freedom and a violation of their constitutional rights.


“The decision is a victory for freedom over the established parties’ antidemocratic, ideology-driven policy of prohibition and paternalism,” said Tino Chrupalla, a spokesman for the AfD.


Earlier this month, police broke up a similar protest after an estimated 20,000 demonstrators, defying orders that they wear masks and keep a distance of at least 5 feet from one another, marched along the same route demanding an end to the restrictions.


Berlin’s top security official, Andreas Geisel, cited behavior during the Aug. 1 demonstration in welcoming the initial decision to ban Saturday’s protest, a decision that was later overturned. Nevertheless, Geisel said he was “not prepared to accept that Berlin is abused a second time as a stage for corona deniers” and “right-wing extremists.”

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