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Germany

What it's like to report from a PEGIDA demonstration

After a year of writing about PEGIDA from the comfort of an office desk, DW's Kathleen Schuster ventured out to Dresden to report live from the group's one-year anniversary rally. This is what she saw.

Prepping for your first brush with live hate speech and a potentially violent crowd of 20,000 protesters requires a good deal of planning. An hour before Monday's PEGIDA rally kicked off, I put my recording equipment and camera in a canvas bag that wouldn't draw attention, emptied my wallet of all but emergency money and two IDs, and headed out the door. On a normal story, my jitters revolve around meeting a fast-approaching deadline; covering PEGIDA, I worried about abusive language and getting hit.

These have become increasingly common for journalists at the far-right rallies.

At one of PEGIDA's Monday night "strolls" less than a month ago, two TV journalists were beaten while setting up their equipment. A reporter I know in Cologne was attacked by a right-wing extremist last year just because he was carrying a camera. And, in January, a team of German sociology researchers in Dresden to collect data on PEGIDA rally attendees reported being pushed and verbally abused.

Can't be a fly on the wall

Everyone in the vicinity of PEGIDA rally plays a role, be they bystanders or participants. The mob involves you immediately based on who they assume you to be. And, as a foreigner and woman, I wasn't sure what response my appearance or my accent would provoke.

Dresden wasn't new to me. I'd sauntered lazily across the cobblestone on a hot summer day, taking in the Baroque architecture as a tourist, and, in September, tramped to the far ends of the city seeking answers about how refugees were accommodated there. People were distrustful, media-weary and unwilling to talk.

Deutschland Pegida Kundgebungen zum Pediga-Jahrestag in Dresden

PEGIDA has come under scrutiny for expressing extremist ideology

I tried to ease into covering the PEGIDA demonstration, approaching three older women gabbing amongst themselves. Instead, I got an earful about refugees and a mint-green medical bill shoved into my face. "Copays used to be 5 euros - now they're 10!" the most petite of the trio hollered. This would go on for several minutes.

My interview

? Ja, ja, ok.

As I struggled to pull out my now-tangled recording equipment, one of the women quipped that I'd better hurry it up before she started yelling "media of lies." This is an anti-press cry coined by the Nazis and revived by PEGIDA last year. I moved along.

Surprisingly, a younger man agreed to answer a few questions, his Confederate flag casting a shadow over both of us. But the men he was with turned their backs. When I finally left, I sat on a nearby bench to rearrange my bag. Looking up, I noticed they were still watching me.

Dresden on edge

I moved toward the arrival point for the counterdemonstration, mistakenly expecting relative calm.

My phone rang with a call I was waiting for, but at that exact moment the riot police I was standing next to unexpectedly broke into a run. Those of us caught in the middle of the sudden chaos ran, too: up a flight of stairs to a church, where we watched as riot police formed several chains between PEGIDA and its opponents. Small scuffles and the burst of firecrackers put the crowd on edge as the helmeted police readied themselves again and again for an escalation.

Dresden - Gegendemonstration zum Pegida Jahrestag

Four counterdemonstrations lured roughly 13,000 people to Dresden

Police allowed media back into the rally at their own risk. The only dissidents appeared to be a small group of people murmuring in the corner of the side street as a nun led them in prayer.

The crowd toward the back looked slightly bored while on the stage an Italian populist droned on and on with the aid of a translator. Still, standing alone in the predominantly male crowd - one that had been drinking despite an alcohol ban - didn't feel safe. German press have worried about the middle-class people who have turned out for PEGIDA events, but I found myself relieved to see them, many of whom came in couples: At that moment, they didn't pose a physical threat and that'd have to do. I stuck to my three-step strategy: stand, observe, move on. Don't press your luck.

Later I learned that a

DW colleague was attacked

in the same crowd for trying to conduct an interview.

Going into a PEGIDA demonstration dredges up conflicting feelings. On one hand, you know that you want to keep your distance to stay safe and, on the other, that staying away won't deepen your understanding of why these people are so angry.

Coincidentally, I ran into the sociologist Dieter Rucht at the train station the next morning. His researcher team was the one that reported aggressive behavior in the crowd last January. The rally was different this time, he said as he sipped his coffee. Yes, it was more subdued, but not just that. While I had my eyes trained on pro- and anti-PEGIDA protesters and worried about my personal safety, the sheer vastness of the crowd had swallowed this important detail: The movement, Rucht told me, had become more international - and perhaps, I thought, stronger.

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