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COVID protests in Germany: Orchestrated anger

January 11, 2022

Protesters against pandemic restrictions have changed their strategy, seeking to bypass regulations by marching in small groups. But these protests often turn violent, as DW reporter Hans Pfeifer saw in Saxony.

Freiberg evening protest
Protesters in Freiberg walk the streets in small groups which merge upon the sign of a whistleImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

"I'd shoot myself if I were you!" an enraged woman yells again and again. She is shouting at riot police who stand in front of her, shoulder to shoulder, forming a chain against the protesters.

Police squad cars have cordoned off the street. One hundred officers are on duty. There is no way through for the participants of the protests against the COVID restrictions.

Hate and violence escalate. A mob of dozens of men tries to break through the roadblock and overrun the police. There are scuffles and arrests.

This is Monday evening in Freiberg. Every Monday, hundreds of people gather in the small university town in the eastern German state of Saxony to protest the government's pandemic policies. Freiberg has become a hotspot of protest.

squad vans on Freiberg's evening streets
Police comes out in force to counter the far-right dominated anti-COVID protests in FreibergImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

The protesters claim to be taking a harmless stroll through town while demanding an end to pandemic-related restrictions and plans for mandatory vaccination.

Freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Basic Law, Germany's Constitution, but demonstrations have to be registered in advance with authorities and restrictions can be imposed on an assembly, if authorities have reason to believe that it poses a threat to public safety.

The demonstrations in Freiberg are illegal because in Saxony, in light of the high infection figures, no more than ten people may assemble together. The demonstrators have turned this ban into a cat-and-mouse game with the police. Small groups meet scattered around a park in Freiberg's city center. At the sound of a whistle, they then start moving and join together. When police push back, they quickly disperse again.

Far-right instigators

Everywhere in the streets are restless groups of mostly young men who are stirring up the game.

On social media, these people portray themselves as concerned citizens who take to the streets in peaceful neighborhood protests. But the peaceful protesters are only part of the picture.

eight protesters with pro-democracy and pro-COVID restrictions slogans on banners
Small groups of protesters against far-right extremists turn out to show support for democracy Image: Hans Pfeifer/DW

The protest action this Monday is dominated by beefy men dressed in hooligan outfits bearing symbols of the right-wing extremist scene.

"Many of them do not come from Freiberg and have traveled especially" to attend, says local journalist Astrid Ring. She has been reporting on the protests for the Freie Presse Freiberg for months. Her observation: the gatherings are becoming more and more aggressive. Today she is accompanied by a photographer. Again and again, they are pelted with firecrackers and other objects thrown by demonstrators. "Today the mood is particularly aggressive," says Ring. She calls her editor to report arrests.

The media have been declared the enemy by local right-wing groups. Astrid Ring can only rely on the protection of the police to a limited extent, the situation is confusing as scattered groups roam the dark streets.

The police seemed to capitulate before the banned gathering even began. "It will not be possible to make many arrests," a police spokesman explained in advance. There is not enough manpower for that, he explained.

Fighting right-wing extremism in a town in Saxony

The masterminds behind the protests are proceeding strategically. The right-wing extremist group "Free Saxons" kept announcing more and more simultaneous marches on Mondays, with the intention to deliberately overwhelm the police. The far-right extremists use chat groups on the encrypted messaging app Telegram to organize the protest action and incite hatred. Police officers are insulted as militias and mercenaries. Politicians and opponents are declared enemies of the people. The protesters are also increasingly receiving support from the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, some of whose members have been classified as anti-constitutional and are under observation by the domestic intelligence agency. 

Protest against the COVID deniers

Freiberg resident Sybill Matthes is worried about developments in her city. "We don't treat each other with respect as we used to do," she says. She complains that politicians and police should have banned gatherings much sooner to nip developments in the bud. "It almost got out of hand," remarks Sybill Matthes, who is now taking to the streets in counterprotest.

Sybill Matthes
The dentist Sybill Matthes believes in standing up against far-right protests in her home townImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

She is part of the initiative "Freiberg for All." Some 5,000 citizens have already signed up to counter the mob on the street. Freiberg Mayor Sven Krüger supports the initiative: "It frightens me when politicians are threatened, when the city is vandalized, and people called upon to break the law. For me, the red line has been crossed here," he told DW.

These people see themselves as the real majority in the city, which no longer wants to remain silent. Across the state of Saxony, there are now many similar initiatives in many cities and communities. They, too, are increasingly finding supporters.

A sentiment of fear in Freiberg

They are hampered by their own obedience: They comply with COVID restrictions limiting gatherings. So in Freiberg, the counterprotest is barely visible on the streets.

Jenny Fritsche is part of a small group of counterprotesters. She is upset by the hatred and violence she perceives in the city. She feels threatened, because she is committed to opposing right-wing extremism. And the threats she faces every day have left their mark. She speaks of an atmosphere of fear in the city.

And in the villages around Freiberg, she says, the situation is even worse: Anyone who supports COVID restrictions is immediately denounced by right-wing and far-right groups

Yet she still feels privileged: "My friends from Syria and Afghanistan no longer dare to go out on the street here on Mondays," she says.

COVID cases reach record highs in Saxony

It is no coincidence that demonstrations against the new measures to tackle the Omicron variant have been dubbed by initiators as "strolls". They sound harmless, peaceful even — but the term "evening strolls" was also used for anti-migrant protests led by the PEGIDA movement in Saxony in 2014. The gatherings brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets, with offshoot groups popping up around the country as hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived in Germany over the following two years.

Like many like-minded people in Saxony, Jenny Fritsche says she may not be able to hold out much longer. She wonders whether it wouldn't be better for her to move away, as many other well-educated and politically active people have done. Also for the sake of her own children, she says. But for the time being, she's staying. "Someone has to," she says.

This text was originally written in German.

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Hans Pfeifer Hans Pfeifer is a DW reporter specializing in right-wing extremism.@Pfeiferha