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Germany: Viral video prompts debate on police brutality

April 26, 2023

Footage of a German police officer using a pain grip on a climate activist has some experts saying police have broken the law. But lawmakers have backed calls for harsher penalties against acts of civil disobedience.

Last Generation protestors block a street in Berlin
Image: Annegret Hilse/REUTERS

"We won't get a handle on the situation until the penalties get tougher," the head of Germany's national police union, Rainer Wendt, said in an interview on Wednesday, following two days of unrest in Berlin as climate activists simultaneously blocked over 30 roads and intersections.

Speaking with the media group RND, Wendt called for Berlin to expand the length of preventative detention from 48 hours to 30 days, as is allowed in other German states, like Bavaria. This difference, he said, was the reason climate activists from groups like Last Generation, which specializes in direct interventions, are protesting "in Berlin and not in Munich."

Wendt's comments echoed those made by several conservative politicians last fall to impose harsher penalties on a movement reacting to climate breakdown with increasingly bold acts of civil disobedience, such as gluing themselves to highways and airport runways and throwing food at works of art — though the artworks were behind protective glass and undamaged.

Over the weekend, the debate in Germany was stoked further by a viral video showing a Berlin police officer using a "pain grip" on a peaceful protester. While several lawmakers renewed their calls for harsher penalties against climate activists, several commentators suggested that the grip was tantamount to torture.

Berlin Interior Minister Iris Spranger also said in an interview that it was "unfortunate" that car drivers couldn't use violence against protesters — something the police itself has warned against — while national Interior Minister Nancy Faesar supported a "strong hand" on the part of the police.

Climate campaigners block Berlin traffic

Criminal complaint against officer in video

The video shows a demonstrator sitting silently in the middle of the street in Berlin's Charlottenburg district. An officer approaches him, promising he will use a pain grip that will make it painful for him to chew and swallow in the coming days if he doesn't move by the count of three. Following the countdown, the officer grabs the man by the neck while a colleague grabs his legs, causing the man to cry out in pain for some time.

Following the release of the footage by public broadcaster MDR, the Last Generation promised to "bring Berlin to a standstill" this week. Indeed, since Monday, the group has managed to block dozens of busy roads for hours at a time by gluing themselves to the asphalt, as well as slowing down traffic by leading slow-moving marches through the main arteries of the capital.

The Berlin police said that the incident was "being looked into," and that a criminal complaint had been filed for causing bodily harm while in office.

How far are police allowed to go?

The footage prompted a nationwide debate in Germany about police tactics against peaceful protesters as the climate movement resorts to increasingly flamboyant means of expressing their frustration at what they call the slow pace of the government's climate protection measures.

Some criminologists and other experts have condemned the officers' conduct in the media, pointing out that police are legally obligated to exhaust all peaceful means of conflict resolution before resorting to violence.

Lena Herbers, an expert in protest movements at the University of Freiburg, told DW that police "should have first tried to carry the demonstrator away without using a pain grip," but there is no indication they did so in the video.

Law enforcement is supposed to try to clear protesters before they are able to glue themselves to streets and de-escalate the situation before issuing any threats. They are allowed to put protesters in preventative detention, but only if they procure a court order signed by a judge who agrees that there is a reasonable suspicion that a person will cause violence.

Protesting in Germany: What are your rights?

Increasing intimidation

The use of pain and intimidation shows the police have been emboldened by politicians who view protesters as enemies, says Herbers. In the fall, an officer was caught on video promising to cause "unimaginable pain," to a sitting demonstrator.

"Police are also increasingly restricting the freedom of movement for protesters," said Herbers, referring to the violent tactics used to clear demonstrators from the village of Lützerath, which was being cleared to make way for coal mining, as well as the use of "kettling" in cities.

Kettling is the practice of boxing protesters into an increasingly small space — and has faced legal challenges in the past for the safety hazard then faced by activists who are unable to flee in case of a stampede or fire. Exorbitant fines, raids on homes, water cannons, and threats are other methods of coercion used by police to curtail protesters' freedom of assembly.

In the case of Lützerath, Herbers pointed out, there was also ample evidence of officers intimidating journalists who documented incidents of police brutality.

"Activists are increasingly reporting violence or excessive force by police in various contexts," Herbers said, "but these reports are rarely followed up on by authorities."

Edited by: Ben Knight

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Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.