Berlin police on Saturday disbanded a mass protest in the German capital against coronavirus curbs a few hours after it had begun.
Police said it dispersed the Berlin protest as the marchers failed to heed their orders to keep their distance and wear masks.
The protest came as infections rise across Europe, with similar protests during the day in Paris and elsewhere.
Until now Germany has managed the coronavirus crisis better than many of its European counterparts, with rigorous testing helping to hold down infections and deaths.
But new daily infections have accelerated in recent weeks, as in much of the world.
On Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged citizens to keep up their guard against the virus.
“This is a serious matter, as serious as it’s ever been, and you need to carry on taking it seriously,” she said.
Why did police disperse Berlin protesters?
“Unfortunately, we have no other option,” Berlin police said on Twitter. “All the measures taken so far have not led to compliance with the conditions.”
A police spokesman said the protesters were dispersing peacefully, though the police also reported on Twitter pockets of disturbance, such as a construction container fire and blocked roads.
Police, who deployed 3,000 officers to control crowds estimated at 18,000, had been preparing for possible violence as activists opposed to the virus measures urged social media followers across Europe to arm themselves and gather in Berlin.
Earlier this week the city banned the protest but a German regional court overnight gave the final go-ahead by overruling the earlier decision.
Activists, angered by the city’s attempt to ban their protest after demonstrators at a previous rally failed to wear masks or keep their distance, flooded the city with thousands of applications for additional protests this weekend.
Stop The Corona Lies
Several thousand stayed on to protest after the police announcement, chanting “resistance” and a small group clashed with police, tossing bottles and rocks. Two people were arrested, police said.
Protesters had gathered before the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin ahead of Saturday’s march with signs reading “Stop the corona lies” and “Merkel must go”.
Protesters waved German flags and shouted “Merkel must go!”, a chant often used by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party against Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I’m not an extreme right-wing sympathiser, I’m here to defend our fundamental freedoms,” said Stefan, a 43-year-old Berlin resident with a shaved head and a T-shirt with the words “Thinking helps” written in large print.
“We’re here to say: we have to be careful! Coronavirus crisis or not, we must defend our freedoms,” said a 22-year-old student Christina Holz.
About two hundred anti-mask activists held a rally in Paris to protest against sanitary measures with slogans such as “No to the health dictatorship” and “Let our children breathe”.
Tougher Restrictions To Curb Virus Spread
Saturday’s Berlin rally came as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Germany, with daily new infection numbers reaching highs not seen since April.
At the start of August, a similar German “anti-corona” march in Berlin took place with 20,000 protesters, a mix of the extreme left and right, anti-vaccination campaigners, conspiracy theorists and self-described “free thinkers”.
Police had vowed to turn out in force and strictly monitor compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing at the protest.
Berlin police chief Barbara Slowik had warned that if the demonstrators did not adhere to virus safety rules, police would clear the area “very quickly”.
“We will not be able or willing to watch tens of thousands assemble and create infection risks,” she said.
Berlin city authorities had previously decided not to allow the Saturday demonstration to go ahead, fearing that the estimated 22,000 protesters would not keep a distance of 1.5 metres (five feet) apart or comply with face mask requirements.
But on the eve of the demo, Berlin’s administrative court sided with the demonstrators, saying there was no indication that organisers would “deliberately ignore” social distancing rules and endanger public health.
Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states on Thursday introduced tougher coronavirus restrictions to curb the pandemic, including a minimum 50 euro ($59) fine for people caught not wearing face masks where one is compulsory.
“We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come,” Merkel warned. “It is still serious. Please continue to take it seriously.”
COVID-19 Protests Across Europe
Anti-mask protesters also gathered in Zurich.
In London, more than a 1,000 protesters gathered at the Trafalgar Square landmark, many holding home-made banners.
One called for an “End to medical tyranny”; another read “No to mandatory vaccines” while one man waved a placard declaring “Masks are muzzles”.
Around 300 people protested peacefully in Paris to denounce the government’s decision to make masks obligatory in all public places as cases rise in the French capital.
Protesters, some waving placards stating “Stop the lies”, were quickly surrounded by police who handed out 135 euro ($160) fines to those not wearing masks.
“There is no scientific proof of the usefulness of wearing a mask outside,” said Anais, a sociology student.
“Covid-19 is not so dangerous, it mainly kills people over the age of 60.”
Rise in Corona Cases
The pandemic has killed more than 838,000 people worldwide since surfacing in China late last year, and more than 24.7 million cases have been registered. The United States has recorded the highest number of deaths with 181,779.
US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro were among global leaders who initially played down the gravity of the pandemic while others have dismissed the need for social distancing measures.
Many governments now hope tighter mask rules will offset the need for a return to economically-devastating lockdowns, though the French government said it could not rule out new stay-at-home orders.
France on Friday said there had been an “exponential” rise in coronavirus cases with more than 7,000 new infections in 24 hours.