Journalists as fair game for Corona deniers?

Still while the right-wing Corona denier demonstration passed through Berlin yesterday, criticism of the Berlin police increased. Journalists were neither adequately protected nor was the mask requirement observed. Was this criticism justified? From the perspective of a journalist on site: yes and no.

If you have a long demo day in Berlin, you have to plan your resources well. This applies to journalists as well as to the police. As a journalist, the question arises: When do you start where and what happens next? If you start too early, you will be tired too soon. If you start too late, you could miss something relevant. For me the day started at around twelve o'clock at Alexanderplatz. From an elevated building to take overview photos of the demonstration and estimate the size of the demonstration.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators could be seen with rainbow flags, the dove of peace, modified symbols of the Nazis and fans of the German Empire. A very confusing mix. The main thing they had in common is that they consider the current pandemic to be a lie: either Bill Gates orchestrated it to put his chips in our heads, or Angela Merkel to exchange the German people for another.

Such people are difficult to assess. What was often missing was the police. 

There were a few police officers at each intersection to direct traffic. The population of Berlin is used to something like this, and a police motorcycle standing sideways is usually enough to signal that things can't go any further here. The demonstrators were peaceful from a distance, so there was no obvious reason to accompany the event with more police. As soon as you approached the demonstration, you could see that no one was wearing a mask. But the journalists do. So you immediately stood out. And that was different than usual. 

The actors also like to present themselves to their target group at right-wing demonstrations. It is streamed and photos are taken with large format cameras. Because of the heterogeneous mass of people, you don't get noticed as a journalist. You can take your photos relatively unmolested. If you get too uncomfortable, you can usually just retreat to the nearest police officer or cross the line to the counter event and come back somewhere else. When I was harassed, police officers regularly came independently to help. Even in such an environment, colleagues are regularly injured, but you have a certain level of security and can move around relatively well.

Yesterday you could hardly approach the demo procession without being directly involved “Mask off"Or"Lying press", optionally also "Nazis outto be welcomed. The latter comes from the logic that the Nazi Adolf Hitler was the head of Antifa. Angela Merkel is his granddaughter and continues his left-wing Nazi terror regime and journalists in turn work for Merkel. 

During the demo itself, people were quickly insulted or harassed. Free reporting was impossible. The widespread police told me that there was nothing they could do about it. They offered that you could stay near them and work from there. There are not enough resources for more. Always friendly, always helpful, but unfortunately only partially helpful in the matter.

From Alexanderplatz we continued almost two kilometers to the Brandenburg Gate. A similar picture emerged there: relatively few police, but no riots either. The right-wing demonstrators provoked wherever possible, but (then and there) didn't attack anyone. Here, too, you couldn't report, you couldn't just take photos, you couldn't walk along in the demonstration to get something out of it. You had to be offside as an observer. 

A counter-event took place between the Brandenburg Gate and the Bundestag next to the memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under National Socialism. Hundreds of demonstrators were protected by dozens of police officers. Everyone wore a mask, I was simply recognized as a journalist and was able to move around freely, so far no problems. Dozens of right-wing demonstrators kept coming through the green area to the counter-event, shouting and waiting for the reaction. The police were always there quickly and pushed people away. The disruptors then climbed over the memorial's fence to gain access to the counter-event via the memorial. This too was stopped after some back and forth. 

The police officers were constantly accused by both sides of being on each other's sides and not really doing anything. Not an enviable situation. 

The path to Yitzhak Rabin Street was relatively clear. The nearest police officers were there and the final rally of the right-wing Corona deniers began at the level of the Straße des 17. Juni. Here too, the police officers were helpful and offered to keep an eye on you if you stayed nearby. My idea was to shimmy from police station to police station. Unfortunately there was no other guard in sight.

I was reminded of 2016 when we drove 120 km outside Baghdad in the area between Shiite militias, the Islamic State, the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga. We always had to make sure that we were still within range of the nearest observation post with a rocket launcher and had to clarify this in stages. I was in Mosul in January. There I could just get out, take photos and talk to people. If I was able to work more easily in Mosul than at the demo yesterday, then the bar has been set really low. 

Of course, the situation in Berlin was overall more pleasant, but overall very annoying. In the meantime we received reports from colleagues: Dunja Hayali was under massive pressure despite personal protection been. Björn Kietzmann became harassed and hit on the head.

Since it was no longer possible to think of any meaningful work, I ended the day here and asked the police officers which direction was the best way to get away. “No idea!“ – I always find honest answers better than embellished ones. There were a few paths that were relatively empty and were easy to walk along. The whole thing still didn't feel really good.

Just dissolve the demonstration?

On the other hand, you have to say: What would I have gained if I had spent more time in the demo? Conspiracy theorists explain their conspiracy theories to each other in circles. Racists say racist things and anti-Semites insult the Jews. None of this is really new. The actors are well known, and the confusing alliance between the various groups is not new either. Even the reports from colleagues who were there longer offer little added value. If there's nothing new to report, then you can't report anything new. That’s also part of the job.

Early on, voices were raised that everything should have been dissolved; that would have finally worked at the G20 protest in Hamburg. I don't share both views. With the forces available, the Berlin police could hardly have stopped the event. It would have been a game of cat and mouse across Berlin that would have lasted the whole day. I don't see an advantage to a clearly recognizable group of mask opponents moving in one direction during a pandemic. There would also have been no capacity to arrest all the people and accommodate them somewhere corona-safe. 

The comparison with the G20 protests in Hamburg is also very flawed. More than 10.000 police officers were deployed there, including special units from several countries including the GSG9 and EKO-Cobra from Austria. To think that breaking up the event will ensure that everyone involved goes home peacefully is a bit optimistic. That's exactly what didn't happen at the G20 protests. There were major riots, a delayed police response, and reports of police violence on the one hand and looting on the other. Criticism of parts of the police operation continues to this day not off. Why anyone would want something like that is incomprehensible to me. If so, then I would like an orderly police operation, based on the rule of law and with a clear, achievable goal. 

The problem I see is that this very scene is fed by the narrative of the weak state, like its intellectual fathers. When researching for the book "Why I became a Nazi", I have read hundreds of texts by Nazis from the 1930s. Their argument was similar: “The state is weak, we have to overthrow it, we are the good guys!In many texts it is noticeable that these people were afraid of two things: a strong state that enforces the law and social isolation. When their colleagues were upset with them or wanted to convert them, that made them happy. When they were isolated and lost their jobs because they were close to the Nazis, that depressed them. And when the police took action against them, they were surprised. They assumed that exactly this wouldn't work. That would have been a good reason to show these very people their limits yesterday and break the narrative.

In summary, you can say: Yesterday annoyed me on many levels. That tens of thousands walked around without masks, that journalists were harassed and injured, that I couldn't work properly. But by then the child had already fallen into the well. What is more important to me is the question of how journalists will be protected at work in Berlin again in the future and how such a demonstration can be sensibly prevented. The next demonstrations are coming up in a week, I'm excited.