About 20,000 people turned out Saturday in the German city of Leipzig to protest measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands more than expected by authorities.
Few of the protesters wore face masks and were able to stick to the prescribed minimum distance of 1.5 metres. City authorities had earlier lost a court ruling to keep demonstrators out of the urban centre as judges allowed the event to go ahead with up to 16,000 people in attendance.
Police was recording violations of Germany’s social-distancing rules, a police spokesman said. So far the protest had been largely peaceful, there were only a few clashes with counter-protesters.
The Querdenken (Lateral Thinking) movement organized the protest rally against the shutdown measures, one of a total of 27 planned for the weekend in the eastern city. Ahead of the protest, the authorities had attempted to move the event to the site of the city’s new trade fairgrounds to the north of the centre rather than allow a march in the inner city area, citing precisely the regulations that the protesters object to.
A court, however, overturned that decision on Saturday morning, allowing 16,000 protesters to gather on a main square in the city, Leipzig authorities said.
“It is hard to explain that while only members of two households are allowed to meet, 16,000 people are allowed to demonstrate on a square,” city spokesman Matthias Hasberg told dpa, referring to the social distancing rules currently in force in Germany.
Leipzig chief of police Torsten Schultze on Friday noted calls on social media for violent protest from both right-wing and left-wing extremists. But he added: “There is no concrete evidence of acts of violence.”
The authorities had called on Leipzig residents to avoid the city centre on Saturday, both out of concern for possible infection and on account of the numerous demonstrators expected to attend the gatherings.
In the southern German city of Munich, however, a court upheld bans on protests planned by the Querdenken movement for Sunday and the coming week.
In remarks to dpa on Friday, Querdenken founder Michael Ballweg distanced the organization from all forms of extremism after earlier protests drew right-wing radicals.
He noted that the movement could not prevent people with extremist ideas joining the rally and said it was up to the police to act if they engaged in acts or used symbols contrary to the German constitution.