CHENNAI: Why didn’t your mother abort you?” a passerby shouted angrily at environmental protection activists who were blocking Berlin’s busy Frankfurter Allee during a recent protest. This exchange illustrates the increasing divisions in Germany when it comes to the ever more conspicuous displays of civil disobedience employed by organisations such as Letzte Generation (“Last Generation”). A gap is growing between those who say they will fight for their future by any means within reason, and those who say that many such attention-grabbing tactics have crossed the line into criminality.
“When crimes are committed and other people are endangered, every limit of legitimate protest is crossed,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, of the Social Democrats (SPD), said on Monday. “All this has nothing whatsoever to do with democratic debate. The offenders must be prosecuted quickly and consistently.”
Faeser was referring to an incident last week in which Letzte Generation activists were blamed for blocking a street in the capital that first responders needed to use. The special operations vehicle took several minutes longer to get to an accident site. The bicyclist involved in the accident later died, with some suggesting the delay was responsible for the woman’s death and others questioning whether it could be solely blamed on the activists’ actions. This week, the Berlin emergency services released a statement in which it said that the traffic caused by the protest did cost the woman her life.
Some politicians have spoken of the tragedy as a reason why laws should be changed to more severely punish such acts of civil disobedience. In comparison with the organised Fridays for Future marches, Letzte Generation has opted for highly visible demonstrations more likely to garner headlines.
In 2022 alone, members have blocked dozens of large highways and thoroughfares across Germany, as well as major airport runways, vandalised the Economics Ministry building in protest of an energy deal with Qatar, and glued themselves to oil pipelines. They have also thrown food at famous artworks in museums in Munich, Frankfurt, Potsdam, and Berlin.
Although the paintings were not damaged, as they were protected by thick glass and the activists were aware of that fact in advance, the latter actions in particular have stirred a heated debate in Germany about whether appearing to attack culture instead of polluters is a good way for activists to get their message across.
Lena Herbers, an expert in protest movements at the University of Freiburg, told DW that more radical acts were being favored by demonstrators instead of sanctioned protest because decades of the latter had not brought about enough change to avert climate catastrophe.
The changing nature of the protest movement highlights the urgency of their mission, Herbers said, adding that “activists are now trying to point out more forcefully the scientifically-recognised dramatic situation that requires rapid changes.”
The new forms of protest have been used for opposition politicians from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, as another reason why criminal penalties for civil disobedience should be increased.
Bavarian state premier and CSU member Markus Söder announced that 12 Letzte Generation members, at least one of whom is a high school student, would have to sit for 30 days of pre-trial detention for blocking a Munich street — a charge that would usually allow suspects to await trial at home.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle