The thin black line.
Photo: Christoph Soeder/dpa

BerlinA lot of politicians and parts of the media were quick to insult protestors at last weekend’s corona demonstration in Berlin – but  not everyone was a Nazi, conspiracy theorist or “covidiot”. And that’s important.

Right now, large swaths of politicians and journalists are easily dismissing the tens of thousands who demonstrated without masks against the corona restrictions in Berlin. In a never-ending stream of monotonous social media posts, they’re screaming: “Nazis!”, “Pegida”, “corona deniers!” And: “Why was it even allowed?” A simplistic analysis, ideologically driven – fatal for the future.

The right to assemble is one of the most important basic rights and is even guaranteed by the German constitution and secured by its eternity clause, which forbids changes to certain rights. Tweets from journalists and politicians that condemn the protestors in 200 characters and question their right to protest are frightening – because they are written without  discussion, without serious consideration and, above everything, without having listened even once.

But the basic question actually should be: Why? Why are so many people from around Germany – so many different groups – getting together to protest? Especially now when the first restrictions are bearing fruit and life is restarting? And when it remains unclear how the pandemic will develop?

They feel this so strongly that they're prepared to walk alongside right-wing extremists and corona deniers

If people had spent less time coming up with labels and instead listened, maybe they would have understood that many of these protestors aren’t corona deniers – though it’s of course still unclear how many of them aren’t. I talked to 15 protestors and none of them denied the virus exists. Instead, the political measures and media were often the main targets of their criticism: disproportionate, alarmist, warnings about a "second wave" with only vague indicators, one-sided reporting, unfair and hardly questioning the government measures.

"Forced out", "silenced" – this is how everyone I spoke to felt, whether social welfare recipient, retail saleswoman or psychotherapist. They feel this so strongly that they're prepared to walk alongside right-wing extremists and corona deniers, to follow them on Telegram, to believe them more than public broadcasters and daily newspapers.

And they often ask relevant questions: What if there is no vaccine and no immunity? How should and can we live? Under which rules and how exactly? And with what economic and social consequences? Or more specifically: What is the point of a mask requirement with no enforcement? The mass refusal to wear masks at the demonstration – as worthy of criticism as it is – was intended to convey the message that they do not feel heard. Politicians need to get the message: You are about to lose us.

Initially, much of it feels like Pegida and the discussions surrounding the refugee crisis: a worldwide crisis, a topic that polarises society as a whole, a new culture of protest. Back then, the media made serious mistakes. Studies (by the Hamburg Media School and the University of Leipzig, for example) have since drawn the bitter conclusion, based on the analysis of thousands of newspaper articles, that instead of critical reporting, the "solutions of the political elite" were adopted by the media. Public concerns were repressed and anyone who thought differently linguistically marginalised.

Why not have a panel discussion?

The studies posit that this has caused the "formation of a front" in society. We can’t do this again. Not now. Communication, mutual understanding and consideration are key to tackling the corona crisis. People who reject masks don’t just spread their viruses once a month at a demo – but every day.

The police must decide whether to even allow the next protest by corona sceptics. Just like at any other demonstration. They’ll have to take the massive violations of the corona restrictions at last weekend’s event into consideration – and they may even have grounds for banning it.

But the discourse can’t stop here. Politicians must explain themselves. They must communicate better with these very people. New communication channels must be found. Saxony's Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer launched the Saxony Talks in response to the Pegida discussions – a panel discussion where the prime minister and his ministers answer questions from the public. Why not have a panel discussion in Berlin between Mayor Michael Müller and demo participants, streamed online?