Berlin police forcefully disperse protest over virus rules

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Police uses water canons to clear a blocked a road between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building, home of the German federal parliament, as people attend a protest rally in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 against the coronavirus restrictions in Germany. Police in Berlin have requested thousands of reinforcements from other parts of Germany to cope with planned protests by people opposed to coronavirus restrictions. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

BERLIN – German police used water cannons and pepper spray Wednesday to disperse people protesting coronavirus restrictions in Berlin's government district, after crowds ignored calls to wear masks and keep their distance from one another in line with pandemic regulations.

As water sprayed from the cannons rained down on protesters outside the landmark Brandenburg Gate, police in riot gear moved through the crowd carrying away some participants. Some demonstrators threw fireworks, flares and other objects in response as police helicopters hovered overhead.

Officers avoided shooting the cannons directly at protesters because there were children in the crowd, and they worked slowly and methodically to disperse the crowd, Berlin police spokesman Thilo Cabiltz said. Some protesters popped open umbrellas and held their ground until they were eventually forced back.

More than 100 people were arrested, Cabiltz said, and many more temporarily detained. Nine police officers were injured. The protest crowd thinned significantly by late afternoon as many demonstrators marched back to the city's main train station, chanting and blowing whistles.

One protester held a sign saying “Infection Protection Law=Dictatorship.” Another waved one reading “Truth, Freedom, Don’t Touch Our Constitution.”

The protests came as German lawmakers debated a bill that would provide legal underpinning for the government to issue social distancing rules, require masks in public and to close stores and other venues to slow the spread of the virus.

The bill easily passed both the lower and upper houses of Germany's parliament and was fast-tracked to the country’s president, who signed it later Wednesday.

While the virus-prevention measures are supported by most people in Germany, a vocal minority has staged regular rallies around the country, arguing that the restrictions are unconstitutional.