A hardline police operation against demonstrators protesting against a new railway station project in Stuttgart has shocked Germany, after more than 100 people were injured by tear gas and water cannon. German commentators argue that the police went overboard and warn of more violence to come.
The controversial Stuttgart 21 railway project has been the focus of increasing protests in recent months. But Thursday seemed to mark a turning point as the conflict between the authorities and protesters escalated dramatically.
Around 600 police used water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray and batons in an operation against over 1,000 demonstrators in the southwestern city of Stuttgart on Thursday. The activists had tried to use a sit-down protest to prevent the city’s Schlossgarten park from being cleared so that work could begin on felling trees in the park as part of construction work on the new station. Thursday’s protests were attended by a broad cross-section of society, including pensioners and children.
The protest’s organizers said in a statement that more than 400 protestors had suffered eye irritation as a result of the police’s operation, with some suffering from lacerations or broken noses.
The German Red Cross said on Friday morning that 114 demonstrators had been treated on site, and a further 16 were taken to hospitals. Among the injured were school children who had been taking part in an officially registered demonstration.
Images of people bleeding from the eye after being hit by water cannon featured on German television and newspapers Friday. One 22-year-old protestor suffered a serious eye injury after being hit in the right eye by a water cannon jet, a Stuttgart doctor told the news agency DPA, adding that the man might lose his sight in that eye as a result.
The Stuttgart 21 project involves moving the city’s main railway station underground and turning it from a terminus into a through station. The project is controversial partly because of its price tag — it is slated to cost €4.1 billion ($5.38 billion) — and because of the trees that will be cut down in the Schlossgarten park. There is also criticism that the project does not make sense from a transport point of view, as few main lines go through the city.
‘Confusing Germany with Putin’s Russia’
There has been a heated reaction to the police’s use of force, which was condemned by members of the center-left Social Democrats, Green Party and the far-left Left Party, which are all in opposition on the national level. Jan Korte of the Left Party said that it was not acceptable that that kind of police action was used against pensioners and school students. The Green Party filed a motion to have the issue debated in the German parliament, the Bundestag, on Friday, but it was rejected.
Several politicians criticized Heribert Rech, the interior minister for the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Stuttgart is located, for allowing the operation to go ahead. National Green Party co-leader Cem Özdemir, who is also from the state, said Rech was “confusing Germany with Putin’s Russia.” It was disproportionate that “pepper gas was sprayed in the eyes of grandmothers and children at close range,” he said. “We are in Germany. Such methods do not exist here.”
The police have defended their actions. Rainer Wendt, who is the head of one of Germany’s main police unions, told the news station N-tv that the police operation had been “not only legal but completely appropriate.” He admitted that the pictures in the media “weren’t pretty,” but added: “That’s not the police’s job. Its job is to carry out its legal duty.”
At a press conference Friday, Baden-Württemberg Governor Stefan Mappus defended the police’s actions, saying “I stand behind our officers.” He stressed the importance of the Stuttgart 21 project and called for a de-escalation in the conflict. “The images from yesterday cannot be allowed to repeat themselves,” he said.
Rech, the Baden-Württemberg interior minister, also defended the police operation, saying that officers had been appalled by the aggression with which they were confronted.