AUSTRIA: Five questions on possible police violence in Vienna

(Die Presse – Translated with DeepL)

After the controversial operation against climate activists, the Viennese police continue to be criticized. What exactly are these incidents? Who are the activists? And what will happen next?

Last Friday (May 31, 2019 ndr) began so peacefully – with thousands of young people walking through downtown Vienna with climate activist Greta Thunberg. Only a few policemen were present. However, apart from the big demonstration, there was a problematic meeting between climate activists and the Viennese police. This is now at the centre of criticism. The accusation is that they used unnecessary and “disproportionate” violence to break up the blockade on the Vienna Ring. Another demonstration was announced for Thursday to demonstrate against the alleged police violence. The most important questions and answers in a nutshell:

What are the incidents about?
In particular, two videos circulated on the social media and showing incidents at the Klimademo caused a stir. A video published on Twitter one day after the demonstration shows a man being held on the ground by several police officers, while another officer is beating him with fists, the scene being partly obscured by other police officers.

On Monday evening another video appeared showing the arrest of a German activist. He was lying tied on the ground by two officers, his head under a police car that was about to leave. Before the activist’s head was possibly run over by the car, the two policemen pulled the man away or up at the last moment.

After the videos became public, climate activists criticized the “disproportionate actions of the police”. According to their statements, they counted four cases in which demonstrators during the sit-in blockade were injured by officials. “In addition, there are numerous bruises,” said Sina Reisch, press spokeswoman for the group “Ende Geländewagen”.

What does the police say?
On Tuesday, the Vienna police spoke again about the accusations and said ” some absurd accusations [are] circulating in social networks”. The Viennese Vice Chief of Police Michael Lepuschitz defended the actions of the officials during the ORF programme “ZiB 2” on Tuesday evening. “It is not easy to arrest people when they defend themselves,” Lepuschitz said. In such a case, the law permits the use of physical strength or armed force. “In order to avoid the use of weapons, it is essential for the officials here to use their physical strength.

Commenting on the second incident, recorded in a video, when an activist’s head fell under a police car, Lepuschitz said: “I assume that nobody did this on purpose. It was ” an unfortunate coincidence” and the police officers as well as the driver of the police car reacted quickly. Before that, Leputschitz had denied in other interviews that the activist’s head had been under the car. The Viennese police relativized Lepuschitz’ statement on Twitter on Wednesday. “This video perspective actually shows a dangerous situation.”

There has been no criticism from the police in Austria so far – however, from a colleague from Germany. The German police officer and politician Oliver von Dobrowolski commented on Twitter: “I can’t think of any reason for an ‘oversight’,” he said, referring to the incident with the police car. “That’s not how you fix things”.

Who investigates the incidents and when will there be a result?
The Vienna Police Department for Special Investigations (RBE) is currently investigating the accusations. A first report has already been sent to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is in charge of the investigation. Lepuschitz could not say when there would be a result and when it would be presented to the public.

Who are the activists?
The activists belong to the group “Ende Geländewagen”. They want to attract attention with “non-violent civil disobedience” and on Friday they occupied parts of the ring at the Urania under the motto: “Let’s take the city back from the cars! The “Extinction Rebellion” group also took action in the city centre on Friday. The activists lay down “dead” on the ground in public places to point out the beginning of mass extinction. According to the organization, it was not involved in the road blockade, which resulted in a clash with the police.

The organisation “Ende Gelände” is regarded as an Anti-Coal Movement and has already organised numerous protests at coal mines in Germany. In October, for example, 250 environmental activists tried to enter the Rhineland coal mine in Inden. During the protests about the Hambach forest, activists chained themselves to tracks and occupied an excavator. According to the action alliance “Ende Gelände”, around 6,500 activists took part in the protests. In Austria, the activists functioned under the name “Ende Geländewagen” (End Off-road Vehicles) and also advocated for a shift in mobility.

The “Rebellion against Extinction” was founded last year by British scientists and is one of the fastest growing environmental movements. It calls on governments to declare climate emergency, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025 and to stop the extinction of species. On several occasions, their actions have paralyzed traffic in London’s city centre. In May, the environmentalists spilled around 300 litres of artificial blood in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The Austrian branch of “Extinction Rebellion” blocked the ring road at the Burgtheater for the first time in April.

Are the activists planning further actions?
A demonstration against police violence has been announced for Thursday. The protest was announced to have 1,000 participants, the start is planned at 18.00 in front of the Ministry of Transport. The march route runs over the Aspernbrücke bridge, where the police cleared the blockade on Friday, over the Obere Donaustraße to the Rossauer Kaserne and the police station, where an in-between rally is planned. Afterwards, the demonstration will go past the Schottenring and the National Police Headquarters to Sigmund-Freud-Park, where the final rally will take place.

The police announced on Wednesday afternoon that there will be temporary traffic closures and diversions in the area. The demonstration will last until about 9 pm.